The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 1402, describes how the Eucharist is both a memorial of Christ’s Last Supper and an anticipation of His Wedding Feast in Heaven:
In an ancient prayer the Church acclaims the mystery of the Eucharist: “O sacred banquet in which Christ is received as food, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of the life to come is given to us.” If the Eucharist is the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus, if by our communion at the altar we are filled “with every heavenly blessing and grace,” then the Eucharist is also an anticipation of the heavenly glory.
Similarly, Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, describes the Eucharist as “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.” So what does it mean to say that the Eucharist is a “pledge of future glory,” and why does the Catholic Church teach this?
I. The Eucharist as a Promise of Heaven
In John 6:48-51, Jesus says:
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
And a few verses later (John 6:53-58):
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
So several times in a row, Jesus explicitly ties reception of the Eucharist with a promise of eternal life, of being raised with Him on the Last Day. But why?
St. Thomas Aquinas says (Summa Theologiae, III, q. 79, a. 2) that “the attaining of glory is an effect of this sacrament,” and gives two separate reasons: “In this sacrament we may consider both that from which it derives its effect, namely, Christ contained in it, as also His Passion represented by it; and that through which it works its effect, namely, the use of the sacrament, and its species.”
So the Eucharist is the Crucified and Risen Jesus Christ, and He’s the one who brings us to glory, so in this sense, the Eucharist brings us to glory. But there’s also the effects of the Sacraments. We’re given the graces and the strength for the spiritual journey. This is why it’s called Viaticum. Thomas adds a third aspect, as well. Namely, that we enjoy a foretaste of Heaven, here below: “In like manner the refreshment of spiritual food and the unity denoted by the species of the bread and wine are to be had in the present life, although imperfectly.”
II. The Eucharist as a Window to Heaven, and a Mirror for us on Earth
“No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18). Christ is the image of the invisible God. Colossians 1:15-20 says,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”
Christ “images” God, and not just in His Divinity. Man is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and Christ’s unfallen Humanity shows us this image in a way unclouded by sin. When we look at Christ, we see God. When we look at the Eucharist, we see Christ (although the accidents are of bread and wine)
Precisely because Christ is a window into Heaven, He is also a mirror, in which we can see our own failings, and our own dignity and our calling to glory. St. Clare of Assisi talks about this in a letter to Blessed Agnes of Prague:
Happy indeed is she who is granted a place at the divine banquet, for she may cling with her inmost heart to him whose beauty eternally awes the blessed hosts of heaven; to him whose love inspires love, whose contemplation refreshes, whose generosity satisfies, whose gentleness delights, whose memory shines sweetly as the dawn; to him whose fragrance revives the dead, and whose glorious vision will bless all the citizens of that heavenly Jerusalem. For he is the splendor of eternal glory, the brightness of eternal light, and the mirror without cloud.
Queen and bride of Jesus Christ, look into the mirror daily and study well your reflection, that you may adorn yourself, mind and body, with an enveloping garment of every virtue, and thus find yourself attired in flowers and gowns befitting the daughter and most chaste bride of the king on high. In this mirror blessed poverty, holy humility and ineffable love are also reflected. With the grace of God the whole mirror will be your source of contemplation.
In the beauty of the Incarnation, we can see ourselves in Christ and we can see God in Christ.
In a little bit, we’ll look at Divinization, which underscores St. Clare’s point: God becomes man so that man can become God, so we should see ourselves in Christ because He’s making us more like Himself, if we’ll just let Him. But there are two other points I want to cover first.
III. The Eucharist as a Foretaste of the the Wedding feast of the Lamb
As I’ve explained in the past, there were two stages to a Jewish wedding: the kiddushin and nisu’in. After the bride and groom consented to marry, they were legally wed, but the groom had up to a year to go and prepare a home for his new bride. Jesus refers to this when He says (John 14:1-3),
Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.
