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Online Retreat: "Living the Eucharist" - Week Two

This is the second week of a four-week online retreat focused on the spirituality of the Eucharist. The mystery of the Eucharist is not only something we celebrate, it is also a reality that we seek to live as followers of Jesus. You are invited to read the following reflection and make use of the recommended Scripture readings and reflection questions for your prayer during the week. We suggest that you take 20-30 minutes per day to pray with the Scripture passages and the questions. The other installments of this retreat can also be found on our website.

Week Two: The Eucharist as Sacrament of Communion

I was speaking the other day with a young adult who grew up outside of the United States. When she was a small child, she and her family moved to a country where the public practice of Christianity is not tolerated. She shared with me some stories about growing up and learning the Catholic faith from her parents in the privacy of their home. She mentioned that she “made her communion” at a liturgy in which a priest showed up at a designated location in a business suit and tie, with his vestments in a briefcase, and Mass was celebrated in secret. Receiving the Eucharist for the first time in such a clandestine ceremony was a very memorable experience for her. She came to the United States for college and had to grow accustomed to Mass being so readily available. Her story made me think of what I often take for granted as I live in this country.

This woman spoke of “making her communion”; we may be more accustomed to the expression “receiving communion.” The word “communion” is a familiar term that we associate with the celebration of the Eucharist. The “communion rite” is one essential part of the liturgy of the Eucharist. We may restrict our understanding of communion to receiving the body and blood of Christ at Mass. Actually, however, this word has a very rich meaning that has a lot to say not only about receiving the Eucharist but also about our vocation to live the Eucharist.

When he wrote to the Christian community at Corinth, Saint Paul urged them to reflect on their communion with Christ and with one another in the Eucharist. He wrote, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10: 14-17). The Greek word translated here as “participation” also means communion. Paul urged these believers to recognize their connection with one another in the Eucharist and to realize that the conduct of each member of the community had an effect on all the others.

Paul’s words to the Corinthians suggest that for Christians there are two essential dimensions to communion. The vertical dimension of communion refers to our sharing (or participation) in the life of God, the life of the Trinity. Through the gift of grace God enables us to share in the abundance of his life. This participation is experienced with greatest intensity in the gift of the Eucharist. We believe that God himself is a personal communion of life and love. That is what our belief in the Trinity is all about. The triune God is a God of relationship, where Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in bonds of mutual giving and receiving. The Trinity is a circle of abundant life rooted in relationship. And the triune God draws us into this life by inviting us to live in a personal relationship with God.

The horizontal dimension of communion is what Paul is talking about when he tells the Corinthians that they are “one body.” Communion with God in Christ means that Christians are also brought into fellowship with one another, and they are called to strengthen that fellowship. In his encyclicalDeus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about this horizontal dimension of communion. He said, “Union with Christ [in the Eucharist] is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Jesus Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus towards unity with all Christians” (n. 14). It is primarily through the Eucharist that God’s people become united, even with all of their diversity.

All of this talk about communion is lovely, but we live in a world marked by sharp divisions. In many ways, we live in a polarized world. Right now, as I write this reflection, our country is polarized with regard to health care reform. Town hall meetings across the country have, in many cases, turned into shouting matches where the person who shouts the loudest seems to get the most publicity. As a priest I listen to many stories of divisions within families, sometimes leading to breakdowns in communication that persist for years. The church itself has not escaped that experience of polarization. In our church people of different theological perspectives seem to have a very hard time talking to one another. Young adult Catholics especially find this ecclesial polarization to be disheartening, since the debates have a history that preceded their birth and sometimes focus on issues that are not of primary importance to them.

As people for whom the Eucharist is the summit and source of our lives, the spirituality of the Eucharist includes a call to communion. This vocation does not refer simply to receiving the Eucharist regularly, or even just to building community in our parishes. We are certainly called to do these things. But the gift of communion with God and with one another is also a call to strengthen the bonds of communion in the wider world. We are invited to “practice” communion in all of our relationships.

