By MOST REVEREND WILTON D. GREGORY, Archbishop of Atlanta | Published July 5, 2007
Have you ever been genuinely hungry? We all know that most kids are eternally hungry. But I refer not to a child’s seemingly perpetual appetite fueled more by the energy of their growing but to a hunger that is actually life-threatening in its severity. I don’t imagine any of us have ever been that hungry.
Like most of you, I frequently have heard people tell me of the dreadful hungers that they and their families faced during the time of the Great Depression. However, even in the midst of such widespread poverty and the effects of the Dust Bowl crop failures, most Americans were able to scrape together enough to avoid serious life-threatening risk.
Few of us here have ever faced the type of hunger that we now see in the eyes and on the faces of children from the Darfur region of Sudan or in other modern day places of drought, war, and violence. When food finally does come to such desperately hungry people, they can eat so rapidly and in such amounts that the very act of such ravenous eating can itself become life threatening. The last thing that most truly hungry people think of when they prepare to eat is to offer thanks. Eating becomes for the starving person the most meaningful thing that they can accomplish.
In each instance in the Gospels, when Jesus fed a hungry multitude, and especially when He prepared to reveal the great gift of Himself in the Eucharist, He always first gave thanks for the food that He was about to render as the very Sacrament of Himself. Each of the Gospel accounts of the institution of the Eucharist begins with a prayer of thanksgiving. In keeping with His rich and prominent Jewish ritual custom of dining, Jesus began His sacramental action with a prayer of thanksgiving.
Jesus’ prayer of thanksgiving was not simply for the immediate gift of the loaves and fishes or the bread and wine that He would share, but for all of God’s favor. As a Eucharistic people who follow the example of Christ Himself, we place ourselves in complete dependence upon God’s bounty. When we gather about the Lord’s Table, we all stand in absolute and humble indebtedness to the Father who is the source of every gift. The Eucharistic Table recognizes no superior or inferior participants – no one ever takes his or her place around the altar who is truly worthy of God’s generosity. We are all the beneficiaries of God’s goodness. It is that deep awareness of our dependency that must give rise to our willingness to share that which we have with others who are less fortunate.
Live As Gifts
Pope John Paul several years ago called the entire Church to make the Jubilee Year 2000 a moment in time that was deeply Eucharistic in spirit. We were to focus our attention upon the great Gift of the Eucharist and what that Gift demands from all those of us who share it. To be a Eucharistic people, to deepen our understanding of the uniqueness of Christ’s Presence under the signs of Bread and Wine is to acknowledge that we who dine on these Gifts must also live as gifts in the lives of others.
Just as the truly hungry person can forget to give thanks, occasionally we who dine upon the Lord’s Eucharistic gift can forget that there is an obligation imposed upon all those who sit at the Lord’s Eucharistic Table. There is an inseparable bond that unites our love for the Eucharist with our dedication to alleviate the hungers that still go ignored throughout our world and in our local communities.
When we were children being introduced to the great gift of the Eucharist, we were most likely instructed to savor those few precious moments immediately after receiving the Lord. I daresay that we were all instructed to put our heads down, cupped in our then small hands, or positioned onto our extended arms in order to speak quietly to the Lord who had come to us in the mysteriously wonderful Gift of the Eucharist. That tradition has given way to others – equally splendid and appropriate of being aware of those around us who have received the same Christ and whose presence in the hearts of all of His people makes the Church more visible in its unity and oneness in Him. The focus has shifted from the closeness of a child in prayer to the awareness of a Church in kinship because of the One who has unified us together in Himself.
Yet what has become of those quiet prayers that we once uttered to the Lord of the Universe? Did we not all learn that it was all-important to have a close and personal relationship to the Gift that also demanded that we allow the Gift to change us? The Eucharist is a Gift that transforms those who partake in it.
There is no question that Eucharistic devotions are once again on the ascendancy in the Church. Everywhere one can find parishes and communities that are rediscovering a renewed interest in prayer before the Eucharistic Lord and we are most grateful for the development of that custom throughout our own Archdiocese of Atlanta.
There is a growing desire to deepen our relationship with the Christ Who comes to each of us under the signs of Bread and Wine and then mysteriously remains present to the Church under those same signs and in the works of charity and thoughtfulness of those who have dined upon the Lord’s bounty.
A proper understanding of the Eucharist always involves both a personal conversation with the Eucharistic Lord followed by a firm commitment to extend His Eucharistic presence and mission in our own lives and in the lives of those that we serve in His name.