That’s the promise of a Bridegroom to His newlywed, and so it’s not a surprise that this spousal imagery is regularly used to describe the relationship of Christ and the Church (most extensively in Ephesians 5:21-33). And how do we see that spousal promise fulfilled? The heavenly Liturgy described in Revelation 19:6-9:
Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty thunderpeals, crying, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure”— for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.”
The fact that’s described as the marriage supper of the Lamb is heavily Eucharistic. It reminds us that Christ is both the host and the Host, the Bridegroom and the banquet meal.
At each and every Mass, we witness this marriage of Heaven and marriage, and we get a tiny glimpse into the glory to come. St. John Paul II describes this in his 2003 encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, on the Eucharist in its relationship to the Church:
19. The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven. It is not by chance that the Eastern Anaphoras and the Latin Eucharistic Prayers honour Mary, the ever-Virgin Mother of Jesus Christ our Lord and God, the angels, the holy apostles, the glorious martyrs and all the saints. This is an aspect of the Eucharist which merits greater attention: in celebrating the sacrifice of the Lamb, we are united to the heavenly “liturgy” and become part of that great multitude which cries out: “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev7:10). The Eucharist is truly a glimpse of heaven appearing on earth. It is a glorious ray of the heavenly Jerusalem which pierces the clouds of our history and lights up our journey.
So even now, in our Eucharistic Liturgies, we join Mary, the Saints, and the angels in Heaven in the wedding feast of the Lamb. And this is just a hint of what is to come.
IV. The Eucharist as Pledge of the Bodily Resurrection
In that same encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, JPII also talks about why the Eucharist is a pledge of bodily resurrection:
The acclamation of the assembly following the consecration appropriately ends by expressing the eschatological thrust which marks the celebration of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Cor 11:26): “until you come in glory”. The Eucharist is a straining towards the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, the “pledge of future glory”. In the Eucharist, everything speaks of confident waiting “in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ”. Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality. For in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54). This pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection. With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the “secret” of the resurrection. For this reason Saint Ignatius of Antioch rightly defined the Eucharistic Bread as “a medicine of immortality, an antidote to death”.
This isn’t some new teaching. Rather, it’s what Christians have been proclaiming from the very beginning. Besides the witness from Jesus Himself in John 6:54, you’ve got things like St. Irenaeus of Lyons’ book Against Heresies. That book, which dates all the way back to 180 A.D., says (in Book IV, Ch. 18):
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
He makes a similar argument in Book V, Chapter 2, and it’s striking that one of the earliest Christian proofs of the bodily resurrection relied upon the truth of the Real Presence of the Eucharist.
The Eucharist and Divinization
Everything we’ve seen so far, about the coming glory of the Church and all of her Saints, and the how the already-intimate union between your soul and Jesus Christ will be brought together in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb needs to be connected to the idea of “divinization.” After all, we’re dealing with the Eucharist as “pledge of glory,” and divinization or theosis is just another way of describing glorification.
Pope John Paul II described this reality in a joint statement with the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch:
“Sacramental life finds in the Holy Eucharist its fulfilment and its summit, in such a way that it is through the Eucharist that the Church most profoundly realizes and reveals its nature. Through the Holy Eucharist the event of Christ’s Pasch expands throughout the Church. Through Holy Baptism and Confirmation, indeed, the members of Christ are anointed by the Holy Spirit, grafted on to Christ; and through the Holy Eucharist the Church becomes what she is destined to be through Baptism and Confirmation. By communion with the body and blood of Christ the faithful grow in that mysterious divinization which by the Holy Spirit makes them dwell in the Son as children of the Father.”
There’s a lot more that can be said about divinization, but for now, suffice to say that we take it very seriously when Scripture says things like:
- “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18) and
- “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3) and
- “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
And this is all connected in some way to the Eucharist, as St. Augustine explained in a Christmas homily:
Beloved, our Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal creator of all things, today became our Savior by being born of a mother. Of his own will he was born for us today, in time, so that he could lead us to his Father’s eternity. God became man so that man might become God. The Lord of angels became man today so that man could eat the bread of angels.
