The Thrill of Anticipation: Encountering God in the Eucharist

How Previous Ages have seen the Eucharist
At one point during the Communist takeover in China, the Communists came to a remote village where Catholicism was lived with great vigor. They imprisoned the local priest in his own rectory, boarded up the door, and stationed a guard. Looking out from his window, the priest was horrified as he watched the soldiers proceed to desecrate the Church next door.

The troops marched past an eleven year old girl praying quietly in the back of the Church and laughing raucously, they invaded the sanctuary. They broke open the tabernacle, pulled out the ciborium and deliberately spilled the consecrated Hosts (the Eucharist) inside of it on to the floor. Father knew exactly how many Hosts were in the ciborium: thirty-two.

That evening, looking out his bedroom window and saying his own prayers, Father noticed that the little girl who had been praying in the Church earlier, was quietly returning. She slipped past the guard and entered the Church through a side door. She crawled up to the sanctuary where kneeling in adoration before one of the spilt Hosts, the little girl made a Holy Hour. At the end of her prayers, since at that time it was not permissible to receive Our Lord in the hands, the child bent down and with her tongue received Jesus from the floor. While Father prayed anxiously for her safety, the girl then snuck away.

This ritual became a nightly routine. Father would watch with great fear and prayer as the little girl returned each evening to make her Holy Hour and to receive Jesus. Thirty-one nights passed this way. On the thirty-second night, just after she received Communion, the child knocked into something, filling the Church with noise. Terrified, Father watched as the Communist guard entered the Church. In one glance, the guard took everything in and realized what had occurred. With the butt of his rifle, the guard beat the little girl to death. That child truly believed the Eucharist was God. She risked everything for him. Where did her faith come from?

At the start of the summer this year, I took twenty students on a mission trip to Nicaragua. Our last stop before heading back to the States was at a small Adoration chapel in the city of Managua. Only a few months earlier, the local priest and parishioners had been adoring Jesus in the Eucharist when a group of armed men broke into the chapel. They beat up the priest and lashed the people to their chairs with rope. They then proceeded to steal the Host from the monstrance, telling the people that they were going to use the Eucharist for a Satanic ritual.

Why? Rekindling the Thrill
What is it about the Eucharist that inspired countless martyrs—including mere children—to lay down their lives? Why do those who engage in the occult—certainly, individuals who have strayed far from Christian values, let alone from Christian faith—why do these people believe so strongly in the power of the Eucharist?

The last time I was on a major youth retreat, I literally watched hundreds of teenagers cry and raise their hands in the gesture of worship when they were brought before the Eucharist. I saw something similar occur on our own MC Kairos retreat. These young people knew they were in the presence of God when they were in the presence of the Eucharist. Yet, each Sunday morning, thousands of Catholics struggle to get out of bed. Many of our Catholic school students do not attend Mass regularly with their families. Many people go to Church and say they get “nothing out of it.” How can we explain such an incongruity?

I wonder if the Eucharist hasn’t become a bit like Christmas to some of us?

Do you remember waiting, day after day—what seemed like an eternity to a kid—for December 25th to arrive?As the day drew closer, you could hardly think of anything else and the night before Christmas, it seemed like you would never fall asleep. Do you remember holding boxes up to the light, hoping you could see through the wrapping paper to discover the contents?Do you remember lying on the floor beneath the branches of the Christmas tree, gazing up at the twinkling lights?If your family had a crèche, perhaps you played with the figurines, acting out the journey to Bethlehem, or rearranging the manger scene a hundred times.

As adults, our Christmas experience can be different. Life itself is so busy, and our time is frequently demanded by others. Work continues, family responsibilities continue, daily meal-making and bill-paying still need to be done. We all want to share in the child-like excitement for December 25th but life itself happens—and we can feel overwhelmed just keeping up with the day-to-day responsibilities. Sure we decorate the house, and bake cookies, and buy presents, but all that can often become part of a long “To Do” list. It can be merely one more element of the December routine. And when Christmas comes, we find ourselves making an effort to capture that childlike wonder. It is hard to step back from our adult activities, and really feel the meaning and joy of Christmas.

Sometimes going to Mass is like that. We want to encounter God, we want authentic spiritual experiences, and deep moments of prayer. Yet, life happens. Mass becomes routine, sometimes even just one more thing on our “To Do” list. It is hard to step away from our adult responsibilities in order to really see the meaning of the Eucharist. The extraordinary encounter with God becomes ordinary.

