One of the most used words in Catholicism is the word “Eucharist.” It’s heard every Sunday at Mass and Catholics use it all the time. It’s called a sacrament. What is that? What does it even mean? And, if it’s not a big deal then why would anyone be concerned about being cut off from it? What does it even matter if the Church “excommunicates” one of its own?
I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?
Where does the true authority of the Church really lie? And what can the lay faithful do to effect it.
In my humble opinion, there’s really only one true answer. And it requires us all to participate.
First, I would like to preface the following with the declaration that many great theologians, saints and even doctors of the Church like Thomas Aquinas in his “Summa Theologiae” and St. Augustine have done a far more excellent job than I will do in this article of explaining Sacramental Theology and the Decree of Excommunication. For those interested in reading more, I invite you to click on the links in this article.
For the sake of those reading who are not familiar with the teachings of the Catholic Church (and even those who are but wish to go deeper), I desire to offer you this humble exhortation on one particular sacrament I believe is extremely pivotal to the future of the Christian faith. And, Second, I thank you for taking the time to consider it.
Outward signs of an unseen reality.
What is a Sacrament?
The sacraments of the Church are gifts from Christ. There purpose is to make God’s people holy and to build up the the Body of Christ, the Church. They are outward signs of an unseen reality. But they are more than just signs. Sacraments effect what they signify (St. Augustine). They also teach us the truths of our faith and invite us to a deeper relationship with Christ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) has this to say about the sacraments.
“Seated at the right hand of the Father” and pouring out the Holy Spirit on his Body which is the Church, Christ now acts through the sacraments he instituted to communicate his grace. The sacraments are perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature. By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit they make present efficaciously the grace that they signify. – CCC 1084
The Council of Trent solemnly defined that there are seven sacraments. The sacraments are listed below grouped by commonly used type. The types did not come out of the Council of Trent but were added later for convenience.
Sacraments of Initiation
Sacraments of Healing
Sacraments of Christian Commitment
- Holy Orders
There are several other areas in Scripture that reference the impartation of Grace, such as through exhortation and prayer, but the seven mentioned above hold particular significance in the lifeblood of the Church specifically because they were each instituted by Christ himself during his earthly ministry.
What is the Eucharist?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers a brief definition of the word.
The inexhaustible richness of [the sacrament of the eucharist, i.e. the “Mass”] is expressed in the different names we give it. Each name evokes certain aspects of it. It is called:
Eucharist, because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words eucharistein and
eulogein recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim — especially during a meal — God’s works: creation, redemption, and sanctification. (CCC 1328)
In the original Greek version of the Gospels, Jesus is recorded using a similar word while celebrating the Last Supper.
Take this, and divide it among yourselves … And he took bread, and when he had given thanks [εὐχαριστήσας – eucharistēsas] he broke it and gave it to them (Luke 22:18-19).
Essentially, the word “Eucharist” means “giving thanks,” but in a Jewish context is directed specifically towards giving thanks to God.
Early on the word was adopted to refer to the entire sacrament of the Eucharist, more commonly known as the Mass, where Catholics celebrate God’s saving act on the cross. There is even an ancient document called the Didache that possibly dates to the time of the apostles and uses this word in this context.
Celebrate the Eucharist as follows: Say over the cup: “we give you thanks, Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you made known to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever.”
Over the broken bread say: “We give you thanks, Father, for the life and the knowledge which you have revealed to us through Jesus your servant. To you be glory for ever” … Do not let anyone eat or drink of your Eucharist except those who have been baptized in the name of the Lord.
Besides referring to the entire celebration of the Eucharist (Mass), the word is also used even more specifically to refer to the bread and wine that are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. When speaking only of the consecrated bread and wine it is more commonly known as “Communion.” However, many Christian denominations refer to the bread and wine of Communion as merely elemental and unconsecrated, believing them not to be transformed into the physical elements of Christ’s body and blood but remaining in their material states as bread and wine symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.
But Catholics believe the Eucharist isn’t just a symbol of Christ’s sacrificial love, we believe it is the visible manifestation of the actual power of His Resurrection.
