“Mass” and “Eucharist” are often used interchangeably. The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” The Mass is the celebration of the Eucharist – the thanksgiving sacrifice of Jesus – and includes: readings from Scripture; offering prayers for the good of the Church, world, local community and particular persons; doing what Jesus did at the Last Supper (taking, blessing, breaking and sharing his body and blood); and being sent forth to live and proclaim the Good News of Jesus.
The word Eucharist is also commonly used to refer to the consecrated “bread” (the Host) from the Mass in, for example, taking the Eucharist (or Blessed Sacrament) to the sick and dying.
No (phew!). There are three ways of understanding Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. The first is widely held among Protestant Christians. In this view, Christ’s presence is of a symbolic kind. While remaining bread, the Eucharist reminds us of the Last Supper, or is a token of the Last Supper or brings to mind the heavenly banquet. No one who holds this view would be accused of cannibalism as “body” and “blood” in this framework are not taken in a realistic sense, but only in a metaphorical sense.
The second way of understanding Christ’s presence in the Eucharist had its high point just before the turn of the first millennium. Some people argued that when we receive the Eucharist, we are literally eating flesh and drinking blood. They argued that in the Eucharist, we are tearing up the body of Christ and drinking his blood as one might drink from a vial of physical blood. Christians were originally accused of holding this view in earlier centuries, and the pagans accused them of cannibalism. The Church in early centuries and again around the turn of the first millennium denied the cannibalistic theory and asserted that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not a presence of actual meat and blood, such as a scientist might verify.
The third – and authentic – view is that what is present in the Eucharist is the risen, glorified body and blood of Christ, the self of Christ as he is in heaven. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the glorified Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity, is present in the Eucharist in the most real way possible, yet not in such a manner that we are eating material meat and drinking physical blood.
In the Eucharist, we are not practicing cannibalism. We are communing with the risen, glorified Lord – the self of Christ who reigns in heaven, but dwells with us under the species of bread and wine. What a breath-taking reality!
One of the Ten Commandments is “remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.” It became customary among the Jewish people to see the Sabbath as a day to be with God in a special way. Much of their prayer centred in the home, but they also developed the custom of attending the synagogue on the Sabbath to hear and study the word of God. Their Sabbath, or seventh day, was on the day we call “Saturday.
The “Mass” began when early Christians gathered together in their homes to share a meal in memory of Jesus, as he had asked them to do on the night before he died. There was no obligation about this originally; Christians got together to pray, hear the Scriptures read, and share the meal because they wanted to – even though they often faced great persecution for doing so. Over time the meal became more formalised and ritualised, and, as more time passed, the Church imposed a rule obligating Christians to attend Mass at least on Sunday. Sunday had become the day of worship, rather than the Jewish Sabbath, because it was the day on which Jesus rose from the dead and opened up the possibility for all people to know eternal life.
Like other Church laws, the obligation to attend Mass on Sunday corresponds to the deepest need of our hearts. The deepest meaning of our human existence is to be in a relationship of love with God. We are creatures with an infinite horizon. Nothing less than God will ultimately satisfy the hungers in our heart.
This yearning for the infinite (which is nothing other than an echo of God’s infinite desire to be with us) is fulfilled in Mass. We gather together, we hear the Scriptures – words of eternal significance – we receive Jesus himself in Communion. The infinite hungers of our heart are fed by the infinite “food” of the Mass.
The most effective way in which you can prepare your child for his or her First Holy Communion is regularly to attend Mass with him or her. This can perhaps be challenging and unsettling, and even a bit threatening, if you’re not a regular Mass-goer. It may help to think of the Mass not as an “over there religious thing” but as the source and summit of our life.
The Eucharist says that God is a self-giving God, a God who gives himself away so that we can be nourished and our deepest needs for love, meaning and purpose can be satisfied. The Eucharist presents us with a God who is intimately involved with our lives, a God who knows us and who shares our tears and joys and anxieties from within.
The God we come to know through the Eucharist is the God you mirror and imitate day after day as parents. As parents, your lives are all about self-giving love, about nourishing your children in all the ways they need to be nourished, about knowing your children and sharing their tears and joys and anxieties from within.
So the Eucharist is the place where what is deepest in us – namely, self-giving love – is celebrated, encouraged, nourished and strengthened by our self-giving and loving God. It’s the place where you – and your children – are given the grace to celebrate and nurture all of that which makes us truly happy and fulfilled.
You may also find it helpful to have conversations with your child in which you link the spiritual nourishment provided by the Eucharist with the physical nourishment he or she receives through the daily meals you provide.
Loyola Press has produced an excellent resource called “Adaptive First Eucharist Preparation Kit”, which is a great resource for helping people with autism and other special needs to participate in the Mass.