Lord, I Want to See You
About two weeks ago I learned something really interesting in my History of the Mass class here at CUA. Since then, I’ve been running around telling people every time anything even closely related to this topic has come up and i’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on it. I’m sure all faithful Catholics are familiar with the practice where the priest holds up high the Body and Blood during the Eucharistic prayer. I always assumed that this action had some consecratory significance. Turns out, the elevation actually makes no difference to whether or not the bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. So here’s what I learned:
During the Middle Ages, before the practice of elevating the Eucharist began, the laity (faithful members) of the Catholic Church weren’t receiving the Eucharist often. The general mindset of the people was that they were not worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
See at this time, it was not yet clearly understood that even though we are greatly unworthy of the Eucharist, we draw the grace that heals us precisely from the Eucharist (and confession for our more serious sins) and are summoned to receive from Christ Himself. I feel like in our day today if for some reason the laity of the church were told that we are not worthy to receive the Eucharist, many Catholics would leave the Church. Our society, especially our youth, feels like we are entitled to just about anything and everything. We would probably adopt the attitude that “only God can judge me”or “if i’m not worthy now, then i’ll never be”.
However, this is not what happened in the Middle Ages. Instead of turning away from the Church and the Eucharist, the laity developed an even greater devotion. They started to demand to be able to at least see the Eucharist. They believed that if they could just see the Eucharist they could draw from it the same sanctifying grace as receiving it. This became known as “Ocular Communion.” This demand led to the practice of the priest elevating the Body and Blood during the Eucharist Prayer. It also lead to the construction of Tabernacles; which enabled the faithful to spend time in the presence of the Eucharist, since this was the only access to the Eucharist they had. This is also where the practice of Adoration was born. The Eucharistic Host began to be displayed in Monstrances on the altars of Catholic Churches and the people flocked to kneel before It and receive It’s grace.
To this day in our current Missal of the Roman Catholic Church the rubric (instruction for what the priest is to do during the Mass) states that during the Eucharistic Prayer the priest is to “Show the Consecrated Host/Chalice to the people”.
It is so evident that this action is not for the sake of consecrating the bread and wine or anything of that sort of significance, it is for the sake of the faithful. It is so that we can gaze our eyes upon the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Body and Blood. It is so that we can allow our human senses to be overwhelmed by the divine presence of our Lord placed before our eyes. What does this mean for us faithful Catholics today? Let us no longer try to rush through the Mass, or complain when the priest takes too long during the Eucharist prayer, or let our minds wander when a priest takes a tad bit more time on the elevation than usual. Instead, let us see. Truly See. That the King of Heaven and Earth is truly present before our own human eyes. Let us allow the Holy Spirit to lift the veil of our flawed bodily vision, and see anew with eyes of faith and let us draw forth the sanctifying grace that the people of the Middle Ages were so desperate for.
The beautiful thing is, and what so many of us take for granted in our time, is that after we have set our sights on God Himself we are then invited to receive Him into ourselves, something which was not offered to many people of the Middle Ages. What they wanted more than anything, we have at our fingertips. Let us appreciate anew the gift of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
“Father, I am hungry; for the love of God give this soul her food, her Lord in the Eucharist,”
– St. Catherine of Siena