Cover image for Catholics and the Eucharist : a scriptural introduction
Catholics and the Eucharist : a scriptural introduction
Clark, Stephen B.
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Ann Arbor, Mich. : Charis, [2000]

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274 pages ; 23 cm
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BX2215.2 .C53 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Catholics and the Eucharist offers a biblical explanation of the Eucharist that will expand readers' understanding of the sacrament and help them participate more fully in the Mass. In popular theological language, Stephen B. Clark explains the Vatican Council's teaching that the liturgy is the summit of the church's activity and the fount of its power. Using Scripture, the documents of Vatican II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the writings of the Fathers and scholarship through the ages, the author provides a masterful and readable introduction to the meaning of the Eucharist. Each chapter closes with an inspirational meditation to help readers appropriate its message.

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Publisher's Weekly Review

This insightful, vivid book will help even "cradle Catholics" better understand and appreciate their faith. Clark, a member of the international ecumenical Sword of the Spirit community and author or coauthor of more than 30 books on Christian living, writes of the Eucharist in the context of the liturgy or worship service (what many Catholics still think of as the "Mass"). He hopes that readers will view the liturgy, as the Church's Second Vatican Council affirmed, as the summit of Christian living. Clark explores Old and New Testament Scriptures to explain how the Catholic liturgy evolved into its current form: the liturgy of the reading and interpretation of the Word of God and the liturgy of the Eucharist as the celebration and re-presentation of Christ's death and resurrection. Christ, in Clark's view, is corporately present and renews the faith of the assembly through both the Word of God and the sacrificial offering of bread and wine. The book's central strength is its explanation of how an Old Testament understanding of sacrifice and the Passover feast has informed Catholics' New Testament interpretation of Christ's sacrifice, which is celebrated with a Passover meal each Sunday. Accessible without being condescending, rich in understanding and thorough in analysis, this book should be valued by all Catholics seeking spiritual renewal. (May) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The Word of God When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God. 1 Thessalonians 2:13 In the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 17:1-4) there is a description of the evangelization of the city of Thessalonica in Greece by Paul and Silas: Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ." And some of them were persuaded, and joined Paul and Silas; as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.     Paul, with the help of Silas, began by speaking to the Jews at the local synagogue. Over a period of three weeks he argued with the Jews about what we would now call Christianity. He insisted that Jesus had died and risen again and that he was the Christ. He spent much of that time giving arguments based on Old Testament texts to back up his assertions.     Paul's work resulted in the beginning of a Christian church. It also resulted in the rejection of Christianity by many Jews in that city, a rejection which led to persecution of the apostles and the new Christians. The accusation presented by the Jews, who charged the apostles with what we might term "sedition," was complimentary to the power of the message they brought. They said, "These men have turned the world upside down!"     There was more that happened during that time. Not only did Paul and his coworkers reach Jews and Gentiles who had become believers in the one true God; they also reached those who still worshiped pagan gods. In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul referred to his initial evangelization of Thessalonica by saying, You turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10     After reminding them of his labors, he explained the source of his success in these words, We thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 1 Thessalonians 2:13     Paul, in other words, spent something under a month in Thessalonica and left behind a Christian church. During that time he argued with Jews about Scripture and explained to them what Christianity was. He also worked with Gentiles, proclaiming the message to groups of them "in power and in the Holy Spirit" (1 Thes 1:5) and sharing the gospel with individuals in some kind of follow-up (1 Thes 1:8). In the above summary of his and Silas' efforts, he held that the decisive occurrence in all this was that the Thessalonian Christians had accepted the word of God.     Despite how human the process may have looked to some, there was something else going on when Paul spoke. In his arguments with Jews about the Old Testament, and in his proclamation to the pagans, God's word was at work, producing a spiritual change so that people could come to know him and live a new life. As Paul said in his Letter to the Romans, the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith" (Rom 1:16).     We still have the Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians and the one to the Romans, as well as the rest of what we call the New Testament. We have them because the early Christians knew that Paul's understanding of these writings was true. The Christians were not a society for historical studies. They were not even a society for religious studies. They were a group of people who knew that they had received new life when they heard certain words, and so they kept some of the writings that preserved what they had heard so that they could continue to receive life from them.     