This blog post is adapted from a lecture I wrote for a Level I formation course in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd.
Gift is the very nature of God. The moment in the liturgy when we celebrate communion, also called the Eucharist, is a wonderful exchange of gifts between heaven and earth, the culmination of God’s many gifts to us and our response to those gifts. See Sofia Cavalletti’s The History of the Kingdom of God Part 2: Liturgy and the Building of the Kingdom (Liturgy Training Publications, Chicago, 2013).
Every gift establishes a relationship. In the history of salvation, God’s relationship with humanity is called the covenant. Eucharist expresses the essence of the new covenant initiated by Jesus at the Last Supper and our response to his gift. God’s gift invites a response; our response completes the relationship with God called the covenant.
We can see the pattern of relationship throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament: God gives the gift, humanity responds, and God manifests a sign of the new step taken by God and humanity in our ongoing covenant relationship.
God’s Gift Response Sign
Adam & Eve Creation Work/obedience Eden
Noah Promise Worship Rainbow
Abraham a son, great nation, land Faith Circumcision
Moses liberation, commandments Worship Law,manna,fire/cloud
Mary Jesus Obedience Elizabeth’s recognition
Jesus Jesus Obedience, praise Love in liturgy and life
The chart above illustrates the dynamic of covenant relationship: God gives the gift, humans respond, and a sign signifies the growth in our relationship, the creation of a new reality. Among the great diversity of experiences recorded in Scripture, faithful people demonstrate two crucial behaviors: they listen to God and they respond. Life in the covenant, like any relationship, requires us to listen and respond. The response of each person strengthens the relationship between all humanity and God.
Since Jesus’ death and resurrection the covenant relationship between God and humanity lives on in the liturgy. The Eucharist, also called communion, is a moment in the liturgy when we live this relationship in a particularly intense way. In the Eucharist God sends the Holy Spirit over the bread and wine, and we respond by offering ourselves “Through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit” back to God. The sign, established by Jesus at the Last Supper, is love in liturgy and daily life, continuing until God’s plan for full communion of heaven and all creation reaches its completion in the Parousia: “This is my commandment: love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)
In their work with children ages 3- to 12-years-old in the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Sofia Cavalletti and Gianna Gobbi searched 20 years for an effective approach to initiate children into the reality of the Eucharist. To their surprise, the children guided them to the most essential way: the Eucharist is the place and time in which we encounter Jesus, the Good Shepherd, in a most particular way; he calls his sheep to come around the table to feed them with himself. The children’s insight coincides with the conclusion of the World Council of Churches, published in what came to be known as the B.E.M. document, that Eucharist is the sacrament of unity: God and us; not either, but both together.
In The History of the Kingdom of God, Cavalletti calls liturgy a type of cosmic breathing:
All liturgy . . . makes real that type of cosmic breathing through which we receive everything from God and everything returns to God. This is especially true of the Eucharist: The ritual makes us see this [exchange] between heaven and earth by means of certain gestures. (87)
Two liturgical gestures, epiclesis and offering, help us to see the heart of the relationship between the Good Shepherd and each one of his sheep; they reflect the heart of each person’s relationship to God. These gestures make explicit the theology of the covenant between God and humanity.
Epiclesis, the imposition of the hands over the bread and the wine, accompanies the prayer to the Father to send the Holy Spirit into the bread and wine. It makes visible the fact that we are receiving a gift from heaven, a gift that is divine, breathed out by God. In the Roman rite, this is the prayer:
And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this Eucharist. (Eucharistic Prayer III, Latin Liturgy)
In the Episcopal rite, Eucharistic Prayer C contains this prayer:
And so, Father, we who have been redeemed by him, and made a new people by water and the Spirit, now bring before you these gifts. Sanctify them by your holy Spirit to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord. (Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer C)
Our response to the gifts from the Father is called the offering or doxology. The gesture of offering is made when the priest lifts up the bread and wine and says,
Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, almighty Father, forever and ever. AMEN
The Episcopal Eucharistic Prayers B and D are nearly identical to the Roman rite:
Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, all honor and glory are yours, Almighty God and Father, in the unity of the holy Spirit, for ever and ever. AMEN (BCP Prayer D)
It is important to note that, even though the priest is the only one making the gestures, s/he makes them on behalf of the entire community. God sends the gift of the Holy Spirit to the entire church community, and we, in turn, offer the gift of our lives, in Christ, back to God. The gestures are complementary. Cavalletti calls Eucharist a kind of cosmic respiration: a breathing out from God into ourselves, and back from ourselves to God. The gestures are both cosmic: incorporating the whole of creation, and microcosmic: particular to each person. Let’s remember the words of the prayer: “Through Him, with Him and in Him”: through Him, as through the gate of the sheepfold; with Him, as the sheep of the flock are with the Shepherd; in Him, as the branches are in the True Vine, as the water is in the wine.
After the gesture of offering, the congregation says amen in response. This is sometimes called The Great Amen. With this amen, we affirm the mystery of our faith, and join our voices together to signify our participation in the offering. Like Mary’s yes to God at the Annunciation, amen is our yes to God, the offering of our selves in Christ back to God. It is the most important amen in the Eucharist.
Either before (Episcopalian) or after (Roman Catholic) the epiclesis and offering, the gesture of peace is shared horizontally. We are giving something higher than ourselves: the peace of Christ, which we receive from the Father. The vertical and horizontal gestures of the liturgy create in the congregation a living sign of the cross.
The rhythm of our life in faith is this: God gives, we respond. The sign of our covenant relationship is our love for God, shared with each other. The Eucharist is the sacrament of this unity, a means by which this unity is created. In the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the children in the atrium have led us to this understanding, which has been recognized by the World Council of Churches. In The History of the Kingdom of God, Part 2, Cavalletti writes:
The event we participate in during the eucharistic celebration is Christ’s offering to the Father and to humanity. In order that we too can take an active part in the event, we are asked to become “an everlasting gift” to God (Eucharistic Prayer III), “a living sacrifice of praise” (Eucharistic Prayer IV) resembling Christ. (85)