The Fifth Luminous Mystery: The Institution of the Holy Eucharist

Anthony Zimmerman
December 10, 2002
Reproduced with Permission

The Pope writes as follows about the Fifth Mystery of Light in Rosarium Virginis Mariae: "A final mystery of light is the institution of the Eucharist, in which Christ offers his body and blood as food under the signs of bread and wine, and testifies 'to the end' his love for humanity (Jn 13:1), for whose salvation he will offer himself in sacrifice."

The solemn words that open John's narrative of the Last Supper awaken a sense of awe and expectation, not unlike the first chords of a Beethoven symphony. We feel some of the intensity of the pangs of Jesus as He bids farewell to His Apostles: "Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end" (John 13:1).

The washing of their feet was a lesson of love so extraordinary that Peter tried to stop Jesus from stooping down to this. But Jesus insisted. After finishing He explained: "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you." In a secular society employers and CEO's do not go from one underling to another to wash their feet and wipe them with a towel. This is a Christian gesture, beautiful beyond what the capacity the secular world can appreciate.

In Japan, secular society is warm and caring for those who belong to one's inner circle, but even so, the washing of a neighbor's feet out of love is beyond the ken of cultural sensitivity. Christianity is in early stages of ferment here. When I conducted a ceremony of washing the feet on Holy Thursday at a new parish in Sanjo, it became a fiasco. One of the altar boys began to giggle, then the others couldn't control themselves either. None could stop laughing. I finished quickly. The gesture was not being understood. The "New Commandment" of Jesus to "Love one another as I have loved you," must grow gradually in a culture. A civilization of Christian love needs time to rise and mature with the genuine leaven Christianity, which does not work like instant baking power.

Jesus then said to the Apostles: "I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer ..." The words are remarkable. This Last Supper was a great joy for Jesus. From this we reflect: To meet us in Holy Communion is another occasion of joy for Jesus. He makes it look as though we were doing Him a favor. The narration continues: Then Jesus "took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood'" (Luke 22:19-20).

Why did Jesus first change bread into His Body, and only later wine into His blood? Obviously to signify the separation of His body from His blood. He is offering today in the sign of separation what He will offer on the morrow in awesome reality; blood will flow from His body, from His hands and feet, and finally from His side. And so He will give His body for us, and shed His blood for us, for the forgiveness of our sins. On Holy Thursday all is calm as He does this serenely, filled with love, in the awed presence of the Apostles. When on the morrow the signs will be enacted in reality, there will be a cosmic paroxysm: the earth will quake, rocks will burst asunder, and the veil of the temple will be rent from top to bottom while He utters the cry: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." That will be tomorrow. But tonight He is all joy. Tonight He is Priest and Victim in promissory symbol; on the next day He will pay the price.

We might say that in Psalms 22 and 69 especially, Christ first prays as on Good Friday, then jubilates as on Holy Thursday. The psalms first commemorate the passion: "My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my jaws; thou dost lay me in the dust of death" (Ps 22:15). Then follows pure jubilee: "I will tell of thy name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee: 'You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you sons of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you sons of Israel!'" (Ps 22: 22-23).

In His offering on Holy Thursday Christ joined the cosmos to Himself as He prayed to the Father: "I glorified thee on earth, having accomplished the work which thou gavest me to do; and now, Father, glorify thou me in thy own presence with the glory which I had with thee before the world was made" (John 17:4-5). On this night He may have remembered what He had spoken three years before: "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day's own trouble be sufficient for the day" (Matt 6:34). He rejoiced with exceeding joy as Priest on Holy Thursday; He bowed in immense pain on Good Friday as He took upon Himself the devil's enmity and the malice of the sins of mankind. The separate consecration of bread and wine will re-present, will make present again until the end of time, the offering of the Priest on Holy Thursday, and the sufferings of the Victim on Good Friday.

We ask next about the miracle of changing bread and wine into His body and blood. How did Jesus Himself become the bread and wine as He spoke the words of consecration? It is a mystery that we are unable to understand. No, it does not contradict our power of reason but is beyond the limits of our power of reason. It may help us to remember that at Tabor He had spiritualized His body so that His face shone and His garments sparkled; and that after the resurrection Jesus walked through closed doors as though they were open. We hold that Jesus changes the bread and wine into what He is now, a spiritualized and risen Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.

