At Mass, we encounter the mystery of Christ becoming truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. Even though the sacred species look exactly the same after the consecration as they did before the consecration, we know by faith that there’s a world of difference.
Our Lord and Savior is truly present in our midst as our spiritual food. The change could not be more dramatic, nor more imperceptible.
That’s the objective reality of what we call “transubstantiation.” Bread and wine cease to be bread and wine but truly become the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, even though all the physical properties, such as size, taste, appearance, and composition, remain the same. We cannot see the difference, but we accept this teaching through the vision of faith.
But what does our encounter with this mystery actually do to us? In other words, what about those of us who are standing in line for Holy Communion? Do we look any different as we walk back to the pews? After all, we have the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ inside us. Are we any different fifteen minutes later, in the church parking lot or in the parish hall? Are we any different two or three days later? Does the Eucharist actually change us?
First, we need to understand that all the sacraments are meant to change us. A baby girl right after she is baptized looks exactly the same as she did before, yet now she is a child of God and a member of Christ’s body, the Church. A young man, once he wipes off all the holy oil, looks exactly the same right after his Ordination, but now he is able to consecrate the Eucharist and to absolve us from our sins. And we sinners look the same after we walk out of the confessional, but we have had our relationship with the Lord restored and renewed.
In all cases, we look the same on the outside, but at the core of our being we’ve been radically changed.
It’s no different with the Eucharist. As Pope Leo the Great wrote in the fifth century, “the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ has no less an effect than to change us into what we have received.” The eternal Word of God took on flesh so that we might participate in the divine life, that we might truly become what we eat. The transformation of a sinner into a saint is the goal of every Christian life without exception. Therefore, all of us must be committed to leading changed, “Eucharistic” lives.
We use the Latin expression ex opere operato (literally, from the work having been done) to express the guarantee that Christ’s Real Presence and superabundant grace will be available at every validly celebrated Mass. However, just as we benefit from food’s nutrients only to the extent we digest them well, we benefit from the grace of the Eucharist only to the extent we effectively assimilate this spiritual food. We need to be properly disposed if we want to tap into the grace of the sacrament.
Pope John Paul II likened our “Amen” when we receive Communion to our Lady’s fiat at the Annunciation, when she consented to Our Lord’s making His dwelling in her virginal womb (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 55). Our “Amen,” in a real way, gives the Lord permission to come in, change us imperceptibly from within, and orient us toward our true and eternal good. But this “Amen,” this permission, often comes with strings attached on our part, as we don’t necessarily want Him to change everything. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit gently and relentlessly guides us to the truth that we will find everlasting happiness as we fully surrender ourselves to the life-changing power of the most holy Eucharist.
The next time we’re at Mass, let’s consider the amazing reality that it’s not only the bread and wine that are being changed.
For more on this subject, see Hahn and Flaherty, eds., Catholic for a Reason III: Scripture and the Mystery of the Mass, available through Emmaus Road Publishing. CUF members receive substantial discounts on all purchases.