Eucharist as a Sacrament of Reconciliation
February 15, 2008
In 2000 over a quarter of a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge in a show of solidarity with the Indigenous people of Australia. This massive turnout was organized by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. There was a hope that this event would pressure the federal government to offer an apology to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia for the many injustices suffered by them since European colonization. Sadly, no such official apology was forthcoming...until now.
On February 13, 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Indigenous people of Australia. In his speech, Rudd repeated the litany, "we say sorry." He asked that the apology "be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation." It was a momentous occasion. One word: sorry. One gesture: asking the Indigenous people to receive the apology. One vision: to heal the nation. The impact has been tremendous; there is a palpable sense of new hope in Australia -- brought about by a move towards reconciliation.
When we look at the Christian celebration of the Eucharist, we can see how central reconciliation is to this sacrament. Unfortunately, this reconciling dimension to Eucharist is often undervalued, perhaps because the practice of the church at times has tended to separate reconciliation from Eucharist. In the Roman Catholic tradition prior to Vatican II, this separation was very much borne out in the practice of Catholics feeling obligated to “go to Confession” before receiving the Eucharist in order to be worthy to receive. Hopefully, no one would question that it is important to properly prepare for and receive the Body and Blood of Christ worthily, but the point is this: Do we really have an appreciation of our participation in the Eucharist as the clearest manifestation of being reconciled to God and each other?
When we look at the practice of the Early Church, when reconciliation was only allowed once in a baptized person’s lifetime, it was the celebration of Eucharist that brought the very lengthy and arduous process of reconciliation to its completion. Today, however, it seems there is a tendency to think of Eucharist and reconciliation as separate sacraments, with the intimate connection between Eucharist and reconciliation often overlooked. (Yet, note that the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Rite of Penance) is the only Sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church that may not be celebrated within the context of Mass. This fact reinforces the understanding that the Eucharist itself is indeed reconciling.)
A broader look at the Catholic Church’s teaching on Eucharist as for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation is more revealing. The Church teaches very clearly that the Rite of Penance is not the exclusive means of forgiveness and reconciliation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church [Español] [Français] spells out other means by which we experience forgiveness and reconciliation, including the Eucharist:
The body of Christ we receive in Holy Communion is “given up for us,” and the blood we drink “shed for the many for the forgiveness of sins.” For this reason the Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins. (CCC1393)
Daily conversion and penance find their source and nourishment in the Eucharist, for in it is made present the sacrament of Christ which has reconciled us with God. (CCC1436)
This teaching draws from a long history rooted in Scripture, the Trent and Lateran Councils, and patristic writings (particularly of St Ambrose of Milan). Space does not permit me to follow these trails but merely to note that the teaching on the reconciling nature of Eucharist has a long and firmly established tradition.
In his marvellous book, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology, Gordon Lathrop writes, “The Sunday liturgy itself is the principal ministry of reconciliation that Christians possess” (p.130). The Eucharist is multidimensional in meaning, but surely there is a great need to reaffirm this reconciling aspect of Eucharist.
If we examine the Eucharistic liturgy itself we cannot help but notice the many references to the forgiveness. For example, the Prayer After Communion for Wednesday Seventh Week of Easter reads, “Lord, may our participation in the Eucharist increase your life in us, cleanse us from sin, and make us increasingly worthy of this holy sacrament.”
We could also spend time looking at the various liturgical elements of the Eucharist: the Penitential Rite, the Lord’s Prayer, Sign of Peace, the Lamb of God, and the Eucharistic Prayers (especially those two wonderful Eucharistic Prayers for Reconciliation). But perhaps we can best appreciate the Eucharist as reconciliation by observing the two principal parts of the Mass: the Liturgy of Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Word is the message of salvation proclaiming new life through Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection. It is a call to repentance and conversion which opens up a new relationship with God and one another.
The Word of Life then invites us to the Table. Here is the clearest sign that we are now one with God and one another. Here all those who have responded to this invitation cannot but celebrate in praise and with thanksgiving the lavish mercy and love God has for them and all God has created. Eucharist surely celebrates, and is the most potent instrument and sign of, our reconciliation.
Rev. Gerard McCormick, MSC is a Missionary of the Sacred Heart priest and serves as pastor of a parish in the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane, Australia.
Photo credit: Paul Covino