Islam has nothing like it. Secularists are not interested in it, since it involves God imposing himself in their daily lives. But when Catholics receive holy communion, we are quite literally taking into our bodies the Body and Blood of Christ, who “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take it; this is my body’…Then he took a cup…and said to them, ‘This is my blood’”.
The Eucharist is one of many things in this world that re very real, but intellectually quite incomprehensible. Science actually tells us precious little about love. Yet we all know that as human beings we have other ways, non-intellectual ways, of appreciating the reality and power of love in our lives. It’s the same with the mysteries of life and death, of suffering and hope, of beauty, and of God and his activity in our lives. None of these can be calculated on a computer, or downloaded from the Web. But they are really present.
The Mass is the setting in which we express and experience most clearly our understanding of who we are in relation to God. It is the forum in which we see most vividly what we might call the “post-scientific” realities of Christian life. The prayers and readings of the liturgy retell, in a community context, the history of God’s dealings not with autonomous individuals, but with his people, all that he has done for us in the first covenant and in the new and eternal covenant.
And we offer him our cares, our fears and hopes, and our pain. We pray for all that we needs, for those we love, and for the whole world. Finally, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ himself, in a way we do not understand, but we believe, because Christ told us it would happen.
All of this is far more than a mental process. God is greater than our limited minds are able to grasp, and that includes everything about God: his love for us, his presence among us, his promises to us, his acceptance of us despite our doubts and unworthiness. Understanding the “Divine Liturgy”, as the Eastern Churches call the Mass, cannot come about by reading a book or by going to conferences, although these can be helpful in understanding the history and structure of the liturgy.
But we will never fully understand the Mass by intellectual effort alone. As we engage our minds we must also engage our hearts in a life-long process of coming to know a God who is alive, active in this world, and in our own lives. To grow in the knowledge of God, we must open ourselves to him. This means we must have a genuine desire to know him in the breaking of the bread, along with the courage to persevere in a world in which the Catholic faith is so often ridiculed and actively persecuted.
For us who believe in all that Christ has taught us, the Mass is not only an end in itself, but a means as well. In faith and worship we learn by doing. When we hear the prayers and psalms and readings proclaimed, the Church becomes our home, and her two thousand years of collective faith experience was over us and draw us into the mystery of the knowledge of God which comes “through the eternal Spirit”.
It is holy communion which binds us together with the living Son of God, and there is no better way to know God, to understand him, to grow in faith, than by having him work on us from the inside. As St. Cyril of Jerusalem put it, “In the species of bread His Body is given to you, and in the species of wine His Blood, that by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ you may become the same body and blood with him”.