At Capharnaum, when some of the disciples showed disbelief, Jesus invited them to accept in faith what was beyond their understanding. "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (John 6:53). Belief in Christ's words is not something we produce by ourselves, by manipulating cerebral circuits. Neither individual talent nor collective human wisdom can produce even a tincture or a tiniest crumb of faith. We accept the Mystery on our knees, or stand in a posture of respect for it. While doing so we do not wear the garb and mortar board of academe. Faith is a gift from the Father, one that God gives to the humble of heart: "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father" (John 6:65). Again: "And Jesus answered him, 'Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven'" (Matthew 16:17). Let us not boast as though we are better than our peers who do not believe. Faith is not of human making. The Father gives it to whom He wills, through the merits of His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Why does Jesus communicate with us under the species of bread and wine? Obviously He wants natural appearances to teach us spiritual realities. Bread nourishes the body, the Body of Christ nourishes our souls. Wine makes the spirit joyful, the Blood of Christ provides us with spiritual energy. Holy Communion imparts to our souls growth and energy in Christ. He who created our souls can also bring them spiritual growth and maturity. Jesus has the key to enter into ourselves, where even angels cannot enter. Angels can work with our senses and imagination, and devils can make a nuisance by rattling these same doors and windows of our souls, but they cannot enter our sacred innermost space. They cannot directly affect our spiritual minds and wills. They cannot do the thinking and willing in place of our very sovereign and independent selves. But Jesus can modify our thinking and willing directly through His grace. "I am the vine, you are the branches."

The one sad note of the Last Supper is the presence of Judas. Did he receive Holy Communion? From Luke's narrative we gather that he did. Holy Communion helped him not at all. He left the table a greater sinner even than when he approached it. Jesus was relieved when he left and could speak familiarly again with friends.

Jesus does the favors to us through Holy Communion that He was pleased to do while walking with us on earth. As He explained to the disciples of John the Baptist: "And he answered them, "Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me" (Luke 7:22-23). He enlightens our minds to know the truth and to dispel falsehood, gives energy to walk in the line of duty when we are reluctant, converts us from sin, opens our ears to hear the words of God, and helps us to overcome scandals.

Like the good Samaritan, Jesus takes us in hand to treat our wounds and nourish us back to health. Like the Father of the prodigal son, He embraces us with priceless love and affection: "Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found'" (Luke 15:32-34). He enjoys our accomplishments as He savored the meal that Martha prepared; He speaks familiarly with us as He did with Mary. He stretches our minds to gain wisdom, He fortifies our wills to develop into maturity. He capacitates us to accomplish the works He has laid out for us "even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him" (Ephesians 1:4).

During Holy Communion we are privileged to meet Christ personally, one on One. We can dare to lay our head on His bosom as John did at the Last Supper. He expressly invites us to do just that: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). When Jesus gives us rest, we are indeed refreshed and at peace. When He makes us gentle and lowly of heart, we soften our rough and uncouth ways to be like Him. When He renders our yoke to be easy and our burden to be light, He empowers us to rise to the challenges of life, no matter how heavy they appear to be. When we live as passive pawns of a secular culture, He puts steel into our backbones to make us stand tall and above the mob.

Jesus works in the chamber of our inmost being where even we ourselves are still in the dark. We have faith but cannot see it with our eyes. We exercise hope and charity, but we cannot grasp a handle attached to these realities. When we tell our mortal sins to the priest in the Confessional and he forgives, darkness in our souls changes to light but we see it not. Jesus sees it all, clear as day. Jesus nurtures us and gives us growth with HIMSELF. He does so with His heart, as the traditional Pelican nourishes her chicks with her own blood. It will be in heaven where finally we will see ourselves as we are, because we shall be like Him as He is.

Holy Communion is an encounter of personal friendship with Jesus. Jesus does not hand out gifts there in an impersonal manner as a social worker might do. Cardinal Ratzinger writes compellingly about this:

"We must leave aside all thought of what is miraculous and magical. This is a personal process. The Risen One, who is now present -- the expression 'Body and Blood' always refers to the entirety of the incarnate Lord who now continues to live in bodily form in the new world of the Resurrection -- is not a thing. I don't receive a piece of Christ. That would indeed be an absurdity, but this is a personal process. He himself is giving himself to me and wants to assimilate me into himself" (God and the World, 408).

Grateful to Jesus for the Sacrifice of the Mass, for Holy Communion, for the priesthood, for all the precious gifts of the Last Supper, we sing our thanks in choice verses of the Lauda Sion composed by Saint Thomas Aquinas. The English translation strains pathetically to emulate the elegance of the original Latin. The last verse is my own attempt at translation.

Laud, O Zion, your salvation,
Laud with hymns of exultation,
Christ, your king and shepherd true...

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things are all we see;
Blood is poured and flesh is broken,
Yet in either wondrous token.
Christ entire we know to be.

Lo! the angel's food is given
to the pilgrim who has striven;
See the children's bread from heaven,
which on dogs may not be spent...

Thou who feedest us as mortals,
Lead us through eternal portals,
Seat us at Thy banquet table,
Heirs with saints and Thee forever. Amen. Alleluia

May we give joy to Christ and Mary as we pray the Fifth Luminous Mystery.