How do we rekindle our child-like amazement? How do we rediscover the thrill of anticipation? How do we learn to long once again for what can seem routine? Just as little kids seem to think over and over again: “Christmas is coming; Christmas is coming;” perhaps, we need to remind ourselves of God’s coming in each Eucharist.

What is the Mass? Lift up your heart…
I want to share a true story with you about my eldest niece, Xyliana. Her family usually goes to an evening Mass on Sunday, and then drive to my parent’s house for dinner afterwards. Not too long ago, they had done just this and my niece, waiting for her food to be served, was pirouetting around the living room. My Dad asked her, “Xyliana, how was Mass today?” She spun around so her skirts twirled about her legs, and said, “It was wonderful! I loved it.” “What was the best part?” my Dad asked her. Xyliana stopped dancing, cupped her hands together, and replied seriously, “I love when we lift up our hearts. That is my favorite part.” I have been going to Mass all my life, every day for the last seventeen years, but I am ashamed to say I have never thought about what it means to lift up my heart. It took a six-year-old’s explanation before I really realized why those words were important.

The words serve as a kind of bridge between the two halves of the liturgy (Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist). At the beginning of the Mass, I acknowledge my sins. Then, I hear the words of Scripture, and Father gives an instruction regarding the Gospel and readings. Only then do I hold up my heart to God. What a beautiful gesture that is! Some days, I hold up a heart that doesn’t much match the Word of God. I haven’t always been faithful to Jesus, but I hold up my heart anyway. “My heart is yours, Jesus,” I say. “Here it is. Make it new. Create a clean heart in me, O God.” Some days I lift up a heart that is brimming over with joy and love. Life feels good. And so I hold up my heart to God and say, “Here I am, Lord. Keep me in this joy. Fill me with your peace. Send me wherever you want.” Some days I lift up a heart that seems so heavy and burdened. I hand it over to Jesus and say, “I am tired, Jesus. You are asking a lot of me. Carry me for a while. Help me through this suffering.” And Jesus is there, really cradling my heart in his own. The important thing is not what sort of heart I lift up, but simply that I do hold it up and give it to Jesus. When I do this, deliberately coming to Mass with the intention of giving my heart to God, it changes the way I experience the Mass.

I can come to Mass with my heart all guarded and protected. I can try to keep my heart safe, and closed off from anything that might affect it. Or I can I come to Mass and give God everything—the beautiful in me, and the not so beautiful in me. It is my choice. Jesus never forces us to love. He never forces himself on us. The truth is, though, I only really receive the graces of the Mass, I only experience the power and love of God which can make all things new, when I open my heart to him. When I deliberately lift up my heart to God, Mass isn’t routine, or one more thing on my “To Do” list. It is an experience that literally changes my life and my heart.

Passover
For the Jewish people, the greatest feast of all is Passover. Every year they commemorate this event. When they do so, the children are reminded to hear the story, not as what “God did for our ancestors,” but as what “God did for me.” This is essential to how Jews celebrate the past. They don’t merely recall an event in the way that we might recount the fact of the first astronauts landing on the moon. Rather, a Jewish feast is meant to bring the individual outside of time, and back to the original moment of saving grace.

My Dad is a convert from Judaism, and so I grew up learning a little bit of Hebrew, singing the Shema each night as part of our family’s daily prayer, and celebrating the great feasts. I have vivid memories of partaking in the Passover ceremony, and being admonished, “Do not say this is how God saved our forefathers when they were slaves in Egypt. Rather, say this is how God saved me when I was a slave.”

The Passover is a yearly reliving of how the Israelites were slaves, and how with God’s help, they escaped bondage and were led to freedom. If you recall from the book of Exodus, Moses was sent to tell Pharaoh to let the people go. The Pharaoh was also driven to reach this conclusion by suffering the effects of various plagues each time he refused Moses’ request. Finally, Pharaoh received his tenth warning. He was told that unless he freed the Jews, every first born male of man and beast alike would die that night. Pharaoh’s heart was obstinate, and he refused to listen. The Israelites were commanded to find a lamb without blemish, and to slaughter it. The blood of the lamb was to be sprinkled on their doorposts, and each family was to eat its flesh. When the angel of death saw a home marked with the blood of the lamb, he would pass over that house, knowing it and its inhabitants belonged to God. The Passover relives this moment of God’s love for his people, and how God brought them to freedom.

The Passover is intimately linked to the Mass. Jesus is actually given the name the “Lamb of God” and his passion and death occur on Passover. Similar to the unblemished lamb who was slaughtered to save the Israelites, Jesus—though without sin or blemish—lays down his life for us. He suffers the cruel pain of crucifixion to save us from an eternity of suffering, to save us from the consequences of our own poor choices. It is the blood of Jesus that brings us salvation.

