Prayer Before the Eucharist
To claim to be a committed Christian, to be desirous of living the Gospel fully, and yet to neglect personal prayer is a delusion. It would be less a delusion to want to become a professor without studying a particular subject or a musician without practicing an instrument. A Christian life without prayer contradicts the very meaning of love for God, for Christ and his Gospel ― a love that is at the absolute center of true Christian existence.
Personal prayer presupposes a search for God. It is not enough to believe in him and to want to work for him. There must also be the desire to meet the living and personal God. This desire is embodied in prayer that becomes a series of encounters, ever new, vivifying, transforming. In the communion of prayer, God reveals his love, bestows his light, opens up new perspectives; he grants his peace and his strength. Little by little, he transforms our hearts. Prayer for the fully committed Christian is as important and vital as the very air that is breathed.
Why Eucharistic Prayer?
It is one thing to insist on the need for personal prayer in Christian life, but another to propose that one's prayer be offered before the Eucharist, and, ideally, before the Eucharist exposed. For many centuries in the Western church, and especially in the Eastern church even today, there has been an entirely valid tradition of contemplative prayer that has not been prompted to relate that prayer to the reserved Eucharistic sacrament. Why then offer one's prayer before the Eucharist? Many reasons can be adduced, but two reasons in particular seems foundational.
First Reason: Interiorizing the Mass
In 1967, the Holy See issued a document entitled Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery. There we read: "The mystery of the Eucharist should be considered in all its fullness, not only in the celebration of the Mass but also in devotion to the sacred species which remain after Mass and are reserved to extend the grace of the sacrifice" (3 g E). Also, "When the faithful adore Christ present in the sacrament, they should remember that this presence derives from the sacrifice and is directed toward both sacramental and spiritual communion" (Chap. III, n. 50).
There is, then, a necessary and intimate connection between celebrating the Eucharist, i.e., Mass, and praying before the Eucharist outside the time of Mass. This connection arises not only from the fact that the Eucharist before which we pray originates from a celebration of Mass but also from the need we experience of setting aside quiet time of meditation to assimilate and interiorize what we proclaim and celebrate at Mass. By means of prayer before the Eucharist, we prolong the grace of Christ's sacramental sacrifice into the hours of our day, we assimilate its deepest meaning, and view the whole of our existence in its light.
Of course, such a prayer of interiorization and assimilation can be made elsewhere than before the Eucharist. But is it not only logical and natural to offer such prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? Is it not the most appropriate setting or context?
Second Reason: Contemplating Christ's Presence
The Eucharist ceaselessly reminds us of the supper of the Lord and of the sacrifice of Christ which the supper embodies and sets forth. The Eucharist therefore reveals to us in a unique way the presence of Christ who extends himself in love. To understand more profoundly the nature of that prayer which is a response to Christ's sacramental presence, it is well to take a moment to reflect on the nature of prayer and on the presence of Christ in his church.
Prayer Through Him, With Him, In Him
Prayer, as we said, is a search for God and an encounter with God. The Christian knows that all authentic prayer passes through Christ. He alone is the one who reveals the Father, and who is the way to him. But where do we make contact with the Christ who is our place of encounter with God and access to God? Is it in the Eucharist alone?
The church today has a lively and enriched awareness of the many ways in which the risen Christ is present to it and of the manner in which the Eucharistic presence relates to the whole activity of the risen Christ.
The Presence in the Church
According to the teaching of Vatican Council II, the church itself "is in the nature of sacrament, i.e., a sign and an instrument of communion with God . . ." (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, n. 1). The church, as the body of the risen Lord, is filled with his presence. The church is the new temple, the place of encounter with God. Through faith and baptism, every Christian is incorporated into the church, and in turn becomes a member of the body of Christ and himself or herself a temple.
It is this presence, in the church and in each member, which is fundamental. All other forms of presence, including that of the Eucharist, are subordinate to it, as means to an end. The others will pass away, but his presence in us, his body, will remain forever. It will find fulfillment at the end of time when all will be subjected to Christ and he will have subjected all to the Father who will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).
It is this presence of Christ in us which makes prayer possible. Through Christ, we have a personal relationship to the Father in the Holy Spirit. Everywhere we have access to the Father through Christ Jesus. Here we have the context to understand better the specific nature of prayer before the Eucharist.
The Presence in the Eucharistic Gifts
In the consecrated bread and wine, there is a unique presence of Christ which in a sense surpasses all other forms. What significance does this presence have for prayer made before the Eucharistic gift? What does it add to the presence of Christ given in all true prayer?
Perhaps a comparison with what took place at the Last Supper and what takes place in every celebration of the Eucharist can help us understand something of the meaning of prayer before the Eucharist.
