The bibliographic information for the book under review in this piece of work is: Raniero Cantalamesa, The Eucharist, Our Sanctification. Collegeville , Minnesota : The Liturgical Press, 1993. The author is a former professor at the University of Milan and currently serves as the preacher to the papal household.
The author in this book sets out from the beginning to make a bold claim that “The Eucharist is coextensive with the history of salvation.” (p. 6). The rest of the book is an impressive attempt to qualify this axiom. He traces the correlation between the Eucharist and History of Salvation from the Old Testament period all the way to the eschatological era. Consequently, the preliminary pages of the first chapter revisit the Jewish Passover while the last Chapter focuses on the waiting for the Lord’s coming. The main body of the book discusses in great detail the role of the Eucharist in the Church today. It divulges precious content that helps to clarify the mystery behind the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine. Towards the end, the author elucidates the consequences of the Eucharist as a real presence of Jesus Christ. On this issue of real presence, he states in a way that is both sober and somber that the mystery is so delicate and sentimental “that words might even destroy it.” (p. 89). Finally, the book closes with the contemplation on the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. This is the waiting and the longing for the return of the Lord best described as the ‘eschatological tension’. (p. 93)
As stated above, this book provides an insight into the co-extensiveness of the Eucharist and the historicity of salvation. This is to say that “the entire history of salvation is present in the Eucharist and the Eucharist is present in the entire history of salvation.” (p. 6). Since history is represented in time, there are three main ways of looking at the presence of the Eucharist in relation to time. These are:
Ø The Eucharist as pre-figured in the Old Testament
Ø The Eucharist as an event in the New Testament
Ø The Eucharist as a Sacrament in the Church
The Old Testament is replete with figures that could be viewed as a precursor to the Eucharist. The main figure is that of the Exodus story with the celebration of the Passover. The Eucharist derives some of its major constitutive elements including its nomenclature from the Last Supper which the Israelites celebrated in Egypt . In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the new Passover lamb. Thus it was right and fitting that Jesus instituted the Eucharist in a Passover context. Another example in the Old Testament is the manna that the Israelites ate in the desert. Jesus refers to this in one of his bread of life discourses. Even more explicitly, is the figure of Melchizedek in the book of Genesis who offers the sacrifice of bread and wine. As we know, there can never be a legitimacy to any Eucharistic celebration in the absence of bread and wine.
The presence of the Eucharist in the New Testament exhibits the transitioning of the ‘figures’ in the Old Testament to a reality in the person of Jesus Christ. It is called an “event because it is a fact unique in both time and space, that took place once for all in the course of history and can never be repeated.” (p. 10, 11). It can be said and rightfully so, that the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross changed the course and content of history forever. Life would simply never be the same again. Words cannot do justice to fully explain what took place on the cross. (p. 12). That event, characterized by those words of Jesus, ‘It is all finished’, cannot be fully comprehended by human reason. Surely, we have to bow to the mystery of this salvific event.
As a sacrament the Eucharist provides those of us who are living now with the opportunity to relive or represent the mystery of the ‘Christ event”. It makes sense that two thousand years after the death and resurrection of Christ, our participation in this event can only be through a sacrament. Only those who are two thousand years old could make a case for having had the immediate experience of Christ’s death and resurrection. Otherwise, the rest of us have to rely on the benefit of the sacrament through a liturgical celebration. As a result, while “history reveals what happened once and how it happened, the liturgy keeps the past from being forgotten. (p. 12). How blessed are we, to be contemporaneous with the Passover as it was celebrated both by the Israelites and Jesus many years ago. This fact, which sounds unthinkable to human reason is made possible through its sacramentality and can be witnessed through the eyes of faith: we walk by faith and not by sight. By the work of the Holy Spirit, the ‘event on the cross’ is not an end in itself but it continues to be efficacious to this very day, thanks to the liturgy of the Eucharist. (p. 14).
The second chapter through the fourth Chapter of this book deals with the mystery of the Eucharist under the symbols of bread and wine. The author does a superb job explicating the power of the symbols once consecration has taken place. The actions of Jesus as celebrated at the Last Supper followed the sequence of taking, blessing, breaking and giving. (p. 17). He gave the disciples his body to eat and his blood to drink under the species of bread and wine. Raniero Cantalemessa makes the point that the body signifies life and the blood that is shed signifies death. As it is known, the shedding of one’s blood does lead to death. Consequently, the “Eucharist is the mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord, that is of the life and death of the Lord!” Having established this beautiful connectedness, the third chapter proceeds to deal with the beauty of communion.