The first copies of these writings that we now obtain and read so easily were written out by hand, the only way of duplicating texts at that time. They were owned by Christian communities, carefully guarded, and read at worship services. People memorized portions of them as they were chanted, the normal way of reading in a public situation. To use the phraseology of Deuteronomy, they "laid up" the words of Scripture "in their heart" or, as we would be more likely to put it, they stored them in their memories as they heard them read repeatedly.     When they gathered as a community, the early Christians had two important purposes in mind. They gathered to hear the words that they believed were the word of God, the writings that we would call the Old Testament and, as time went on, the ones we call the New Testament. And they gathered to partake of special food, the Body and Blood of the Lord. They did both so that they might obtain life, better life here and now, but even more, unending life. And they did both so that they could take home what they had received, bearing it inside of them, and draw life from it in the course of the week.     We can read about the gatherings of the first Christians in the New Testament. When Paul came to Troas during one of his later missionary journeys (Acts 20:7-12), he spent a week with the community of Christians there. He met with all of them together on Sunday, their normal day for gathering. He gave them a talk, undoubtedly based on Old Testament readings as his talks in Thessalonica had been. They then "broke bread," a phrase that here refers to the special meal they had together that we would describe as a Liturgy of the Eucharist.     In doing this Paul carried on a practice that, in its essentials, was the same as that of the first Christians in Jerusalem after Pentecost. They had "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). What the first Christians did in the beginning was based in turn on what the Jews did before them, as we shall see further on, but changed in important ways because of Christ.     We do what Paul and the early Christians did. There are two parts to our main worship service. The first part is the Liturgy of the Word, and during that time the Scriptures are read, meditated on, and explained. They are the written record of what people like the apostle Paul spoke as well as the writings of the Old Testament, which Paul approached as the foundation of his message.     There is a temptation, an old temptation, to think that the reading of the Scripture during the liturgy is just a "warm-up." It is designed to put us into a devout frame of mind to engage with the really important event, the Eucharist. To be sure, it does help us approach the Lord more spiritually and participate in the Eucharist more effectively. To see it only as a preparation, however, is a major mistake.     The Second Vatican Council (DV 21) and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 103) tell us: The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord's Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God's Word and Christ's Body. (See DV21.)     For many Catholics today it seems like an extraordinary--and perhaps not quite orthodox--statement to say the Scriptures are venerated "as the Lord's Body." And it seems at best paradoxical to say that we are fed the bread of life by both.     In saying this, however, the Council fathers restated a teaching of many of the Fathers of the Church. One of them, Caesarius of Aries ( Sermo 78, 2), expressed it dramatically by saying: I have a question for you, brothers and sisters. Which do you think more important--the word of God or the body of Christ? If you want to answer correctly, you must tell me that the word of God is not less important than the body of Christ! How careful we are, when the body of Christ is distributed to us, not to let any bit of it fall to the ground from our hand! But we should be just as careful not to let slip from our hearts the word of God.     We cannot, then, understand the Eucharistic celebration if we do not know that there are two parts of it, the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and believe that they are both important. Therefore we cannot understand the Eucharistic celebration if we do not understand why the reading and receiving of the Scriptures is so important. We are hearing the Word of God, which feeds us with the Bread of Life.     We will consider the Liturgy of the Eucharist further on after considering the Liturgy of the Word. The outline just preceding this chapter shows us its main parts and will be referred to in the next two chapters. The outline presents elements from both the Roman rite, the rite of most "Western" Christians, and the Byzantine rite, now the main rite of the Greek-speaking Christians and those who were evangelized by them in the Slavic world. In the chapter after this we will consider how we can participate in the Liturgy of the Word so that we might receive the blessing and life it is intended to convey. In this chapter, we will consider the center or focus, the Scriptures, and why they are important enough to receive the repeated, reverent attention we give them in the liturgy and hopefully at home every day.     During the Liturgy of the Word the lector reads a book that was written two millennia or more ago and concludes by saying, "The word of the Lord!" To this the congregation replies, "Thanks be to God!" In responding with their lips that way, the members of the congregation should be agreeing in their hearts with what the lector said. They are affirming, "Yes, this is the word of the Lord." The question we will ask in this chapter is: what are they agreeing to? The Scriptures The Written Word of God The word scriptures means "writings." "The Scriptures" is short for "the Sacred Scriptures" or "the Holy Scriptures." Adding "sacred" or "holy" means they come from God. The Scriptures, then, are "the holy writings," the writings that come from God.     We sometimes refer to the Scriptures as The Bible , which translated literally from the Greek means "The Books" and in English means " The Book," or perhaps even "The Book of Books." The Scriptures, then, are the most important book ever written, the one book human beings cannot do without. It is the writings in this book that are the word of God.     