Understanding the sacraments: The Eucharist–a mystagogical catechesis

Through the source and summit of Christian life, we enter into the mystery in every aspect of our lives

According to Blessed John Paul II, a mystagogical catechesis of the liturgy helps the faithful to do three things: “to understand the meaning of the liturgy’s words and actions, to pass from its signs to the mystery which they contain, and to enter into that mystery in every aspect of their lives” (Mane Nobiscum Domine, n. 17).

Building on his predecessor’s thought, Pope Benedict XVI contends that a mystagogical catechesis must address three questions. First, what are the Old Testament roots of the rite? Second, what is the meaning of the signs within the rite? And third, how does the rite impact the life of the believer?

In this month’s column, I want to present a brief mystagogical catechesis of the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11).

To answer the first question, let’s take an example from Eucharistic Prayer I. Following the consecration, the priest asks the Father to accept these offerings “as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek.” The offering of Melchizedek is described in Genesis 14. Abraham has just rescued his nephew Lot, who had been taken captive by a coalition of victorious kings. As they were returning, they were met by Melchizedek, king of Salem, who “brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram [Abraham]” (Genesis 14:18).

The Church fathers saw in this a prefigurement of the Eucharist. In a commentary on this passage, St. Cyprian (martyred in 258) wrote, “In the priest Melchizedek, we see the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord prefigured according to what the divine Scriptures testifies.” St. Augustine (d. 430) wrote that with this event “first appeared the sacrifice which is now offered to God by Christians in the whole wide world.”

When we consider the second question, the meaning of the liturgical signs, it is good to remember that the Church has a comprehensive understanding of signs. Liturgical signs include objects such as candles and bread, actions such as washing and anointing, Old Testament events such as the rite of Passover, as well as words, music and song (cf. Catechism, 1158 and 1189).

Consider the abundance of signs that accompany the reading of the Gospel: the book of the Gospels, its veneration (procession, incense, candles), the place of its proclamation (ambo), the triple sign of the cross (on the forehead, lips and heart), its audible and intelligible reading, kissing the book at the conclusion of the reading, the minister’s homily…and the responses of the assembly (acclamations, meditation psalms, litanies, and profession of faith) (Catechism, 1154). The richness of signs expresses the Church’s reverence for Christ’s presence in his Word.

Let’s look at the meaning of a few of these signs. The ambo is “‘the table of God’s word’ and is therefore a symbol of the surpassing dignity of that word” (USCCB: Introduction to the Order of Mass, n. 53). Candles are signs of reverence, festivity, and the risen Christ. Incense is “a symbol of prayer rising before God (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 8:4) and suggests both the otherness of the transcendent God and the cloud that symbolizes God’s glory and presence in the midst of the Israelites (USCCB: Introduction to the Order of Mass, n. 58).

The third question of a mystagogical catechesis concerns the meaning of the sacrament for the believer’s life. The Prayer After Communion from the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time expresses the transforming power of the Eucharist: “Graciously be present to your people, we pray, O Lord, and lead those you have imbued with heavenly mysteries to pass from former ways to newness of life.”

Pope Benedict XVI develops this thought: “There is nothing authentically human—our thoughts and affections, our words and deeds—that does not find in the sacrament of the Eucharist the form it needs to be lived to the full” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 71). This echoes the words of Blessed John Paul II quoted at the beginning of this column, that we would enter into the mystery in every aspect of our lives.

It was the “earnest desire” of the Second Vatican Council that the faithful present at the celebration of the Eucharist, “through a good understanding of the rites and prayers…should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing, with devotion and full collaboration” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 48).

A mystagogical catechesis is the most  effective way to accomplish the Council’s earnest desire.

Father Stice directs the diocesan Office of Worship and Liturgy. He can be reached at frrandy@dioknox.org.

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