Any Eucharistic piety that is divorced from Eucharistic living can only be seen as partially faithful. Just as enthusiastic and even generous people who are engaged in social service that is not rooted in the depth of our love for Christ and a personal commitment to His Sacramental Presence are somehow lacking for a strong anchor in Christ.
We are called through our Baptism and Confirmation to be a thankful people – always grateful for the gifts that we receive and simultaneously generous in sharing ourselves with our sisters and brothers in Christ. The true meaning of the Breaking of the Bread is always made more explicit in the sharing of the lives of those who dine upon Christ’s generosity and selflessness under sacramental signs.
Sacrifice is a religious expression. Even when secular people use the word sacrifice in ordinary conversation, try though they might, they cannot avoid its religious origins. The word drips of the meaning that only faith can offer. Every religious tradition known to humanity has some reference, some suggestion, and some awareness of the reality and meaning of the word sacrifice. Even when our worldly values vainly attempt to separate sacrifice from its spiritual origins, it is impossible to completely separate the truth of its religious roots.
Sacrifice is the language that human beings speak when we speak to God or about God. There is little that we mere mortals can say except to tell the Divine One that we consider Him worthy and deserving of everything that we have and that we are. Anything that we might possess is of paltry value and little worth when compared to God’s transcendent goodness and importance. The very act of sacrifice is our feeble way of saying that we are willing to surrender everything to please God. And yet, there is nothing that we have that is even worthy of offering to God. We ourselves have no gifts that God desires or wants. Yet the Father has provided us with a perfect offering. God has given us the Gift that He continually desires and loves – His only Begotten Son. The Eucharist is the action that perfectly pleases God because it is the Sacrifice of His Son, the only Gift that is truly worthy of the One who is Perfect in every way.
The Eucharist is, however, an opportunity for us to associate ourselves with that Perfect Gift. Christ has gathered all of us with Himself in perfect surrender to His Father. By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are joined with the Perfect Gift – all of us in our many and glaring imperfections – become One with the Son in offering perfect praise to the Father. And the only thing that the Father wishes us to do in return is to give Him our very selves. The Father desires our hearts – yes, those hard and often unyielding hearts of ours are made loveable to the Father when they are united in total surrender with His Son.
St. Paul spoke wondrously of the sacrifice of the Son when he wrote:
Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Christ’s example of humble submission gives every Christian the means to a sacrifice that will be acceptable to the Father. We speak the language of sacrifice most effectively and lovingly when we surrender our wills and hearts to the Father – not an easy mission for us – nor was it one for Christ.
My Father, if is possible, let this cup pass from me:
Yet, not as I will, but as you will.
The Humble Heart
The sacrifice of the human will is perhaps the greatest challenge that any one of us can face. The human will is the most unyielding of all of the human passions. Nonetheless, the humble heart, the handing over of human pride is a sacrifice that touches the Divine Heart.
Parents know a great deal of the substance of such sacrificial love as they give themselves over in love for their children. Every parent here knows firsthand what such love entails. From the first moment of conception, parents must begin to surrender their own freedom, their own desires, and their own time, for the well-being of a child. And such sacrificial love never ceases, as parents know far better than I. A truly loving parent never completes the giving, the caring, the concern that they have for a child. It is such selfless love that provides a pattern for the way that we are to hand over our hearts in love for God.
Christ makes Himself present and accessible in the Eucharist. He continues to hand over His life for those that He has loved with such selflessness. The Real Presence is another expression of the depth of love that Christ has for His Church. He surrenders Himself for the life of the world – as the Heavenly Bread that is daily broken and the Life-Giving Cup that continues to be poured out for all of our sakes. The very words of Institution are a constant reminder of the type of sacrificial love that inspires this action.
“This is my body which will be given up for you.”
“This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
The Eucharist is the celebration of sacrificial love – the living sign of Christ’s complete surrender of Himself to His Father and in love for His people.
We who partake in the Eucharist must therefore strive to live selflessly. How can we share in a Gift that is so perfectly selfless and refuse to become like the Gift itself. How can we dine because of the self-sacrificing love of the Son and continue to be selfish, hateful, or hostile to one another?
Thus a Eucharistic Congress such as the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta are sharing today must also be a summons to live Eucharistically and to engage in sacrificial love for one another. If this annual spiritual event is to be successful, it must encourage all of the participants to become more like the Eucharist that you receive and honor. Today’s event is a challenge to soften the hearts of all who consume the Perfect Gift of the Son so that those hearts might become more like His and the Father will be more honored and loved by all.
This is the text of the talk given by Archbishop Gregory at the 2007 Eucharistic Congress.