Recently, after one of my talks, I met several people who introduced themselves as “reverts.” Raised as Catholics, they each spent years away from the Church, often looking for spiritual nourishment in various Protestant denominations. Each indicated that the key factor in returning to Catholicism was the Eucharist. “I missed the Eucharist,” one woman told me. “I hungered for it.”
The Eucharist, to borrow from the poet Francis Thompson, is the hound of heaven under the appearance of bread and wine. Indeed, at the end of Thompson’s great poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” Christ says, “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou seekest!” The human heart longs for God; it also knows the need to be cleansed of sin, and thus the need for sacrifice.
The concept of “sacrifice” is not readily appreciated in the modern world. It is associated with death, blood and loss, and little else. But “sacrifice” comes from the Latin word sacrificium , which means “to make sacred,” or holy. Sacrifice involves a vital transformation, in which an offering is moved from the natural, profane world to the supernatural realm. While Jesus, as divine Person, did not need to suffer or be perfected, his human nature was perfected through suffering. This perfection means that Christ “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, declared by God high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 5:8-10; 2:10).
Melchizedek was both a king and a priest who lived before the establishment of the Law and the Levitical priesthood. He is the only person in Genesis described as “a priest of God Most High”; yet rather than offering a bloody sacrifice, he offered bread and wine.
“The Christian tradition,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “considers Melchizedek, ‘priest of God Most High,’ as a prefiguration of the priesthood of Christ, the unique ‘high priest after the order of Melchizedek’; ‘holy, blameless, unstained,’ ‘by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified,’ that is, by the unique sacrifice of the cross” (No. 1544). The sacrifice on the cross 2,000 years ago was bloody, violent, painful. The sacrifice of the Mass is unbloody, nonviolent and free of pain. Yet it is a re-presentation of that same unique sacrifice, not a “mere empty commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus Christ,” wrote Pope Pius XII, “but a true and proper act of sacrifice, whereby the High Priest by an unbloody immolation offers himself a most acceptable victim to the Eternal Father, as he did upon the cross” ( Mediator Dei, No. 68).
Put simply, the Blessed Sacrament is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. “This is my body that is for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” St. Paul further told the Corinthians that in eating the bread — the body of Christ — and drinking the cup — the blood of Christ — they proclaimed the death of the Lord. Receiving the Eucharist is the acceptance of sacrifice, of being transformed and made holy.
In multiplying the loaves and fishes, Jesus provided a foreshadowing of the Church and the Eucharistic banquet. Before the gathered crowd, he blessed the food, broke it and gave it to the disciples, who then distributed it. The people, St. Luke writes, “all ate and were satisfied.” Hungry, they were found and fed by the hound of heaven.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.