The Jews relive the Passover, but Mass is even more than simply reliving the past. At every Mass, we are literally brought outside of time, and back to the moment Christ offered himself on Calvary. We stand at the crucifixion, although in an un-bloody manner, and experience the depths of God’s love, and self-giving.

The Jews weren’t merely told to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on their doorposts; they were bidden to eat its flesh. Likewise, we don’t just accept the death of Christ, and allow his saving grace to wash us clean, we are also called to “eat his flesh and drink his blood.”

In John 6, Jesus told us:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him… the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. (Jn 6:51, 55-57)

Did you catch that? Jesus is the Living Bread. What does that mean? Whoever heard of a living piece of bread!? You see, we often think of, and treat, the Eucharist like a thing, like a dead object. But the Eucharist is alive. 1 Jesus doesn’t give us a dead piece of flesh, he gives us his very self in all its entirety. When I go to Mass, and receive the Eucharist, it is not merely a symbol of God’s love, or a gesture of my own belief. No, I am face to face with the living God.

Receiving the Eucharist is the most intimate encounter a person will ever experience. The living God sees our hearts perfectly. The person who is closest to you in the entire world, doesn’t know or love you as much as God does. I know that when I receive the Eucharist, God looks at me and wants me—he wants me because that is what the Eucharist is: God giving his life for me. The Eucharist is God proclaiming my worth and coming to spend personal time with me.

Of course, some days if you were watching me go to Mass, you wouldn’t know I was meeting a living person. I am distracted and thinking about what I have to do that day. Or sometimes I am not even thinking about anything important. Instead, I am getting sidetracked by what the person in front of me is wearing, or the pattern on the floor tiles. I have sadly received Communion as if Jesus were just a piece of bread, a mere object. When I go to Mass that way, the Mass doesn’t mean very much to me.

That is a problem with me, though; it is not a problem with the Mass. Jesus is there at every Mass where he actually offers his life to me. He really comes to me personally to give me an abundance of grace. When I make an effort to pay attention to the living God whom I encounter at Mass, when I receive the Eucharist knowing I am meeting Jesus—really and truly—the Mass becomes the most incredible moment of my day.

Have you ever had the experience of being really busy, and totally focused on some task, when a child interrupts you? Only, they interrupt you not because they need anything, but because they wanted to give you a hug, and say “I love you.” There is this instant feeling of emotional release. Everything in your life suddenly falls into perspective, filling you with an abiding joy. For me, that is the best image of what it is like to receive the Eucharist when I pay attention to Jesus, lifting up my heart to him. I encounter a person who wants nothing more than to wrap his arms about me, and say how much he loves me. Every Mass is Jesus pulling me out of my busyness and self-absorption, and into his loving embrace. Meeting the living Jesus makes my whole day different.

Effects of the Mass: A Ripple Through One’s Day
The Sisters go to Mass daily. For us, missing Mass is incredibly rare, but when it happens, I notice the difference. Assuming you are used to having breakfast every day, imagine what your day would be like if you suddenly skipped a meal. You would feel physically weak, causing your body to find ways to protest the lack of nutrition. You wouldn’t have the same amount of energy, with your whole day seeming slightly off-kilter.

The person who is in the habit of skipping meals may not feel like they notice a difference, but scientifically, we can prove their body misses nutrients. If they continue that kind of lifestyle, they will eventually harm their body, damaging their overall health. Similarly, if you are in the habit of missing Sunday Mass, you may not notice the difference because you have gotten used to going without it, but your soul knows it. And, eventually, it will catch up with you. People who are healthy, eat regular meals. People who are close to God, regularly spend time with him. Because the Sisters and I are used to receiving Jesus every day at Mass, on the rare occasion when we can’t, our whole day feels wrong. It is very much like I skipped breakfast: I don’t have as much to give my students or the people I encounter during the day.

What does the Mass do for us? Picture a stone dropped into a calm body of water. The stone falls to the bottom ceasing to move. But the ripples it caused still go out. In theory, if the water continued into infinity, so would the ripples. Or picture a gong being hit. The gong is only struck once, but the sound it makes reverberates after it has been struck. If you put your ear close to the metal, you can hear it vibrating and humming for even longer. Scientists say the vibrations of sound continue even after our ear ceases to pick up any noise; the sound goes on and on and on. These are images for what happens at the Mass. Father says, “Go, the Mass is ended.” We all leave the Church, but the effects of the Mass continue. The Mass isn’t a mere 40 minutes or so, and then it is done. Rather, the Mass is like a mallet striking the gong of our soul, and its effects reverberate through our days and the whole of our lives.

