The Eucharist: The Prima Via of Divinization

The current state of the Church in our contemporary age, and those salient points to which she sets her vision, would suggest that the Eucharist remains at the core of all her efforts and activity.1 For the Church, established by Christ as its Head, is continually on mission to orient all people to salvation by way of communion with the Godhead, rendered by union with Christ Himself. On November 17, 2021, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted affirmatively to publish the document The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, underscoring the necessity to, once again, highlight the font and apex of the life of the Church in a time when worthy reception of the Eucharist has become a poignant nexus of discussion.

However, to effectively affirm the principles of worthy reception of the Eucharist in a modern cultural framework, it is necessary to elucidate the reason for which Christ endowed this supereminent gift of Himself. Ultimately, as the principal end of the hypostatic union in the Incarnation is to incorporate man into the divine life,2 it follows that the Eucharist, which increases charity in the soul, is the prima via of this divinization. In this essay, then, we will examine the Eucharist as the primary means of sharing in the divine nature by considering its Scriptural context, Patristic and Scholastic development, and its ecclesial implications.

Old Testament Type of Eucharistic Presence

For the Eucharist to efficaciously render what it signifies, divine life, it necessitates that it not only symbolizes the presence of Christ, but that it substantially be Christ in the fullness of His humanity and divinity. Keenly, Lawrence Feingold, in his The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion, asserts that the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation and His substantial presence in the Eucharist were proleptically present in the Old Testament. During specific moments of the Old Covenant, there would be particular theophanies of the one God which “overshadowed the holy place,” referred to as the shekinah.3  Significantly, this word, describing the divine presence among the Israelite people, finds its root in the Hebrew verb shachan, signifying a dwelling or abiding.4

As such, God was understood to “abide” with Israel wherever His presence, the shekinah, was manifested. Primarily present on Mount Sinai to Moses, it was understood that the shekinah rested upon the Holy of Holies, which harbored the Ark of the Covenant.5 Ultimately, the Ark of the covenant was a “magnificent type (foreshadowing likeness) of Christ and His presence in the Eucharist, for it contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and the rod of Aaron . . .”6 Christ’s presence as the Divine Logos, the Bread of Life, and the Eternal High Priest is already foreshadowed in the Ark of the Covenant and the shekinah. As such, the Ark of the Covenant and God’s manifestation in the shekinah reveal His intention not only to reveal Himself, but to restore divine union with man through the Humanity and Divinity of His Son, Jesus Christ, substantially given to man through the Eucharist.

New Testament Theological Purview

1. Bread of Life Discourse: John 6

The Church’s magisterial teaching on the Eucharist as the prima via to union with the divine life is founded upon John 6, namely, the Bread of Life Discourse. It is in this section of John’s Gospel that one perceives the Eucharist as intimately bound with Christ’s salvific mission: to render new life by His own life, through His very flesh and blood. First, to distinguish the Eucharistic bread from ordinary food, which perishes, Christ asserts:

Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal (John 6:26–27 RSV).

The bread that Christ gives, then, does not merely signify temporal nourishment, but is one that verily generates something infinitely greater, namely, divine life.

Francis Martin and William M. Wright, in The Gospel of John, astutely note that “the bread of life from heaven does what the manna could not: it gives eternal life, so that whoever eats this bread will live forever.”7 Furthermore, “this bread” is Christ Himself, in whom is the locus of the hypostatic union. By consuming Christ in the Eucharist, man becomes a partaker in this divine communion with human nature. As such, what Christ is by nature, man becomes in the order of grace by participation in the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Moreover, Christ asserts, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (v. 57). In this way, Jesus’ “own possession of the divine life, which is the Father’s eternal gift” is bestowed on those who consume “his eucharistic body and blood.”8

2. The Eucharist and the Mystery of the Transfiguration

Further, it is of merit to note that at the core of the Eastern Church’s understanding of theosis, or divinization, is the Mystery of the Transfiguration. Albert Paretsky, OP, in his “The Transfiguration of Christ: its Eschatological and Christological Dimensions,” avers, by directing his attention to the Ancient Fathers, that the ascent of the Mount of Transfiguration is a process of re-creation in the being of the disciple. Gregory of Nyssa determines the Transfiguration narrative as demonstrative of the transformation of the disciples by way of studying the passage’s Mosaic parallels.9 Influenced much by Origen, “Gregory finds in Moses the type for the soul in its journey towards the unknown, just as Moses journeyed toward the Promised Land.”10 Subsequently, Gregory perceived Moses’ flight from Egypt and ascent of Mt. Sinai as the “type for the progressive disengagement from carnal life whose corporeality weighs so heavily on the human soul.”11 Here it is significant to note:

In Moses’s vision of the Tabernacle he was shown a figure of the divine Word which contains all things; it is the object of contemplation whereby one is drawn into the realities of the celestial world. When Moses descends the mountain with shining face, he has exchanged his tunic of skin (an allusion to Genesis 3:21) for an ethereal tunic; the total symbol for the incessant transformation of the human soul into God by an infinitely growing participation which is never fully achieved.12

Origen, in addition, looks to the disciples’ six-day ascent of Tabor in conjunction with the image of Moses. Origen considered the six-day journey of the mountain of Transfiguration to “represent the soul’s transcendence of things of this world in its journey toward the eternal.” Origen attests:

The cloud which descends after Peter’s proposal to build three booths stands for the more divine Tabernacle wherein Jesus, the incarnate Word, has his eternal dwelling. The voice from the cloud is an instruction to all who hear to contemplate the mysteries of the eternal Tabernacle if one wishes to be transformed into that state necessary for eternal life. Moreover, this mystery is made available to everybody.13

It is then the mission of every disciple, in every age, to ascend to the summit of Tabor. In this manner, the soul relinquishes its worldly affections and progressively prepares itself for the transformation found on the peak of the mountain of Transfiguration. Just as the world was created in six days, and on the seventh God rested to draw man into contemplation, the six-day ascent of the mountain prepares man to surpass his attachments to creatures and to, ultimately, enter into communion with He who is uncreated, God. In this way, by communing with God on the ascent, nourished by the food for the journey, man is transformed into that which he consumes in the Eucharist so that he may descend the Mount bearing the glory of God for others.

