Mike Aquilina

Take a Letter

Wednesday March 14th 2007, 3:08 am

Unless you spent yesterday in a cave, you know that Pope Benedict XVI promulgated Sacramentum Caritatis, his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist. It’s a thoroughgoing treatment of its subject, examining the sacrament in light of theology, spirituality, history, and morals. It’s very practical, too, touching on points of refinement in celebrating the Eucharist, receiving the Eucharist, and observing the fasts and feasts. Like everything Benedict does, it’s steeped in the doctrine of the Fathers. He invokes Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Cyprian, Jerome, Augustine, and Chrysostom, as well as the martyrs of Abitina. Consider a small sample:

13. Against this backdrop we can understand the decisive role played by the Holy Spirit in the eucharistic celebration, particularly with regard to transubstantiation. An awareness of this is clearly evident in the Fathers of the Church. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, in his Catecheses, states that we “call upon God in his mercy to send his Holy Spirit upon the offerings before us, to transform the bread into the body of Christ and the wine into the blood of Christ. Whatever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and completely transformed.” Saint John Chrysostom too notes that the priest invokes the Holy Spirit when he celebrates the sacrifice: like Elijah, the minister calls down the Holy Spirit so that “as grace comes down upon the victim, the souls of all are thereby inflamed.” The spiritual life of the faithful can benefit greatly from a better appreciation of the richness of the anaphora: along with the words spoken by Christ at the Last Supper, it contains the epiclesis, the petition to the Father to send down the gift of the Spirit so that the bread and the wine will become the body and blood of Jesus Christ and that “the community as a whole will become ever more the body of Christ.” The Spirit invoked by the celebrant upon the gifts of bread and wine placed on the altar is the same Spirit who gathers the faithful “into one body” and makes of them a spiritual offering pleasing to the Father.

As if he had read my recent posts and listened to my recent MP3s on the martyrs ;-) … His Holiness sketched the profound relationship between Eucharist and martyrdom.

85. The first and fundamental mission that we receive from the sacred mysteries we celebrate is that of bearing witness by our lives. The wonder we experience at the gift God has made to us in Christ gives new impulse to our lives and commits us to becoming witnesses of his love. We become witnesses when, through our actions, words and way of being, Another makes himself present. Witness could be described as the means by which the truth of God’s love comes to men and women in history, inviting them to accept freely this radical newness. Through witness, God lays himself open, one might say, to the risk of human freedom. Jesus himself is the faithful and true witness (cf. Rev 1:5; 3:14), the one who came to testify to the truth (cf. Jn 18:37). Here I would like to reflect on a notion dear to the early Christians, which also speaks eloquently to us today: namely, witness even to the offering of one’s own life, to the point of martyrdom. Throughout the history of the Church, this has always been seen as the culmination of the new spiritual worship: “Offer your bodies” (Rom 12:1). One thinks, for example, of the account of the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp of Smyrna, a disciple of Saint John: the entire drama is described as a liturgy, with the martyr himself becoming Eucharist. We might also recall the eucharistic imagery with which Saint Ignatius of Antioch describes his own imminent martyrdom: he sees himself as “God’s wheat” and desires to become in martyrdom “Christ’s pure bread.” The Christian who offers his life in martyrdom enters into full communion with the Pasch of Jesus Christ and thus becomes Eucharist with him. Today too, the Church does not lack martyrs who offer the supreme witness to God’s love. Even if the test of martyrdom is not asked of us, we know that worship pleasing to God demands that we should be inwardly prepared for it. Such worship culminates in the joyful and convincing testimony of a consistent Christian life, wherever the Lord calls us to be his witnesses…

95. At the beginning of the fourth century, Christian worship was still forbidden by the imperial authorities. Some Christians in North Africa, who felt bound to celebrate the Lord’s Day, defied the prohibition. They were martyred after declaring that it was not possible for them to live without the Eucharist, the food of the Lord: sine dominico non possumus. May these martyrs of Abitinae, in union with all those saints and beati who made the Eucharist the centre of their lives, intercede for us and teach us to be faithful to our encounter with the risen Christ. We too cannot live without partaking of the sacrament of our salvation; we too desire to be iuxta dominicam viventes, to reflect in our lives what we celebrate on the Lord’s Day. That day is the day of our definitive deliverance. Is it surprising, then, that we should wish to live every day in that newness of life which Christ has brought us in the mystery of the Eucharist?

I have often made these points, citing Robin Darling Young’s brilliant study, In Procession Before the World: Martyrdom As Public Liturgy in Early Christianity. Of course, the Pope (as Cardinal Ratzinger) also explored this thesis in his book Pilgrim Fellowship Of Faith, in a section titled “Martyrdom as a Way in Which the Christian Can Become a Eucharist.”

The pope spends a good deal of ink imploring the Church to take up the ancient practice of mystagogical catechesis (see number 64). This is something my friend Scott Hahn and I have pledged our days to reviving. (See especially our book Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. Mystagogy is not just a phase of RCIA. It’s a way of life. I love this description from the French Historian Henri Marrou: “The catechumen system developed gradually as new converts came in … it involved a long probationary period lasting three years during which a carefully graded course of instruction was given … Religious training did not end with baptism, of course; in a sense it went on through the whole of life, getting deeper and deeper all the time — witness the importance of readings and preaching in the Church’s liturgy.”

Witness this document — please! It deserves our closest, prayerful reading in the coming weeks. Make it your lead-up to Holy Thursday.