The word of God is a literal translation of a Hebrew phrase. In the English language, we usually use "word" to mean a single word. The Hebrew equivalent could be used for a single word, a statement, or a lengthy discourse. If we are going to look for one word in English that would convey the range of meaning that "word" has in Hebrew, we might pick "message" or perhaps "communication."     In Christian theology, "the word of God" could refer to all that God wishes to reveal to us (his communication as a whole), or to Christ, the concrete embodiment or fulfilment of what God wishes to communicate to us, or to the Scripture itself. It is the Scripture that is our concern here. If, then, we were going to retranslate, "The word of the Lord!" more idiomatically, we might translate it, "This is what the Lord is saying to you!" or, "This is the message that the Lord has for us!" The response "Thanks be to God," then, would mean, "We are very fortunate that God has been willing to say this to us"--or say anything at all to us for that matter. With full justice he could have ignored us.     However, the "message that the Lord has for us" that we read above was actually spoken in Greek by Paul close to two millennia ago. Perhaps we might hear a reading from the prophet Jeremiah. That would have been spoken about six hundred years earlier in Hebrew.     There is a famous story about an early president of Yale University who insisted that all Yale graduates needed to learn Hebrew, a requirement that has long since lapsed. When asked why, he explained that he wanted them to know the language when they got to heaven. But does God speak in Hebrew?     Perhaps Paul made mistakes in his Greek. Would that mean that God made mistakes in Greek? Some have said that Paul's Greek and his way of speaking and writing would not have been good enough for him to pass a modern writing class. If so, did God speak poor Greek?     While such criticisms of Paul are something of an exaggeration to make a point, especially since the people in his day would not have subscribed to many of the rules taught in modern writing courses, he himself tells us that others criticized him by saying that "his speech [is] of no account" (2 Cor 10:10). He also admitted that he did not try to use "lofty words" (1 Cor 2:1), perhaps what we might term "elegant speech" or "literary speech." For the sake of the example, let us grant that Paul made grammatical mistakes and wrote and spoke low-quality Greek, somewhat the way some foreign person who has recently immigrated to the United States or Britain from some country with a different language might speak English. Does that mean that God communicates poorly?     God does not speak Hebrew or Greek or even English, although he understands all the languages in the world and can communicate to every human being in a way that human beings can understand. Nor do mistakes or inelegancies in what we proclaim to be "the Word of God" mean that God makes mistakes when he speaks or speaks inelegantly. But to communicate to us he does use the words of human beings who speak Hebrew or Greek or English and who sometimes make grammatical mistakes or speak without literary ability. In an analogous way, when we speak to others through translators, the words our hearers receive have many of the characteristics of the translators, even if they translate accurately.     This brings us back to the incarnational principle. The Lord uses things that exist in the space-time world to make contact with us. When he wishes to communicate, he most commonly uses human speech. But he has no tongue, lips, or vocal cords, since he transcends space and time. Therefore he makes use of human beings who do have them to convey the message or communication he wants us to receive. Otherwise he would need to produce miraculous skywriting or something similar.     Just as the burning bush no doubt had the normal characteristics of a desert bush of its kind, so those human beings who spoke or wrote the words we have in the Scriptures probably had the normal characteristics of speakers or writers of their time. Because those words come through the communication medium of human speech, they must have many of the characteristics of the channel through which they come. But that is not all that can be said of them.     The writings in the Scriptures, then, are human words with human characteristics. But they are not "merely" human words. The word merely is used in this and similar contexts to acknowledge that we are dealing with something that is human, or at least truly part of this space-time world, but is not only that. It comes from God or is united or joined in some way to God so that it is not only human and created. In the case of the Scriptures, the message we receive is usually a human message. Nonetheless, it is not only human. It is, more importantly, God's message that comes to us. The Importance of Scripture Christian teaching over the centuries has made use of various terms to help us understand what it means to say that words like those of Jeremiah or Paul can be God's word. One of the most important is revelation . We say that the scriptures, and the words in them, "contain revelation," God's revelation.     Using an old distinction in Christian theology, theologians often contrast "revelation" with "reason." "Reason" in this sense is the natural human ability to know and understand things. Knowledge we have by reason, then, is knowledge we human beings have acquired by our own efforts. Knowledge we have by "revelation," in contrast, is knowledge that has been given to us by God?     In principle, God might reveal to us things that we could come to understand by ourselves. According to Columbus in his Book of Prophecies, "With a hand that could be felt, the Lord opened my mind to the fact that it would be possible to sail from here to the Indies." If his account is accurate, because he believed he had the revelation of God that such a journey was possible, he was motivated to attempt it. He then discovered for himself that the Atlantic Ocean could be crossed and so discovered the existence of the American continent, landing initially in "the West Indies." The same fact, in short, can be learned by human effort ("reason") or by the revelation of God. We are mainly interested in those truths in the Scriptures that could only have been known by God's revelation.     