|The Kiss, Gustav Klimt|
My priest friend understood one of the truths that far too many Christians live their lives completely unaware of - the Church is the Bride of Christ. The sexual union between spouses is an image, a foretaste, that God gives us of the even deeper union Jesus longs to effect between Himself and us, His Church. And where does that happen? The Eucharist.
Look at what Paul taught about the sacramentality of marriage:
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph.5:28-33)If that shocks you or sexual union somehow seems inappropriate when speaking of the spiritual life - get over it! That's how we Catholics roll - from the writings of St. Paul, to the great mystics and Scriptural commentators of the Middle Ages, right on down to Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body! All of creation speaks of God - but nothing like man and woman, and especially their spousal union. It is a created image both of the Oneness, the Unity, between the Three Persons of the Trinity as well as between God and us. The Old Testament frequently likens God to Israel's Husband (Ezek.16:17-19 is a powerful example) and you must recall how John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the Bridegroom (Jn.3:29) - an image which Jesus went on to use for Himself in His parables. (This pervading sense that sex is somehow "dirty," and incompatible with holiness comes not from Catholicism but American culture's roots in Puritanism. Remember, we Catholics are the ones with the huge families - and how do you think we get those!?)
In the Eucharist Jesus comes to us, His Bride, like the groom on his wedding night, "This is My Body." The Eucharist is His means for effecting a one flesh, spousal union with us:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (Jn.6:53-57)In the Eucharist Jesus enters our bodies and souls in a manner analogous to the way Father, Son, and Spirit compenetrate each other within the Trinity! We hear Jesus petition the Father for unity among the members of His Church at the Last Supper, when after establishing the Eucharist, He prayed, "... that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You, that they also may be in Us" (Jn.17:21).
I was reminded of the profound unity the Eucharist gives us with Jesus when I visited a non-denominational church last weekend. I had a wonderful time worshiping God in song, and listening to an associate pastor break open James 1:19-25. It really was an excellent Liturgy of the Word. And then ... and then ... we sang another song and dismissed. We had built to a crescendo, the Word of God had been proclaimed, but then the Word did not become flesh (Jn.1:14), Jesus did not become "real food" and "real drink" for our bodies and souls (Jn.6:55).
What my non-denominational brothers and sisters have is real. God is present to them and they hear Him speaking in His Word - as we do in the first half of the Mass. It's simply that they do not realize how much more Jesus wants to give them, the deeper union He wants to give them with Himself in the Eucharist. It is analogous to a bride who basks in the pleasure of kisses and caresses from her beloved, but never goes on to consummate their union - never knows the greater bliss of intercourse and the even deeper union it will effect between she and her groom.
But once we understand the reality of Jesus' presence in the Eucharist - that He is really, truly, substantially present and that He joins us to Himself, makes us part of His Self-offering to the Father - then it becomes the center of our spiritual lives. Like the saints, we begin to enter into this union with the Lord more frequently; Sunday Mass is not enough. Our personal prayer, our Bible study, singing, praying of the Rosary - all is important for deepening our relationship with the Lord; but they climax in Eucharistic worship. Scripture records only two specific directives that Jesus gave the Apostles regarding how He wanted them to worship:
- "This then is how you should pray, 'Our Father, Who art in heaven ...'" (Mt.6:9)
- "This is My Body ... this is My Blood ... do this" (1 Cor.11:23-25)