“The bread of angels,” the new Manna, is the Eucharist (John 6:51). So how is the Eucharist connected to divinization? St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-94 A.D.) has the answer.
V. The Pledge of Glory in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Eucharistic Theology
St. Gregory of Nyssa writes his Great Catechism in 385 A.D., he poses the question: “how can that one Body of Christ vivify the whole of mankind, all, that is, in whomsoever there is Faith, and yet, though divided among all, be itself not diminished?” In other words, how can we claim that Jesus gives His Body and Blood to every faithful Catholic (and Orthodox and Copt) on earth? Wouldn’t that require dividing Him up into a billion pieces? Wouldn’t we eventually… run out of His Body?
In his answer, Gregory lays out a four-step logical case for both the Real Presence of the Eucharistic Christ, and explains why this includes a pledge of future glory:
- Step 1: When you eat something, it is metabolized into part of your body:
“For those things by being within me became my blood and flesh, the corresponding nutriment by its power of adaptation being changed into the form of my body.” Simple enough.
- Step 2: Thus, when Christ ate bread on earth, it became part of His Body through metabolism:
“The body into which God entered, by partaking of the nourishment of bread, was, in a certain measure, the same with it.” Christ ate bread and drank wine while He walked amongst us. In that way, He (naturally, through metabolism) changed bready and wine into His Body and Blood.
- Step 3: In the Eucharist, Christ transforms bread into His Body instantly and miraculously, rather than gradually through metabolism:
“In this case the bread, as says the Apostle, ‘is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer’; not that it advances by the process of eating to the stage of passing into the body of the Word, but it is at once changed into the body by means of the Word, as the Word itself said, ‘This is My Body.’” So instead of naturally changing bread and wine into His Body and Blood through metabolism, Jesus changes it instantaneously through a miracle.
- Step 4: When we partake of the Eucharist, we become partakers of Christ and of His Body:
Here’s the part directly revelation to the Eucharist as pledge of future glory:
“Since, then, that God-containing flesh partook for its substance and support of this particular nourishment also, and since the God who was manifested infused Himself into perishable humanity for this purpose, viz. that by this communion with Deity mankind might at the same time be deified, for this end it is that, by dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He transelements the natural quality of these visible things to that immortal thing.”
Think about it this way: left on its own, bread will go bad within a short time, and get moldy and disgusting. But if you eat the bread, that won’t happen. It’s not as if your body suddenly contracts bread mold. No, in metabolizing the bread into your body, you’re preserving it from corruption.
But we’re also ultimately destined for corruption, unless we’re redeemed. Through the Eucharist, we are “metabolized” into Christ; and just as your body preserves the bread from corrupting through mold, this Eucharistic metabolism into the Body of Christ preserves us from eternal corruption.
Cardinal Ratzinger comes to the same conclusion, using the works of St. Augustine, in a conference he gave on the Eucharist in 2002:
From a certain point of view, the words over the bread are even more stunning. They tell of a “communion” with the body of Christ which Paul compares to the union of a man and a woman (cf. I Cor 6,17ff; Eph 5,26-32). Paul also expresses this from another perspective when he says: it is one and the same bread, which all of us now receive. This is true in a startling way: the “bread” – the new manna, which God gives to us – is for all the one and the same Christ.
It is truly the one, identical Lord, whom we receive in the Eucharist, or better, the Lord who receives us and assumes us into himself. St Augustine expressed this in a short passage which he perceived as a sort of vision: “eat the bread of the strong; you will not transform me into yourself, but I will transform you into me.” In other words, when we consume bodily nourishment, it is assimilated by the body, becoming itself a part of ourselves. But this bread is of another type. It is greater and higher than we are. It is not we who assimilate it, but it assimilates us to itself, so that we become in a certain way “conformed to Christ”, as Paul says, members of his body, one in him.
And so there are many reasons we can say that the Eucharist is a pledge of future glory, but it’s this last promise that’s perhaps the most shocking: it’s the means by which Christ metabolizes us into His Body, both (a) preserving us from corruption, and (b) making us like Him in His glorious nature.