Sunday, August 11, 2013

The return-gift: Doing what he does

There are so many good Catholic theology books out there. Unfortunately, many of them are written for theologians and not for the average person in the pew. As such, they are read only by a few within the narrow circle of scholars. Still, there are some real gems in them; some deserving to be dusted off and displayed for all to see.

One book that contains several gems, that is, invaluable insights into the mysteries of the Faith, is Symbol and Sacrament, authored by Louis-Marie Chavet. Like so many theology books, it’s loaded with theological jargon that is likely to weary the average reader. But Chavet does give some insights that can help see the Eucharist in a new light.

If you’re a church-going Catholic, you may have remembered this passage from the first reading of Sunday’s Mass on August 11th. From the book of Wisdom it reads: “For in secret the holy children of the good were offering sacrifice and putting into effect with one accord the divine institution.” (18:9) This passage, written a little over a millennium after the time of Moses, is a reference to the Passover meal he instituted by the command of God in Egypt the night before they were to be liberated from slavery. That divine institution, that is the Passover celebration, would be observed annually up until the time of Christ.

At the Last Supper, our Lord transformed the Old Passover meal into the New Passover meal, that is, into the Eucharistic Sacrifice (or the Mass). Instead of a lamb- a mere animal -being sacrificed and eaten, it was He who would be the One sacrificed and eaten. He did this in anticipation of his death on the Cross that was to take place the next day. Indeed, the most powerful symbol of love would take the shape of a Cross.

As with the Passover, the Eucharistic Sacrifice reminds us that liberation comes only by losing oneself for the sake of God. Christ gave His life on Good Friday only to get it back again on Easter morning. But in getting His life back, He also ransomed ours. But in the Old Testament, the sacrifice of the lamb during Passover meal and the liberation from slavery was only a symbol, whereas in the New Testament that symbol is brought to fulfillment when Christ offered Himself. And with each Mass we assist, we make an offering of ourselves to the Father with Him; this, with the expectation to get our life back after we breath our last.

As Chavet reminds us in his book, Symbol and Sacrament, this giving of ourselves to God at the altar is a reminder that we do not go to church primarily for the purpose of receiving something from God. The emphasis, rather, should be on giving to God something. “The Eucharistic oblation,” he said, “thus teaches us how to ‘serve God’ instead of how to make him serve us; it teaches us what is involved in the passage from being slaves to being sons and daughters and through that to being brothers and sisters to others….” This is an important point because it was the custom of the ancient pagans- as it is with secular people in our day who pray only out of necessity -to bargain with their gods in order to get what they wanted. Ritual was rarely associated or linked with the corresponding duty to love or to live morally.

For the Catholic, however, religious observance and the living the moral life are inseparably connected. At the altar the priest tells us, “Lift up your hearts,” we reply, “We lift them up to the Lord.” Indeed, we lift up our hearts to God when we lift up the Eucharist to him as a sacrifice. But this offering is incomplete without the corresponding duty to love our neighbor and to keep His moral commands. The moral part of the equation comes when we are dismissed with these words: “Go in peace, glorifying God with your lives.”

The lifting up of our hearts with the heart of Christ necessarily involves a personal sacrifice of love on our part; especially at home. Just as Christ first offered himself during the Last Supper only to have that ritual offering verified the next day with a personal sacrifice (or as theologians and philosophers would say, “existential” sacrifice), so too are we to verify that the gift we offer to God at the altar with a total giving of ourselves in everyday life. As Chavet put it, “The cultic offering is only the symbolic representation of a return-gift yet to be ‘verified’ elsewhere: in the here and now.” As indicated, our ritual offering to God only becomes whole and complete when that offering is put at the disposal of others. Again, the author of Symbol and Sacrament adds, “[T]he members of the assembly are committed to live out their own oblation of themselves in self-giving to others as Christ did, a self-giving called agape between brothers and sisters.” Or, to put it another way: “The sacramental rendering of thanks seeks to be enfleshed in the living in grace among brothers and sisters.”

Usually, when we give a gift to someone we leave that gift in their possession. As such, we no longer have access to it. But when we offer the Eucharist to God in the sanctuary, we take home that gift when we receive it at Communion. Christ who offered Himself to God in the Upper Room in 33 A.D. and who offers Himself from heaven on the altar where we worship, also allows Himself to enter “under our roof,” that is, in our bodies. What is more, He continues to offer Himself to God as He abides in us. And the more we offer ourselves to God in the acts of love and service we perform for
those who our closest to us and for all of those we find in need, the holier we become.

Just as sacrifice makes love possible, love, in turn, leads to happiness in this life and in the next. Similar to the Passover celebration, the Eucharist wonderfully links together- and puts into effect -sacrifice and love so that our liberation will be realized, the kind of liberation that every soul longs for…a liberation from the sorrows and limitations of this life.

If the reader looks hard enough, he or she can find a few good gems in the book, Symbol and Sacrament, by Louis-Marie Chavet. To know or better understand that Christ, in his daily Eucharistic offering, inspires us to sacrifice more readily so that we can love more intensely is a gem worth displaying.