As communicants of the Lord’s Supper, we have the benefit of becoming ‘what we eat’. (p. 27). Jesus promised that if we eat his body and drunk his blood, we live in him and he in us. (John: 6). The kenotic act of Jesus requires of us each to receive all that he emptied out. It is a gift that was freely given to us and all we have to do is to faithfully be on the receiving end. When we receive the body and blood of Jesus, which was given up for us, we become ‘corporeal and consanguineous with him’. (p. 30). Not only do we receive Jesus then but through Jesus we also receive the Father. It is indeed sobering that every time we have the Liturgy, Jesus gives himself to us over and over again. This is a sign of great love. The words of St. John Chrysostom helps to put the power of this love in context when he writes: “Without the special help of God’s grace, no human could bear the fire of this sacrifice without being completely destroyed…after Communion, a Christian is like a lion emitting flames from his mouth: the devil cannot bear his sight.” (p. 35).
The fourth chapter almost to its entirety zeroes in on communication under both species. It leaves no doubt that the author believes that the practice of receiving communion under both species is supposed to have been universally applied by ‘yesterday’. Unfortunately, history and his story tell a different story. In fact, the practice was at one time officially suppressed in 1621. (p. 43). Thanks to St. Thomas Aquinas and later on the Council of Trent, it was clarified that the reception of communion under one species was tantamount to receiving Christ in toto. However, the author insists that explanations and clarifications based on credible philosophical nuances, should not abrogate the original words of Jesus used at the institution per se. (p. 44). Jesus commanded that both species be consumed. It is kind of hard to argue with this position. The author goes ahead to suggest other ways through which the blood of Jesus could be honored in the Church today to give it a more potent perception. He floats around the idea of the adoration of blood in a transparent chalice and the procession of the blood in the company of ‘ corpus Christi ‘. (p, 49)
One of the reasons we commemorate the Last Supper is because Jesus commanded us to do so. This is explicitly expressed in the words, “Do this in memory of me.” (p. 55) This command of memory is the title of the fifth chapter of the book. The Eucharist is a memorial that dates back to the Jewish Passover and reenacts in a special way what Jesus himself did at the last supper. Most importantly, it is a memorial that unites us with Jesus through contemplation. It is this dimension of contemplation that makes adoration such a central activity; “to contemplate is to intuitively fix the mind on the divine reality and relish his presence.” (p. 61). Through contemplation and adoration the participants get the chance to unite themselves with the Trinity in a unique and mystagogical way.
Jesus’ command: ‘do this in memory of me!’ is reiterated in a different way in the Johannine Last Supper account. In John 13:15, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and then says: “I have given you an example, that you should also do what I have done to you.” (p. 64). There is a shift here from “liturgy to action, from memory to imitation.” (p. 65) This aspect of action and imitation brings to mind the indispensability of charity in the life of a Christian. This is the greatest commandment. As mother Teresa says, “If we can see Jesus under the species of bread, we can also see him in the mutilated bodies of the poor.” (p. 74). In the end, it is charity that endures all things as St. Paul tells us. We should be able to see the face of Jesus on the poor who are usually marginalized and maligned.
The seventh Chapter shifts the focus of the book on the issue of true presence. The author faithfully records and represents the teaching of the Catholic Church concerning true presence. The Church teaches that at the words of consecration, the bread and wine become the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. This we firmly believe and surely. Consequently, Jesus becomes present really, truly and substantially. (p. 81). Care must be taken in the interpretation of this occurrence to the effect that it should be understood as a sacramental presence and not as a physical presence. In the past, some have attempted to insist on physical presence but this is a heretical stand otherwise known us Berengar’s heresy. (p. 81). The presence is not and cannot possibly be anatomical.