God might have decided only to reveal facts about insects and reptiles that died millennia ago and left no records. Biologists then would be the ones mainly interested in the Scriptures. In fact, however, he revealed tremendously important truths about human life. He revealed who he himself was, how dependent human beings were upon him, how they could relate well to him, how they could achieve the purpose for which they were made, and how he himself would help them fulfill it.     God, in short, revealed truths that make it possible for the lives of human beings to go well, especially in the long run. Without this revelation, human beings are in serious trouble. Sometimes this is summed up by saying that God revealed truths "necessary for salvation." For that reason, we all should be interested in what the Scriptures say. The phrase "the Scriptures contain God's revelation," then, tells us why the Scriptures are so important. Inspiration and Canonicity Not everything in the Scriptures is there because it was revealed. Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians in which he explained that he was in prison and spoke about some of the things that resulted from his imprisonment. Those words are part of what we consider to be the Word of God. But Paul must have been able to figure out that he was in prison without getting special revelation from God! The Scriptures may be important to us because they contain revelation, but it is not true to say that everything in them is the word of God because it has all been revealed.     A passage in the Scriptures, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, contains the word that has come to be used to assert that the whole Scripture is the Word of God, All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.     The important word here is "inspired." All of the Scriptures have come to us through inspiration .     The English word "inspired" in this text translates a Greek word that means "God-breathed." Scripture, then, is "God-breathed" or "breathed by God." Behind this word is a helpful image. When we speak, we make sounds, sounds that we have come to recognize as words. But we do so by breathing. When we stop breathing, when we "hold our breath," we cannot speak anymore. Only as we breathe out and form the resulting breath by our lips, tongues, and vocal cords do we make sounds that are words. To say that the Scriptures are inspired is to say that they are "breathed out" by God, spoken by him. What results is his word or message.     God "breathes his word out" through human beings. He does so through his own "Spirit." The Hebrew word that is translated "Spirit" could also be translated "breath." God's Spirit is God's breath, so God breathes into or through human beings by the Holy Spirit (the Divine Breath) to produce his message to us. In so doing, he "moves them" (2 Pt 1:21). Perhaps he moves them, as some of the Fathers thought, somewhat as if they were vocal cords, so that they speak what he wants spoken. Or, to use still other scriptural words, he "works" or "operates" in and through human beings by his Spirit to communicate to us (see 1 Cor 12:6). All these are New Testament ways to say that the Scriptures come to us "by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit."     Since we breathe through our vocal cords to produce words, it would be possible to say that our vocal cords speak. However, we rarely if ever feel it useful to say that we had a conversation with a set of vocal cords or that some vocal cords spoke to us. We rather say that another person spoke to us, because that person is the source of the speech. The same thing is true for God's word. To say that the Scriptures are inspired is to say that God is the source of them, the most important source of them. Therefore, he is the one speaking to us, not just the human being he is speaking through.     This does not mean that the human authors of the Scriptures are as passive or receptive in the process as vocal cords are when we speak. After all, God did not write to the Philippians. Paul did--in his own name. Nor did God have Paul write the letter as a mere secretary to tell them that God wanted them to know that Paul was in prison. Paul was writing the letter in the first person, and he was speaking to them about himself. Nor was he giving a prophecy. He was describing his own experience and thoughts to a group of people who knew him and whom he wanted to encourage and thank for sending him money.     To say, however, that the books of Scripture are inspired must at least mean that God is the ultimate source of what is said. It therefore must be true to say about everything in Scripture, however the content came to the human author, that God spoke it. The word "inspiration," then, tells us that the Scriptures originated in some action or work of God that means he is using them to speak to us. As the Second Vatican Council (DV 24) put it, The sacred Scriptures contain the word of God and, since they are inspired, really are the word of God.     The concept or word "inspiration," however, is not enough by itself to explain the nature of the Scriptures, because there are other inspired human words that have come in the course of human history. The Scriptures themselves tell us about true prophecies that are not part of our Bible. For instance, Paul speaks about many prophetic messages in the Corinthian church that he seems to think were real prophecies, and hence from God, which were not recorded and kept (see 1 Cor 14). He even says to the Thessalonians (1 Thes 5:20-21), "Do not despise prophesying, but test everything; hold fast what is good." This implies that when the early Christians gave "prophecies," some of what was said was given by God and completely faithful to imparting a message from God, although some was not.     