Patristic and Scholastic Milieu

1. Ecclesial Communion

The Eucharistic sacrifice binds together those who receive it by the bond of charity, namely, the charity of Christ Himself. It is this same charity that begets the divine life within the ecclesial dimension of Christ’s Mystical Body. Notably, Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole, OP, asserts, in his Introduction to the Mystery of the Church, “The Eucharistic Body of Christ engenders His ecclesial Body.”14 In a similar vein, this notion of the Eucharist, as the unifying principle of the Body of Christ, is also employed by St. Augustine. As denoted by Feingold, Augustine underscores the “proper effect” of the Eucharist, namely, “the unity of the Mystical Body.”15 In this way, the effect of the reception of the Eucharist by its members binds the Mystical Body, the Church, together by the inestimable charity within it. Augustine, moreover, notes that the Eucharist not only binds the Church together through charity, but it also perfects it in charity.16 Ultimately, what the corpus Christi verum is by nature, the corpus Christi mysticum becomes by grace through worthy reception.17

2. Individual Communion

If it is truly the Body of Christ that one receives in the Eucharist, then those who receive it faithfully become one with Christ; both in His sacred humanity and divinity. The Eucharist, then, brings to perfection in the individual what was born in Baptism, namely, the divine life imparted to the soul through the indwelling presence of the Holy Trinity. Feingold rightfully affirms that it is “common Scholastic teaching that God is in all things in three ways: upholding them in being, exercising dominion over them in omnipotence, and knowing them perfectly.”18 Though God is present, then, to all things in essence, presence, and power, as affirmed by Thomas Aquinas, He is present to the believer in a yet better manner by grace and charity. This relation is greater still as it is not shared among all creatures; it is a relation between “beloved persons.”19 This relationship in the order of grace between the Indwelling Trinity and the human person, further, since it is a relationship founded upon charity, is nourished primarily through reception of the Eucharist, the prima via of divinization.

Implications in the Life of the Believer

In such a manner, as mentioned above, reception of the Eucharist presupposes and entails an invisible, albeit an authentic, relationship with Christ and a visible relationship with His Church.20 As the sacrament that nourishes divine life and the bond of charity between Christ, the Church, and the believer, it is necessary that the life begun in the human soul at Baptism be actually present. If the divine life, namely, sanctifying grace, is no longer present in the soul, then receiving the Eucharist would contradict the present reality within the person; union cannot be increased where union is not, and life cannot be nourished where life is not. By unworthily receiving the Eucharist, the believer, severed from the life of charity and intimate union with Christ, communicates to himself and others that partaking in the Eucharistic feast is more about consumption than communion.

To fruitfully experience and possess the divine life Christ desires to impart through the Eucharist, those who approach the altar of the Lord are called to foster the condition of the soul that makes divinization possible, namely, the state of grace. As such, it is necessary for the members of the Body of Christ to set their vision from the vantage of the reasons for which the Eucharist has been given, divinization and abiding union, for it is in this way that worthy reception takes on its truest meaning.

Conclusion

The Eucharist, amid a progressively secularized culture, remains the core of all the efforts and activities of the Church. In light of the document The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church, the Church in the United States, and assuredly supported by the Universal Church, attests that the Eucharist is given by Christ for the same reason He came into the world, salvation. In this frame, worthy reception in our age becomes more about the redemptive power of Christ, in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, substantially present in the Eucharist, rather than merely about those who must refrain from its reception. Ultimately, as the prima via of divinization, the Eucharist is the love of God reaching out to man, orienting Him to his authentic hope and end, eternal life.21

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 1324.
  2. Lawrence Feingold, The Eucharist: Mystery of Presence, Sacrifice, and Communion (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Academic, 2018).
  3. Feingold, The Eucharist, 40.
  4. Feingold, 40.
  5. Feingold, 40.
  6. Feingold, 41.
  7. Francis Martin and William M. Wright, The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 128 (emphasis added).
  8. Martin and Wright, The Gospel of John, 130.
  9. Albert Paretsky, OP, “The Transfiguration of Christ: Its Eschatological and Christological Dimensions,” New Blackfriars vol. 72, no. 851 (July/August 1991), 316.
  10. Paretsky, “The Transfiguration,” 316.
  11. Paretsky, 316.
  12. Paretsky, 316.
  13. Paretsky, 316.
  14. Benoît-Dominique de la Soujeole, Introduction to the Mystery of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 68.
  15. Feingold, 157.
  16. Feingold, 158.
  17. Feingold, 158. (See Augustine, Sermon 227, given on Easter: “If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive”).
  18. Feingold, 511 (See ST, I, Q. 8, a. 2).
  19. Feingold, 511.
  20. The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church (Washington D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2021), n. 48–49.
  21. John 6:54.
Fr. Matthew Gonzalez About Fr. Matthew Gonzalez

Fr. Matthew Gonzalez is a priest of the Archdiocese of Newark. He holds a BA in Catholic Theology from Seton Hall University, as well as an MDiv and an MA in Systematic Theology.

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