I draw heavily here on Pope Benedict XVI’s reflection on the Eucharist as the “Sacrament of Transformations.” At the Last Supper (and at every Divine Liturgy and Mass) bread is transformed into Christ’s body, wine into his blood. God nourishes us with this transformed Bread and Wine in a way that transcends earthly life, which prepares the Resurrection and even initiates it. The Lord could have turned stones into bread to satisfy his physical hunger, but He turned bread into his body to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the whole world.
To transform the bread into his body, there is more to say than “this is my body”; He has also to say, “which is broken, given up for you.” The same with the wine: not only “this is my blood,” but also “which is poured out for you.” Thus the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood is inseparable from his sacrificial death, which itself is a transformation.
What happens to Him during his passion is a series of acts of violence and hatred which result in his suffering and death. But Christ transforms, from within, men’s acts of violence against Him into an act of self-giving, an act of love. He does not counter violence with violence but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love; violence is conquered by love. By Christ’s loving acceptance of the Father’s will, forgiving those who killed Him, Jesus showed that love is stronger than death. This is soon manifested when death is transformed into resurrection.
At the Last Supper Jesus anticipates and interiorly accomplishes the essence of the Calvary event. He accepts suffering and death, and by this acceptance transforms it into self-giving love. For the inner core of his sacrifice is his “yes” to the Father; its external manifestation we see on the Cross. The mystery of the Cross is accepted and interiorly transformed at the table with his disciples.
Because the essence of his bloody sacrifice is a transformation—transforming evil into good, the murder of the Son of God into the redemption of mankind—and because the essence of this sacrifice is interiorly accomplished at the Last Supper, another transformation that is necessarily related to this is also mystically present at the Last Supper: mortal body into glorified body, with the power that makes possible the transformation of bread into body given, wine into blood poured out. So when Jesus says of bread, “this is my body,” and of wine, “this is my blood,” He makes of them an external manifestation of the interior essence of his redeeming sacrifice.
What is happening, then, at every altar where the Holy Mysteries are offered? Christ is present through those He commanded to do what He did, in memory of Him. Not just anyone can do this, but only those whom He has chosen as instruments of that same transforming power. The essence of the same sacrifice that Christ interiorly accepted and accomplished at the Last Supper, and then finally accomplished in a bloody manner on Calvary—the essence of that same sacrifice is manifested here; his act of self-giving is perpetuated till the end of time. He doesn’t just give Himself to us once. Of course, He doesn’t have to suffer the bloody immolation of the Cross repeatedly, as Hebrews says, for that dimension of his sacrifice happened at a certain time and place and was once for all.
But the essence of his sacrifice, the redeeming power of his total self-offering, is perpetual; it stands before the face of the Father forever, and hence is always fruitful, always available, and that is what we ritually and mystically make present on our altars. He never ceases to love us, to give Himself to us, so the transforming power of his sacrifice is available to us as it was to the first apostles, when Jesus said: take, eat, this is my body; drink, this is my blood, shed for the forgiveness of sins.
So when the priests say his words, this is my body broken, this is my blood poured out, and when the Holy Spirit is invoked upon the gifts, Jesus is giving Himself to us, here and now, with the very same power of transforming love by which He reconciled the world to his Father from the Cross. That power is so great that it transforms the bread and wine we offer into the body and blood He offered on the Cross. Everything is transformed in the gift of Himself for our salvation. What Jesus gives is Himself; He cannot do otherwise. It is of the very essence of the Trinity that each divine Person exists in the gift of himself to the others, and in receiving the self-gift of the others. So when Jesus wants to give Himself to us and says, eat and drink—the bread and wine are transformed because He is giving Himself; the bread and wine become Himself in the very act of His giving them to us. We offer them to Him in the liturgy as humble gifts; He returns them to us as Himself, because at his command we have lifted them up into the sphere of his transforming sacrifice, the love that is stronger than sin and death, the power of his Cross and Resurrection. The inner divine energy of that sacrifice changes bread and wine into his body and blood, takes away the sin of the world, and will raise us up on the last day.
All this shows that the consecration of the Eucharist is not a kind of magic act, or a display of sheer divine power to work a miracle simply because He can. The Eucharist is not a thing that is invested with a certain power to achieve a specific effect, like a drug that one takes, which infallibly produces some effect through chemical reactions. That is why some people benefit from Holy Communion and some don’t. It is Someone who is giving Himself to us, and we have to be open to receive Him. We have a part to play; it depends to a great extent on us whether or not the Eucharist will bear the fruit of sanctity within us. Perhaps we’re not sufficiently aware that we are being drawn into a momentous encounter with the living God, who wants us to be caught up in the great heavenward movement of worship and thanksgiving, who wants us to enter the divine mystery of his everlasting love. Like the wise virgins we have to go out with joy to meet the Bridegroom, for He comes! He is here!
We have to have faith and love and a commitment to do His will. Only then will the next transformation take place. We are transformed by Holy Communion. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, we are meeting Christ in the act of his self-giving, we are sharing in the mystery of the love that neutralizes the power of evil, that makes all things new. If we come as repentant sinners He sanctifies us—his divine grace meets our weakness and suffering and He transforms it, gives it meaning, invests it with the power to transform the lives of others, to conquer their evil with love, for we are now members of the Body of Christ, called to love as Jesus loves.
Let us then be more aware of the incredible gift God has given us, and never take the Holy Eucharist for granted. It is Jesus Himself giving Himself, that the fruit of his Cross and Resurrection be borne in us: reconciliation with the Father, the forgiveness of sins, the sanctification of our souls and bodies—unto life everlasting.