Every Thursday, before I took my Lenten fast from blogging, I have been going through the Mass, offering a commentary particularly on how the Mass informs and shapes our whole Christian life.
We have come in this commentary to the very heart of the Eucharistic Prayer, approaching the very moment when the bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body and Blood of Christ. Immediately before this moment we pray:
Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect; make it spiritual and acceptable, so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
There is a great deal packed into this prayer—so much so that books could be written about it. There is the basic reality of the Eucharist itself presented here: that the bread and wine really, truly, become his Body and Blood. The heart of our Catholic faith, that God has made Himself that available to us, has given Himself to us at such a depth.
There is the all the ‘deprecatory’ language, all the ‘be pleased, we pray’, and the asking God to approve our offering. It is so crucial for us to always keep in mind the utter graciousness of God in doing all this for us. It is not some automatic thing, like a vending machine: we put in bread and wine, say some prayers, make some ritual gestures and out comes the Eucharist. It is, rather, an encounter of humanity with God’s merciful love.
He is faithful to His covenant and always comes through for us, always gives Himself to us in this intimate and startling way, but nonetheless there is nothing of this that is automatic, nothing that is our right or our due or something that ‘just happens because’. Nothing of the sort! God loves us, and has pity upon us, and so has permanently and radically adopted this stance of mercy towards us, most fully expressed in His gift of the Eucharist.
What is this business, though, about making the offering ‘spiritual’? What’s that about? In our confused minds we can think of spiritual as being the opposite of material, but that doesn’t make sense—the bread and wine don’t disappear in a puff of mysticism. What does this word ‘spiritual’ mean? It also gets used these days as the opposite of 'religious', but in this context that doesn't make a whole lot of sense, either.
I could write a book about that (in fact, I want to write a book about it, and hope to get to it eventually). ‘Spiritual’ is in fact the contrary (not the contradictory) of ‘material’. Material reality, by definition, is finite, divisible, corruptible, and local. Spiritual is boundless, indivisible, incorruptible, and potentially omnipresent.
The whole sum of reality, in our faith, is that God, who is Pure Spirit, has taken a portion of material reality—the human person—and ‘spiritualized’ us, made us capable of bearing the qualities of spiritual reality in our materiality. This is our creation in God’s likeness, and our subsequent redemption and adoption as God’s children in Christ.
When we pray that the bread and wine become spiritual, we are praying that ordinary material stuff—bread that will go moldy in time, wine that will turn to vinegar, and at any rate are simply blunt material objects, will bear the full weight of pure spiritual reality—the very life of God. And in that, in our offering and reception of these gifts made so spiritual, that life of God flows through the life of the Church, and the effect of divine communion is achieved.
This is the Eucharist, and it is the very heart of our faith. But the rest of our lives—the whole of human life in virtually every dimension—is meant to be ‘spiritualized’ in just this way. Nothing of our humanity, even the most mundane and earthy, is meant to be ‘simply material’, simply a matter of this life and its physical exigencies and limitations. Every last particle of human life is meant to be a vessel of God’s life and love, meant to become something that opens up to the boundless, the infinite, the eternal, that which cannot be diminished or divided but is a whole, single reality.
Anyhow, like I say I really want to write a book about this, if I can ever find the time. But this little prayer of the Mass, which we can easily pass over quickly on our way to the Institution narrative that follows it (stay tuned to next week!), holds the key to it all, is in fact the very pattern of our life as Christians.