Since the mystery of transubstantiation is not accessible to pure reason, there is need for both practical reason and Faith. Some Christian Churches do not believe in the true presence and this has been a major bone of contention. As our author says, ‘Faith doesn’t make the sacrament but it receives it.” (p. 86). This is why the Church has always insisted on a proper disposition and some sense of knowledge apriori from those who receive the Eucharist. There is an element of mystery that remains regarding the true presence. In deed, it is so delicate a matter “that words might even destroy it.” (p. 89). It suffices to say that every one, whether they believe it or not, should approach the Eucharist with a sense of unequivocal respect and reverence. It is a sacrament that is so efficacious in its power of unification and with a history of two thousand successful years its efficacy is indubitable.
Finally, the book ends at an appropriate milieu by invoking the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist. This is the waiting and the longing for the return of the Lord otherwise known us ‘eschatological tension’. (p. 93). Jesus did not institute the Eucharist as an end in itself. In the Gospel of Luke 22:16, “he launched the idea of a heavenly Passover.” (p. 95). We hope that just like Jesus promised, we will find perfect fulfillment in the heavenly banquet, where we shall dwell forever and ever. With regard, to this coming, St. Augustine reminds us that we should be ready and unafraid to meet the Lord. We cannot claim to love the Lord genuinely if we are genuinely afraid of his coming. (p. 101). The Eucharist therefore orients ntoward the things of heaven. It prepares and strengthens us for this ennobled journey as it heaves us to heaven.
The author does an excellent Job in the preliminary section of the book to connect the Eucharist with its roots in the Old Testament. We can say that the fruits of the Eucharistic celebration come from a tree whose roots are grounded on the Old Testament while the branches are spread all over the New Testament. In the Johannine tradition, Jesus teaches that he is the vine and we are the branches. The figures of the Old Testament, which allude to the Eucharist, are helpful because they provide us with a hermeneutic of continuity. This means that we can witness with great facility, the discernible plan of God in the economy of salvation.
Nevertheless, it must also be understood that the Old Testament scriptures are used primarily by the Jews who are not Christocentric. Before it became employable by the Christians it was a Jewish text first. Consequently, the authorial intention for the Jews would not include Eucharistic overtones. It would be difficult to have dialogue with the Jews if the starting point of the Christians is to devalue the Jewish viewpoints due to their non-Eucharistic interpretations. A fair question to ask is whether it is appropriate for the Christian to read the Jewish Bible as if it were not Jewish! What would be the implications? (Pontifical Biblical Commission No. 87). More difficulties arise when dealing with fellow Christians who do not believe in the Eucharist per se. Some of these, even though they believe in the Eucharist, they emphasize the real absence of Jesus in the species of bread and wine. The scope of this review does not allow it to fully address these concerns. However, it suffices to say that some common ground can be sought. There should then be tolerance when dealing with these dissentions because the Love of God who unites us is stronger than those things which separate us.
Nonetheless, for the believers, “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 10). As a result, the Catholic Church cannot apologize for the viewpoint of Raniero Cantalamesa that the Eucharist holds an indispensable and irreplaceable place in the History of Salvation. Scott Hahn would in fact insinuate that the Eucharist is the fulcrum on which the scriptures hinge. He explains that the scriptures contain liturgical data and the scripture was in fact canonized for use during liturgy. In other words, the material unity and the formal unity of the scriptures find its fulfillment in the liturgy. (Scott Hahn, Woriship in the Word). James Davila confirms this line of thought when he asserts that the bible is in deed a repository of ritual and liturgical traditions. (Liturgical Words, p. 2). In the bible, we do find numerous passages that are directly composed for worship or liturgical hymns that are incorporated in narratives. It would therefore be unnecessary to deny that the Eucharist is the zenith of Christian life given the overwhelming scriptural evidence on the affirmative.
Concerning the reception of communion under both species, the author presents a strong case for the practice. However, this issue, if history is anything to go by, cannot be settled by a silver bullet solution. It remains an issue that can only be effectively soluble at the local level. The local ordinary can make a more practical decision concerning the same. A case in point will be in countries where tens of thousands of people attend Mass on a weekly basis. It would take more budgetary allocations and training of more Eucharistic ministers to accommodate reception under both species. A situation where the blood runs out constantly due to large numbers of communicants might create even a greater division than the symbolic unity being sort. People might try to get on the line first to make sure that they don’t miss out if they know that there won’t be enough for all. The focus then should be on creating unity in the community. In relation to the adoration of the blood or the procession of the blood alongside the Corpus Christi , it might be a good idea whose time has not come.