In his book What is the Point of Being Christian? Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP has some compelling comments related to what I am calling the practice of communion. Radcliffe discusses the many divisions that exist in our world, and he points out the increasing tendency for people to dwell only with the like-minded. We tend to watch the same network news as people who are like us, visit the same websites and blogs, and read the same authors. Radcliffe points out that human unity is founded on our ability to talk to each other. Language is the breakthrough into a new level of communion. Radcliffe says, “Our human vocation is to go on searching for new and deeper ways of belonging together, new ways of speaking, which realize our capacity for communion more profoundly” (159). We need to learn how to speak a language that is unmarked by domination, a language in which there is no contempt for anyone. Radcliffe describes Christ as the one who bore in his own body all the violence that human beings turn against each other. Christ bore in himself all the breakdown of communication in human history. The resurrection is the victory of communion over all the forces that separate us from each other. Radcliffe comments, “There is no universal language of pure communion except Christ, and we do not yet know fully how to speak the Word that he is” (161). This author emphasizes the vocation of Christians to build solidarity within the church and throughout the world. Radcliffe writes:

So human solidarity is more than overcoming inequality. It is creating a common world of meaning. This will not be achieved by us all speaking the same language . . . At a much deeper level, we are called to a communion in which we can share all that we are, indeed become all that we are meant to be. Imagine speaking to each other in ways that are unmarked by domination, in which there is no contempt for anyone, pure communion (159).

I find Radcliffe’s words to be challenging and quite relevant to my own life and relationships. Living the Eucharist means not only receiving communion but also practicing communion in our relationships. It involves a call to learn how to speak to others in ways that are unmarked by domination and free from contempt. It is so easy to feel contempt for those who offend or disappoint us, isn’t it? Practicing communion entails becoming a better listener, especially to those with whom we do not agree or who just seem very different from us. It calls us to refrain from words and actions that are divisive. The practice of communion also includes living as people who strive for reconciliation in our relationships. Our vocation as followers of Jesus leads us to become “ambassadors of reconciliation” – as Paul described himself (see 2 Cor 5: 20). Sometimes our efforts at reconciliation are unsuccessful because the other party is not open to it. But we are still invited to adopt an attitude of willingness to resolve our conflicts with other people.

Communion is both a gift and a task. We first receive it as a gift from God, who in Christ draws us to share in his own life. Christ enters into communion with us at the Eucharist, and he promises to be our faithful companion on the journey of our lives. Christ speaks “the language of pure communion.” This is a priceless gift. His presence to us empowers us to practice communion in our relationships. May we ask for the grace to live the Eucharist by working to strengthen the bonds of communion in our homes and church and in the wider world.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

For Prayer and Reflection

Day One – Read John 15: 1-17 – Jesus uses the image of the vine and calls his disciples to “remain” in him. By living in communion with Christ their lives will be productive. It is in this context that Jesus invites his disciples into a relationship of friendship. And he points to the depth of his friendship-love for them by pointing to what he will soon do: lay down his life for his friends. What does the call to live in friendship with Christ mean to you? What can you learn from your relationships with your good friends about your relationship with Christ? In what ways have you experienced your communion with Christ making your life more “fruitful”?

Day Two – Read Ephesians 4: 7-16 – Paul employs the image of one body to express the communion that is meant to exist among the Christians at Ephesus. The different gifts that each person has been given are meant to contribute to the well-being of the community, enabling these believers to “grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ.” What are the gifts that God has given you which enable you to contribute to the well-being of other people? Have you found the church to be a place where your personal gifts are welcomed and utilized? How is Christ calling you to serve the Christian community at this time in your life?

Day Three – Read 2 Corinthians 5: 14-21. Paul speaks about the ministry of reconciliation that he and his fellow apostles have been given. It is based on God’s great act of reconciling the world to himself in Christ. Paul maintains that those who live “in Christ” are a new creation. In what ways has your relationship with Christ given you new life? Where in your life is Christ calling you to be an instrument of his reconciling grace? Who are the people whom you find it most difficult to forgive? Lift up those people by name in prayer today, asking God to give each one of them the grace that he or she needs.

Day Four – Read Ephesians 4: 25-32. The apostle exhorts the Christian community to live in charity with one another. In a particular way, he challenges these believers to reflect upon their speech – how they talk to one another. This passage challenges us to think about the words we use in our conversations with others. Do our words tend to build up or to tear down? What kinds of situations “push my buttons” and lead me to say things that I later regret? Who is it in my life that may need a word of affirmation or encouragement from me at this time?

Day Five – Read Colossians 3: 12-17. This passage is often used in wedding liturgies to reflect the attitudes that a woman and man who are entering into the covenant of marriage need to have toward one another. The apostle encourages these Christians to develop the kinds of virtues that strengthen the bonds of communion between people. Read this passage slowly and reflectively. Which part of it speaks to you most powerfully? Ask for the grace to grow in the attitudes and virtues that are illumined in this reading.

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