January 6, 2023

Understanding the shape of our eucharistic celebration

The old and the new: Resources for Advent and Christmas

It is a desired goal of the Eucharistic Revival to increase devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. As a community the celebrates the Eucharist, what can we do that might lead to this increased devotion? It seems to me that the more we understand the shape of our eucharistic celebration, the more we can appreciate what is going on.

The Shape of the Liturgy, a book by Gregory Dix, has been helpful to me as an aid to understanding. The liturgy of the Eucharist helps us to experience what Jesus did at the last supper. Too often we focus on the few words he said, and in so doing we can get lost.

The last supper was comprised of a seven-fold action: take bread, bless, break, share, take wine, bless, share. Early on in the history of the liturgy, these seven actions became four: take, bless, break, share. If we want to increase devotion in Mass and beyond in Exposition, an awareness of how these four acts play out can help us to rediscover the awe and wonder we should have in the presence of Jesus in the sacrament.

At the last supper, our Lord took up the bread and then the cup. I have heard that some people get upset if we talk too much about bread and wine in conjunction with the Eucharist, but this action of taking up the elements and saying that these and not something else are the basis for Christ to become our food is at least worth a thought. As the prayers tell us, these are the fruit of the earth – the wheat and grapes grew out of God’s good earth, were watered by the rains and warmed by the sun. The Sacrament of the Altar is therefore something that comes from God’s doing. But at the same time, wheat is not bread, nor are grapes wine. It is in this dance between creation and creativity – between the earth and the people of earth – that brings us the elements for the sacrament. And while this part of the liturgy is not the central prayer, if we don’t treat the elements with a certain reverence even now, what are we saying about the holiness of the sacrament? A procession with the gifts, the prayers as they are placed on the altar, songs that link what we are doing to the feast or season – all of this matters.

The second gesture is a blessing prayer. The words of Jesus are part of this prayer, and of course are central, but the rest of the words are there for a reason too. If we aren’t adding out own thanksgivings in the preface when the priest is listing reasons for giving thanks, then the prayer loses some of its formational power. So too with the memorial and intercessory aspects. We need to study the prayer and pray it in all its variety so that we have a full understanding that Christ becomes present as food for our journey of life and beyond, as food for a communion sacrifice, and the sign of our memorial of what Jesus did. The words and gestures of this prayer need to be clear and strong.

Third, the breaking of the bread was the first name for the Mass, and it was that gesture that allowed the disciples on the road to Emmaus to recognize Jesus. Therefore, this gesture, which at some celebrations seems not to be anything more than a practicality since the host is too big to consume whole, this gesture needs to be one that allows us all to recognize Jesus in the action which allows the species of the host to be shared. There should be nothing rushed or perfunctory about it – and the Lamb of God is sung precisely to make that clear.

Finally comes the sharing – Communion. The Communion Song is the way in which each of us indicates that your act of receiving Communion has an effect in my life and vice versa. It is why the song is to start when father receives communion and last as long as we can. Each affects all. Each receives Christ in the presence of all, and in a real sense can only approach the altar knowing the support of all.

If we can increase the devotion to Christ in the celebration of Mass, we have a hope of seeing the value in spending time before the tabernacle or before the altar when the Blessed Sacrament is shown for our devotion.

Dr. Glenn CJ Byer
Dr. Glenn CJ Byer

Glenn CJ Byer has written widely on the liturgy, including articles on the meaning of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, marriage preparation, the renovation of churches and the anointing of the sick. He speaks widely on the role of lay ministers in the Mass.