I concur with the author that a proper disposition is a prerequisite to participation in the Eucharist. Pope Benedict XVI continues to urge the Faithful in this day and age to participate fully in the liturgy while understanding that their exterior disposition should reflect the sanctity of the interior mysteries that they embrace. He writes:
Active participation in the Eucharistic liturgy can hardly be expected if one approaches it superficially, without an examination of his or her life. This inner disposition can be fostered, for example, by recollection and silence for at least a few moments before the beginning of the liturgy, by fasting and, when necessary, by sacramental confession. A heart reconciled to God makes genuine participation possible. (Sacramentum Caritatis 55).
Central to proper disposition, is the Faith of the communicant. It is true that even though Faith does not make the sacrament it does receive it. As a priest friend of mine once shared with us in a homily, if a mouse finds its way to an unlocked tabernacle and consumes all the hosts, that church mouse does not become holy. The mouse is truly Faithless and Hopeless for that matter. It does not have a personal relationship with the Lord. Consequently, it is sad to say but it does follow that a communicant who has no Faith in Jesus and does not believe in the true presence does nothing more than the mouse. For this reason, it is hard to understand why the Eastern rites allow and often practice paedocommunion. They do this by spoon-feeding the infants with the species. The poor babies have no idea why on earth they are being inebriated.
The Eucharistic table fellowship is not and should not be an end in itself. It should lead to service and witness. “The expectation of a new earth must not weaken but rather stimulate our concern for cultivating this one. For here grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age.” (Gaudium et Spes 39) On the whole, the witness of John the Baptist is a good example for Christians who desire to carry on the mission as witnesses of Christ. As Paul VI said, “People today listen more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if they listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses”.  The Baptist was neither self centered nor selfish. He recognized Jesus as the Messiah and directed his followers toward him. He was humble enough to deny that he was The Prophet or the one who is to come. Rather, he indentified himself as a forerunner, a voice preparing the way. The Baptist did not brag about his consanguineous relationship with Jesus. He had no hidden agenda for self glorification but rather did the work for which he was sent by God. Consequently, in the person of John the Baptist we learn the lesson of true pastoral charity. It involves putting God’s expectation above every other expectation.
The eschatological dimension of the Eucharist is very important. It provides the believers with a foretaste of what is to come. John Paul the Second captures the reality of this eschatological connection in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy:
At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
As a pilgrim Church , we have Faith and hope in the future glory, when all will be gathered around the table of the Lord in the heavenly banquet. It will be the culmination of all the joys and sufferings we have known here below in a more perfect way. The scriptures assure us, and the first Eucharistic prayer confirms it, that on that day of the eschaton, we shall see God as He really is.
This book is superbly written. First and foremost it is an easy read. Consequently, it can benefit both the hoi polloi and those in pursuit of scholarly endeavors. Father Cantalemessa does a good job at elucidating deep theological concepts, thus making them accessible and palatable to the regular reader. He articulates with great facility, the orthodox teaching of the Church on the Eucharist, respecting the ecumenical boundaries without compromising the Faith. It takes great skill to do that especially in today’s world where people are sensitive to political correctness. Any good work on matters of Faith should be able to appreciate the truth, recognize the absurd, endure the evil and eventually embrace the mystery. Our author has successfully maneuvered in these fields and fruitfully delivered. Consequently, this book can be helpful even to non-Catholics who would like to learn more about the Eucharist, Our Sanctification. (SC 47)
On the Contrary, it would be ambitious to conclude that this book encapsulates all that is known about the Eucharist and all that could be known about the same. Like any mystery, the mystery of the Eucharist in the history of salvation is so convoluted to be fully clarified in these few pages. Therefore, for anyone doing a comprehensive study on the Eucharist, this book would be a beginning and not an end. Luckily enough, the book provides excellent footnotes at the end of each chapter. The footnotes, which are more than one hundred, provide a wonderful bibliographic citation for further scholarly pursuit. All things considered, this book is a must read for anyone who wishes to learn more about the indispensable echelon of the Eucharist in the history of Salvation.
 Paul VI, Evangelization in the Modern World, 1975.