I have no taste for corruptible food or for the delights of this life. Bread of God is what I desire; that is, the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for my drink I desire His Blood, that is, incorruptible love.
~St. Ignatius of Antioch
There is a profound connection between the Eucharist and the practice of self-denial. We may not think of it this way, but the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass through which the Eucharist is given to us is self-denial in action. It is Christ eternally offering all that he has to the Father- his body, blood, soul and divinity. And yet, for us, self-denial is the preeminent virtue that makes love possible; it is the cornerstone of stable relationships; and it is the force behind great achievements.
St. Francis of Assisi once said that God is more pleased with bearing criticism in silence than with ten days of fasting. This self-denying silence goes a long way in keeping the peace between husband and wife, family members and neighbors. But it takes a great deal of discipline and sacrifice not to defend yourself when you’re being accused of some fault.
This is where the Eucharist comes in. The life of Christ, as told in the Gospels, is not only to be imitated. Holiness requires more. We sometimes forget that Christ is fully alive in the Eucharist as he exists in eternity and as he existed in time. Mysteriously contained within the Sacred Host is the Incarnation, the Nativity, the Presentation, his Death, his Resurrection, his Ascension and even his Second Coming.
To be sure, when the Eucharistic Host is elevated by the priest during the Mass, our Heavenly Father looks down and sees, in one glance, all the sacrifices Jesus made: from the moment he cried in the manger to his final words on the Cross. The sacrament of the Eucharist, therefore, projects this life-long sacrifice of love into the present moment through the Holy Sacrifice of the altar. But it doesn’t stop there.
As we feed on his body, blood, soul and divinity, the fire of the Holy Spirit reproduces the image of Christ within us. As Pope Leo XIII said, when we eat regular food, the food assimilates into us, becoming part of us; but with the Eucharist, the opposite happens! We become assimilated into Jesus and hence we become transformed into his likeness. Proceeding from his image and likeness imprinted in our soul is the virtue of self-denial; the virtue that weeds out selfishness little by little. With this, love of God and neighbor can prosper all the more.
Interestingly enough, the early Christians saw martyrdom as an imitation of the Eucharistic sacrifice. St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of the apostles St. John and St. Peter, just prior to his death in the Roman coliseum, said, "I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ." For him, martyrdom was the supreme act of self-denial whereby he became like his Eucharistic Lord.
It is important to keep in mind that it was in the day to day sacrifices of St. Ignatius- those little acts of love -that prepared him to face the lions in the coliseum. And we cannot forget where the source of his strength came from. It was the Eucharist, the “medicine of immortality,” as he put it, and "the Bread of God which is love incorruptible."
Self-denial, as practiced by our Lord, is the substance of every virtue and that which makes Christian love a living reality. And for Catholics who wish to advance in virtue, it is good to know there is a profound connection between the daily Sacrifice of the Altar and our practice of self-denial at home and abroad. And self-denial, sweetened by the body and blood of Christ, will lead the soul to peace and joy too few people know.