There is probably no more moving or touching celebration within the rich liturgical tradition of our Church than the ordination of a priest. This coming Saturday our local Church of Orange will gather around our Bishop to ordain two men, chosen from God’s Holy People, for service in our Diocese. My own ordination, 44 years ago, at times seems as if it was only yesterday. Gathered with family and friends, the long-awaited moment - for some, prepared for by eight and is some cases even twelve years of study and preparation, finally arrived. While the central symbolic gesture of the ordination ceremony is the ancient laying on of hands on the head of the candidate by the Bishop together with the prayer of consecration that follows, there is another moment in the ordination liturgy that powerfully brings home what is at the heart of priestly ministry. Taking a chalice filled with wine and a paten with altar breads on it - the newly ordained priest kneels before the bishop as cup and bread and handed to him to be touched. The Bishop says to him:
Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord’s cross.
With these words and the symbols presented, the newly ordained is reminded of the great responsibility and privilege entrusted to him as servant leader in the midst of God’s people. He is to take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord. He is charged with leading the community of faith in that act of Thanksgiving that is so central to shaping our lives and our identities as women and men of the new creation. He is called to break the bread and share the cup in the Lord’s name by keeping the memory of the Lord’s death and resurrection alive in our minds and hearts in the gift of the Eucharist.
Flowing out from the ministry of Jesus and rooted in his paschal journey from life, through death and back to life again, the Eucharist not only is central to the life and ministry of every priest, but in the words of the Second Vatican Council it is for all the baptized: a sacrament of faithful relationships, a sign of unity, a bond of divine love, a special Easter meal. In it, “Christ is received, the inner self is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
On this Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of the Lord, all of us are invited to reflect on the indispensable place that the Eucharist should have in our lives as Catholic Christians.
Our Church teaches that first and foremost the Eucharist is a sacrificial meal that symbols forth the living presence of the risen Lord in the Word of God proclaimed and the bread and cup shared. While we may sometimes think of the word “Eucharist” as a noun, the objective reality of the Lord’s real presence under the forms of bread and wine- it is far more a verb - the dynamic action of God’s holy people gathering in the Lord’s name to be faithful to the mandate given us by the Lord himself on the eve of his passion and death - “to do this meal in memory” of him. As the Council so powerfully reminded us, we are never passive spectators when we gather for the Eucharistic celebration, but rather, active participants through common gestures, spoken and sung responses, the engagement of our minds and hearts in this moment of praise and thanks. While the privilege to preside over the Eucharist is given to ordained ministers, all the baptized are called to be active celebrants in this moment of grace and blessing.
Flowing from the Eucharistic action, we Catholics believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, the simple earthly elements of bread and wine become for us the risen presence of the Lord in our midst - first as food for our journey in life so that we might grow into the likeness of the one whom we receive, deepening our solidarity and friendship with him; and second, as an abiding presence to be adored in prayer and praise. Orthodox Catholic belief firmly holds that following the Eucharistic celebration the real presence of the Risen Lord continues to be present in the elements. That is why we reserve the Eucharistic bread in the tabernacle so that it might be taken to the sick and homebound and revered in prayer.
While our Church possesses a rich and venerable theology on the Holy Eucharist, for me as a priest there is probably no more powerful witness to the centrality of this wondrous gift and promise from the Lord than to experience it received for the first time by a young first communicate. As he or she ever so carefully and reverently says “Amen” and cradles the loving Lord in his or her small hands, and then receives the living Christ with the simple and trusting faith and fervor of a child - no words of theology are needed. The gift of love is received in love and the life of the Church continues to unfold for another generation.
My brothers and sisters, may our reflection this day, deepen our love for the Lord in the Eucharist. May we be renewed in spirit by this wondrous sacrament. May it strengthen our hope for the day when no signs or symbols will be needed but we will come to see the Lord face to face in the Kingdom of his glory.