The Mass as Self-Offering
The Mass is Jesus’ self-offering, his loving acceptance of the Father’s will for our salvation. One of the graces I receive from the Mass is that I am given a special strength to offer myself to God, and to others. When I go to Mass, it is easier to say “yes” to God’s will, and it is easier to treat others with kindness and love. It is not that I am constantly thinking about offering myself to the Father as Jesus does, it is that I have a deep abiding grace to do so. When I come to class with the “most awesome lesson” ever planned, but my students just aren’t ready to receive that lesson that day, I have the grace to respond in love, adjusting my plans without getting upset (too much). When I have a great plan for what the Sisters and I are going to do after school, and then we get stuck in traffic for an hour, I have the grace to accept it. I have the grace to make the worst moments of my day tolerable by seeing how God has a plan at every moment. I have the grace to take the ordinary, and out of that ordinariness, make something beautiful for God.

The Mass gives us the grace to live out our vocation. How so? The effect of the Mass in our daily lives is incredible. For one thing, the Mass strengthens my heart, making me more loving. It gives me graces to deal with conflict, and resist temptation. It is not that going to Mass is “magic” in any way, but that during the Mass I encounter the living God. If I let my heart be moved by that encounter, I can’t help but be changed for the better. We become like those we spend time with, which is just as true as when we spend time with God.

The other day, someone chewed me out, and I was left feeling hurt by the experience. I went to Mass with my mind racing, still feeling mad. There was a part of me that wanted to stay angry, nursing my wounds caused by this injustice towards me. But I couldn’t look at God who had died for love of me, and refuse to love the person who upset me. Encountering God at Mass both impelled me and gave me the grace to let go. That happens to me often. The Mass challenges and enables me to love.

Power of Prayer
Another amazing effect of the Mass is that “my” prayer becomes the prayer of the whole Church. Everyone’s Mass attendance helps everyone else present at that same Mass. On the days that we are distracted and pray badly, our words are still united to Jesus’ prayer, and to that of the whole Church. Our inability to pray well is made up by Jesus, and by all those who are praying well. That is part of the glory of being one body in Christ. The prayers of the persecuted Christians in Iraq, attending Mass at the risk of their own lives, are united to my prayers today.

Immediately after Father encourages us to lift up our hearts, the priest says to God:

And so, with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory, as without end we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts, Heaven and earth are filled with your glory.

Did you catch that? The angels are ceaselessly singing God’s praises. At the Mass, we join with all the hosts of Heaven in that praise. We are outside of our time, and inside of God’s time, fully united to Heaven. That is not just one with the angels, but with all of the saints. If someone you love has died, the closest you will ever get to them again while you remain on earth is at the Mass. I love that!

A few years ago, a student who I was very close to, died unexpectedly in a freak car accident. It was the summer after his graduation from high school. His name was Alex. Everyone liked him; he was the captain of the high school football team; a faithful but normal, crazy teenager who was looking forward to life at the university. I saw Alex my last day on mission before heading back to Michigan for the summer. Alex said to me: “Sister, I am going to keep my faith strong in college. You will see. I’m not going to let this die.” His friends told me that during the summer, Alex began visiting the local church, stopping in to talk to Jesus in the Eucharist. They said he would be wearing his ratty flip-flops, all gross and sweaty from a workout, but he would go to the chapel to pray.

Alex was nineteen when he died. Nineteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to die. I never got to say goodbye to him. And that hurts. There is so much I would have liked to say to him had I known. But for us who have faith, it is never too late. Death doesn’t end relationships; it only changes them. Alex lives. At every Mass, I am with Alex, and he has heard, many times, the words I never got to say to him while he was with us here. Alex is still close to me, and his prayers have helped me often as a teacher, and as a Sister. I know that when I go to Heaven, he will be there to greet me. My relationship isn’t the same as it was when Alex was alive, but it is every bit as real. I love how Alex is there with me at every Mass, and how he prays for and with me now. That is true for every saint in Heaven. They are present at every Eucharist. “My” Mass is being offered with Alex, with Mother Teresa, with Saints Dominic and Francis—with Jesus Christ himself. Can you imagine then how powerful the Mass is? It is the greatest prayer on earth. Even if I am distracted, I am part of that great prayer; I am changed when I go to Mass.