When I receive the tiny host upon my tongue, I’m not just remembering Christ’s death I am actively participating in His Resurrection.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, the Celebration of the Eucharist or Mass is not a re-sacrifice of Christ’s body, for there can only be one sacrifice of Christ’s body that occurred at Calvary, but it is a Celebration of Christ’s gifts to us from both His death and His Resurrection. By His death we received Grace for salvation but by His Resurrection we receive Grace for eternal life.
When I receive the Eucharist, I’m not just acknowledging Christ’s gift I am receiving His Resurrection power.
Through the Celebration of the Mass, I am participating in the fullness of the New Covenant. As the Eucharist is consumed in my body, I am becoming one with Christ’s death and His resurrection!
It’s more than spiritual, something is happening in a very physical way also. Skeptical? Try Googling “quantum entanglement” and the “physics of Heaven” or read one of our many blogs on the same subject.
It’s not just a nice gesture one does in remembrance of another either but a sanctifying act in which I am choosing to participate with the Grace He bestowed on us all through the power He inherited by His Resurrection to live holy and obedient lives free of death’s power over us.
When I refuse the Eucharist in its fullness I am refusing Our Lord’s Gift. I am refusing Christ’s Resurrection Power.
What happens at the Mass is nothing less than a miracle. Christ’s Resurrection Power descends upon common elements of bread and wine consecrating them into powerful hosts of His Presence and Power in the form of His body and blood that we are each invited to partake of SO THAT we might also receive His gift of Grace to share the Good News and evangelize the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Resurrected Son of God.
To consider the Last Supper of the Lamb as anything short of a foreshadow of the greater miracle acquired by Christ’s sacrifice of self at the cross is to say the bread and wine are mere elements and the cross not a sacrifice but merely a Roman execution. For the Passover to be significant it needed a sacrificial lamb, or else it was just another dinner. For the Last Supper to have merit as the Feast of the New Covenant it requires the Paschal Lamb. The sacrifice sanctifies the feast. Likewise, if it were not a significant feast of the New Covenant then it would not require a sacrifice.
You might be surprised to find out Catholics are not alone in this view. In addition to the Greek and Eastern Orthodox churches who mirror most closely the sacramental rites of the Roman Catholic Church, our Protestant brothers and sisters of the Lutheran, Anglican/Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian traditions also believe in the sacramental power of the Eucharist.
In the same way that Grace worked through faith to save us from death, Grace continues to work by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our hearts and minds into that new creation in Christ. There is no greater proof of this miraculous transforming Grace than in the continual daily transformation of the common elements of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharistic Celebration of the Mass. Everywhere the Eucharist is celebrated is a sign of Christ’s redemptive miracle at work.
The fellowship that gathers only for bread and wine neglects the transforming power of Christ’s Death & Resurrection. They feed their bodies alone symbolically and neglect that Christ came to sanctify body, mind and soul in a very real and visible way.
To accept a life of Communion without Christ’s sanctifying grace is to fall short of the glory of God. For He did not come only to save us from hell but to empower us to transform the elements of our world just as He transformed water into wine and raised the dead from the grave.
And this is His nature, to change the elements against the Laws of Nature, as He did for the Israelites in the desert:
“For the elements changed places with one another, as on a harp the notes vary the nature of the rhythm, while each note remains the same. This may be clearly inferred from the sight of what took place.
For land animals were transformed into water creatures, and creatures that swim moved over to the land.
Fire even in water retained its normal power, and water forgot its fire-quenching nature.
Flames, on the contrary, failed to consume the flesh of perishable creatures that walked among them, nor did they melt the crystalline, easily melted kind of heavenly food.
For in everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people; and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places.” – Wisdom of Solomon 19:18-22
A Church without Eucharist is as a body without spirit and soul. Will these dry bones rise? Only Heaven knows.
We must learn to accept Christ’s Grace as often as we can. Just as the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit not once in the upper room but again and again as the Spirit has descended across the lifetime of the Church, we are each invited to be filled wherever a Mass is Celebrated.
Leave it to Our Lord to change the elements again and again in order to consecrate the power of His Resurrection into the many sacraments he offers His Bride: in the tongues of fire at Pentecost, the humble words of absolution at Reconciliation, the life-giving waters of Baptism, the unity of two souls in marriage, the oil of the sick and dying, the laying on of hands for consecrated life, and in a tiny host not much larger than a mustard seed by which we consume Him, body, soul and divinity as often as we may desire in order to be one with Him continually and forever.