We can distinguish two forms of Christ's presence at the Last Supper. He is there, first of all, as host, eating and talking with his disciples. Then, at a given moment, he is in the Eucharistic gifts. Christ communes with his disciples through his word, then he gives himself to them in and through the gifts of the consecrated bread and wine.
When we consider the way the church celebrates the Eucharist, we perceive something similar. Of course, we do not have the pre-resurrection physical presence of Jesus. Nonetheless, it is the same Christ who is really present in the faithful gathered in his name. He speaks to them through his word and acts through the priest-celebrant. Here also, it is Christ, already truly present, who at a given moment communicates himself to his present-day disciples through and in the Eucharistic gifts.
Two Forms of the Lord's Presence
In the light of these two examples, let us consider prayer before the Eucharist. The very fact of our being at prayer means that Christ is present to us; we are, so to speak, face to face with him. Christ present in us through his Holy Spirit talks to us through his word. When we look at the Eucharistic bread, we see that this same Christ offers himself to us as the Bread of Life.
In prayer before the Eucharist, then, we can discern two forms of the Lord's presence: one in us and one in the bread. Besides, if it is a community that is gathered in prayer, Christ is also present in that specific manner promised where two or three are gathered in his name. There is a very close link between the Eucharist and the communion which binds together the Christian community. It is for this reason that the church has a certain preference for communal prayer before the Blessed Sacrament (On Holy Communion and the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery Outside of Mass, n. 90).
It can be said that Christ who is present in this way offers himself to us through the Eucharist, but it can also be said that he "speaks" to us through the Eucharist. What, then, is Christ saying to us through this reality which is the Eucharist? What is he saying to us by the fact of this sacramental presence which he gives to his church?
Perusing the Signs of the Sacrament
We say readily enough that prayer before the Blessed Sacrament lends itself to perusing or scrutinizing the signs of the Eucharist. But what are those signs that especially propose themselves among the many and mighty deeds of God in human history and our personal history? Necessarily to the fore is the sign of the Lord's death and resurrection which we celebrate until he comes. The Eucharist calls to mind the Lamb of the Book of Revelation, standing yet seemingly slain, who is worthy to receive honor, glory, and blessing forever and ever (cf. Rv 5:6, 12-14). The Eucharist, then, invites us to loving adoration of our Redeemer and Lord (Instruction on the Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, Chap. III, nn. 49, 50).
Also, the Eucharist speaks to us of Christ who offers himself as bread broken and shared, and as wine poured out for all ― the total giving of self in which Christ exemplifies in himself the fundamental commandment he gives his disciples, the commandment of selfless love. The Eucharist exemplifies and communicates to us the loving sacrifice of Christ by which we are forgiven our sins and reconciled to God, and by which we are enabled to enter into new and eternal life.
This total gift of the Lord, contemplated in prayer, should compel us to give ourselves unstintingly to him and to our brothers and sisters, should move us to subdue every instinct to selfishness and domination, so that a more fraternal and just world may be fashioned.
By means of our prayer before the Eucharist, we keep alive the effect of our sacramental communion with Christ; we abide in Christ, as he himself promised: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives on in me and I in him" (Jn 6:56). This abiding in Christ includes a lively awareness of union with all who are baptized into the body of Christ; in Christ, we are members of one another. So intimate is the relation between the sacramental body of Christ and the mystical body of Christ that Saint Augustine could say: "It is to what you are that you answer 'Amen." You receive what you are."
It is only by perusing in prolonged and loving contemplation the signs of the sacrament that the Eucharist yields its many riches ― that its varied aspects become alive and real.
An All-Embracing Prayer
Prayer in the presence of the Eucharist will naturally focus on the spiritual plenitude of this sacrament. But, for all that, such prayer will not hesitate to embrace meditation on all the feelings and attitudes that might be experienced in our relationship with the Lord. Such prayer will express itself not only in adoration, but also in thanksgiving, repentance, and petition. He to whom we worshipfully raise our minds and hearts in the One who is head over all things and fills all things in every way (cf. Eph 1:22-23.
The Great Value of Eucharistic Prayer
Without prayerful encounter with Christ, prayer which reaches our innermost being, we shall never be transformed into him. Prayer, of course, is not the whole of Christian life, but it is undoubtedly its mainspring. Prayer is like the fire that produces the flame of vibrant love of God and neighbor. Nowhere is that flame more likely to be fanned to great warmth and brilliance than in prayer before the Eucharist.
Father Bernard Camiré, S.S.S.
Copyright 1992 Nocturnal Adoration Society.
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Very Reverend John Dowling, S.S.S.
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Most Reverend Patrick J. Sheridan, D.D.
Archdiocese of New York