We can read about Christian men and women in past centuries who got messages from God and spoke them to those who came to them--or perhaps to those who did not want to come to them. Nowadays, we can visit meetings of orthodox Catholics who are "charismatic" and can hear messages that purport to be prophecies. Solid charismatic teachers would say that the messages need testing. Some are, in fact, simply not from God. More significantly, some are only partly from God or have been distorted in their transmission. But some of them likely are from God, at least in part, because God still works in human beings to speak through them in a way that is more than just passing on human grace-filled meditation upon Christian teaching or the Scriptures.     We therefore need another word that allows us to describe the difference between the Scriptures and other inspired messages or writings. The word that has been most commonly used in theological writings is canonical . We also would speak about the canon of Scripture.     The word "canon" was originally a Greek word. It meant, at least in this context, ruler or yardstick or standard. The "canon" was the ruler or standard against which other things were measured. The United States National Bureau of Standards contains a yardstick of sorts that is the official "yard." If it were important to find out whether something were exactly an American yard, it could be compared to the "yardstick" that is in Washington, D.C. We might say, using theological language, that that is the canonical yard.     A yardstick measures the length of something. The Scripture "measures," or can be used to assess the math of, writings or speech. If we want to know if something is true Christianity, the truth that God wanted to reveal to us so that we might know how to be saved, we can compare it to the canon of the Scriptures. If some statement or writing does not compare adequately, it is not Christianity. At the very least it cannot contradict what is in Scripture and be considered "orthodox" ("straight" or correct believing) Christianity.     Canonicity tells us something more about what it means to say that the Scripture is the inspired Word of God. First, it tells us that all of it is true or reliable for knowing how to assess what Christianity is. There cannot be anything in it that falsely presents what has been revealed. It is not like some Corinthian (or modern) prophecies, a mixture of inspired words and human fancy, or perhaps a highly distorted transmission of something that began with a genuine inspiration. If it were, it could not be an effective standard.     Second it tells us that the various writings in the scriptures have been recognized by the church as the standard for Christian truth, just as the "yardstick" in the U.S. Bureau of Standards has been recognized as the standard for yards. The early church handed down to us books that were accepted as the inspired word of God and to be used as such. In the course of the process, synods of bishops sorted through the various questions that came up about the status of the books that different churches had preserved and determined authoritatively which ones were to be considered canonical scriptures.     Some of the questions about the canonical status of certain writings came from the fact that there were different versions of the Old Testament that circulated among Jews. Some came from the fact that there were various collections of Christian writings that were attributed to the apostles or at least used for authoritative teaching. By the end of the patristic period there were authoritative decisions by councils of bishops about what books should be in the canonical scriptures, certainly about which books belonged to the New Testament. Catholic teaching would say that any remaining disputed questions about which books should be considered Scripture, mainly which books should be included in the Old Testament, were most authoritatively settled by the Council of Trent, basing itself on synods and papal statements in patristic times. In making such decisions, however, the earlier councils and the Council of Trent did not understand themselves to be adding new books to the canon of Scripture. The canon was closed (completed) in the time of the apostles. The later decisions simply recognized which books that were claimed to belong to the canon of Scripture were to be accepted.     The result is that the Scriptures are, according to the Second Vatican Council, "the supreme rule of faith, since, as inspired by God and committed once and for all to writing, they impart the Word of God Himself without change, and make the voice of the Holy Spirit resound in the words of the prophets and Apostles" (DV 21).     If they are "the supreme rule of faith," the canon, nothing else can take precedence over them. Although the church authorities or scholars can interpret what they mean, no one can cancel them or override them. They are the supreme rule of faith because they have been reliably discerned to be the inspired Word of God.     Catholics speak of other things as canonical. There is, for instance, canon law. Canon law tells us, to simplify a bit, how to conduct a properly run church. If something contradicts canon law, it is "out of order" or worse. There are also canonical doctrinal definitions, usually made by ecumenical councils. These tell us what opinions in a theological dispute cannot be held without denying something that has been revealed to us. To say that they are canonical is to say that they are the recognized standard in some matter.     Canon law and canonical definitions from ecumenical councils, or any other kind of canonical writings, are not, however, Scripture. They cannot be entered into the collection of scriptural writings, nor may they be read in the liturgy in place of the Scriptures. They are not the canonical Word of God, however authoritative they might be. They do not, according to the above statement of the Second Vatican Council, by their very nature "impart the Word of God Himself." (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Stephen B. Clark. All rights reserved.