In these sacramental ways and by our continual prayers we are guaranteed by His Grace to live with Him forever. But even more, we are given the power through Him to transform the world and bring His Kingdom to Earth.
The only sacrifice which we are now called to offer is one of praise for all He has done, and gratitude for all He continues to give us.
This is why I hunger for Him in the Mass. This is why I run to the alter daily. To give Him my thanksgiving. And to be consumed by Him, as He is consumed by me. I in Him. He in me. Always and Forever.
Excommunication is a powerful tool of Repentance and not Judgement
Excommunication is an official action by the Church leaders excluding someone from taking part in the sacraments of the Church.
Of all the sacraments the Church offers, exclusion from the Sacrament of Eucharist would be the most deafening blow to the soul. A soul cut off from communion with the power of sanctifying grace is a soul cut between the bone and marrow. Just as Pharaoh was cut off from the actualizing grace of God in the Old Testament, which prevented his heart from conversion and release of the Jewish people, a person cut off from the grace offered in the sacraments is a Pharaoh of today’s times unable to receive the grace he needs to stay aligned to Our Lord and perform the will of Our Heavenly Father. Such a state is as some saints have described, an abyss in the outer darkness of the farthest reaches of Hell, closed off from the eternal flames of Our Lord’s loving embrace. A soul cannot survive without grace. This alone should be enough to make any man’s heart repentant that he would not be cut off from the flock and made to walk alone among the wolves without the comfort of His Shepherd’s staff.
Unfortunately, there are some whose heart is so hardened against the Truth they will need to be cut off in order to be saved, as the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 5:5.
“You must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”
How often should the Church invoke its ancient Rite of Excommunication?
The answer depends much on the hearts of the faithful.
We are each called to be salt and light. We’re told to bear with one another in love. We’re taught to entreat each other not with judgement but with mercy. But we are also taught to believe. Believe in the power of Christ’s Death and Resurrection and to protect it precisely because of what we believe.
When Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9-25) sought after that power as a new believer, the Apostle Peter rebuked him and offered harsh judgement against him if he did not repent. Thankful, Simon repented.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. – Matthew 18:18
It is up to us as the stewards of Christ’s power on earth to protect it from perversion. The Church is and has always been a community of brothers and sisters united in Christ’s body. To the extent that we believe in the power of Christ’s body to transform us by grace in the sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist, is the extent by which the Church leadership must respond.
Just as Peter and Paul exercised that same authority with the believers of the early church, we are called to exercise it now. And, just as that authority includes the full range of power to bind and lose, the Rite of Excommunication provides a similar range according to the degree of abuse of that power.
Christ’s answer was always more Love and more Mercy. Whatever cannot melt in His Presence will make itself lost all on its own. Remember what happened to Judas.
The Eucharist is a reminder that Christ calls us each to be united in Him. When we come together at Mass, we are manifesting Christ’s glory. God have mercy on our souls should we find ourselves abusing it, much less neglecting His glory!
And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth.
I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one… – John 17:19-22
In short, Excommunication is only as relevant to the Church today as the power of the grace behind the Sacrament of Eucharist is to the believer. If we see one only as mere elements of bread and wine, then we will see the other as a mere chastisement without provocation to stop. Neither of which will see true conversion of heart.
We must remember the Sacraments of the Church gifted to us by Christ along with all its authority to bind and loose is for the conversion of souls. Without conversion, the Church is just another Pharaoh who won’t help the captives live free.
Next time you find yourself partaking in Communion, examine yourself fully and ask yourself if you really believe in Christ’s Resurrection. If your answer is Yes, then I invite you to let your heart believe in it’s fullness. See beyond the natural and invite the Holy Spirit to help you digest His Truths with greater sight. One mouthful at a time in the Eucharist. As it dissolves on your tongue, consider how Christ is becoming one with you in that moment. Your elements intertwining. The God of the Universe is making himself small once more to find himself in the womb of men. At no other point in our lives is Christ nearer to us then in the complete consummation of the Eucharist.
And I ask you to pray for our priests and Church leaders to have the grace for conversion of souls that they may be saved on the day of Our Lord’s coming.
I share this hope with Our Lord that one day we will all sit around the table together as the disciples did and experience that oneness in Christ. I hear Him saying even now, Come and Eat!
For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. – John 6:55-56