Alex’s little sister is now a novice in my religious community. She has an infectious laugh and twinkling eyes. She is one of the most beautiful, joyful people I know. She said to me recently, “Sister, I never got to know my brother as an adult … but through prayer, I am learning to know him. I can’t explain it, but at Mass, he is there.” That is how I feel when I try to describe how all the angels and saints are present at the Eucharist. I can’t explain it well, but I have experienced it, and it is real.

I receive so much when I go to Mass. I am also able to give that much when I go to Mass. You see, when I pray for my Sisters, family, students, friends, or strangers at Mass, I am not just offering “my” prayers; I am offering the prayers of the whole Church. I have available to me all the graces Jesus won at his Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

Conclusion
Allow me to recount a story from my childhood. My father was in the middle of doctoral studies with five little children at home to provide for at that time. As you can imagine, money was scarce, and my parents literally lived from paycheck to paycheck. It was Advent and my parents were overwhelmed, stressed, and fighting with one another as they tried to do all the normal “Christmas preparations” while keeping on top of the finances. The greater the demands of the season, the more my parents found themselves arguing and worried. Finally, they realized what they were doing just wasn’t working. So they called a “family council.” They told us that they just didn’t have money that year. So, instead of presents, and a tree, and Christmas vacation, we were going to do something different. We were just going to focus on Jesus’ birth and prepare our hearts for him. It was probably one of the best Advents of my life. I remember how we took leftover oatmeal boxes—the round circular kind—and cut them in half to make mangers. We covered the oatmeal box “manger” with tissue paper, gold stars, and our childish drawings. Each evening, we would receive a single piece of straw for every sacrifice, or good deed, we had done that day for Jesus. Everyone wanted his or her manger to be full of soft straw on Christmas day. We made handmade ornaments, sang Christmas carols, and had family discussion about the Mass readings for each day. There was no more arguing or worry. We just focused on Jesus.

As Christmas drew near, people at the parish began asking us children if we were excited for Santa’s coming and presents. “Oh,” we responded innocently, “we’re not doing that this year. We’re just preparing for Jesus.” As you can imagine, the good parishioners saw through those words in an instant. The week before Christmas, they started showing up at our house bearing a tree and garlands, as well as bags and bags of presents. There were so many gifts, Mom said, that we could barely see the tree. There were so many gifts that particular Christmas Eve that my parents called another family council. They asked us if we wanted to take some of the presents to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. To this day, I can’t remember what our living room looked like filled with packages, but I do remember sitting in the back of our station wagon being so excited that we had something to give to the poor children who didn’t have presents like we did.

If you are going to Mass, and don’t think you are getting anything out of it, perhaps—like my Christmas story—it is time to change your focus. It is time to re-center on Jesus. The Mass is truly the most powerful and beautiful prayer in the entire world. The Mass lifts up my heart, while the Living Bread—Jesus Himself—comes to me in the Eucharist. The next time you go to Mass, I would encourage you to ask God to help you pray the Mass as you have never prayed it before. Hold up your heart to God, and see what glorious things he will do in you. Christ makes all things new. If we let him, he will make each one of us like him.

  1. “When I come to a human heart in Holy Communion, My hands are full of all kinds of graces which I want to give to the soul. But souls do not even pay any attention to Me; they leave Me to Myself and busy themselves with other things…They treat me as a dead object” – St. Faustina, Diary, 1385
Sr. Teresa Benedicta Block, OP About Sr. Teresa Benedicta Block, OP

Sr. Teresa Benedicta Block, OP, has been a member of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, for the past 15 years. Her community was started in 1997 and has grown from four to over 100 Sisters. The Sisters' apostolate is spiritual motherhood, the preaching and teaching of truth. Sr. Teresa Benedicta is currently teaching morality at Marin Catholic High School.

Comments

  1. Matthew Miller says:

    Thank you, Sister, for another beautiful article.

  2. Kevin Caggino says:

    I read your article and I thank OUR FATHER for your obedience for through your article the HOLY SPIRIT brought OUR LORD JESUS to me. Yes, the Mass is the greatest prayer and I am just beginning to see OUR LORD in the HOLY EUCHARIST. I have returned to the Church after many years of wondering and everything is very different now that I feel like I am learning a lot of new things I had forgotten all because of OUR LORD’S MERCY AND LOVE. I have a new devotion and consecration to our BLESSED MOTHER and SHE is bringing me to OUR LORD.

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  2. […] The troops marched past an eleven year old girl praying quietly in the back of the Church and laughing raucously, they invaded the sanctuary. They broke open the tabernacle, pulled out the ciborium and deliberately spilled the consecrated Hosts (the Eucharist) inside of it on to the floor. Father knew exactly how many Hosts were in the ciborium: thirty-two.…more […]