Whenever I attend Mass, I pray that God would help me to understand the sacrament of the Eucharist. Recently, a phrase in St. Thomas Aquinas’ prayer before Mass struck me as being important. It occurred just as the Mass was about to begin, but I knew there was something really important there. The words that struck me were these:
as on my earthly pilgrimage
I now receive Your beloved Son
under the veil of a sacrament,
may I one day see him face to face in glory,
who lives and reigns with You for ever.
As I read that prayer (which I read every day), the idea that the sacrament is a “veil” struck me.
When a woman’s face is veiled (I’m not talking about see-through lacy veils, which aren’t really veils) we do not see her face. We see the fabric of the veil. We do not even know that it is her behind the veil. We see no eyes or lips or facial features. We see only the veil and BELIEVE that behind that veil her face exists. We don’t see it. We believe it is there.
The bread and wine of the Sacrament, then, are as a veil, behind which stands (i.e., subsists) the true body and blood of Christ. We receive Christ as truly present in the bread and wine, as a man would profess his wedding vows to his veiled wife, whose face he does not see (this is how Jacob was deceived by Laban).
Our relationship to Christ is not “face to face”, but is veiled. The bread and wine (and the Church itself) are, in our day, that veil. In the days of the Apostles, that veil was the living body of Jesus Himself. In heaven, that veil will be removed, there will be no more sacramental receiving of Christ, but we will see Him and not the bread and wine behind which he stands (subsists) at present.
When Jesus was living on earth, He taught men that He was God–the Creator of the World. His divine substance, however, was present behind the veil of his human body. His name was “Emmanuel”, that is, “God with us.”
Men looked upon Him and saw the body of a man. They were asked to believe that though they saw the body of a man, the Creator of the world was really present with them.
The mystery of the Gospel is that God is present with us, behind the veil of a human body. As the Christmas hymn says,
“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see.
Hail! the Incarnate Deity.
Pleased, as man, with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
When Jesus came to the end of His life, he brought His disciples into the Upper Room and told then that He was going to return to the Father–with His human body.
But, if His body returned to heaven, the reality of God’s presence with us would no longer exist. So, how would the Christian faith continue?
There was no way that God could simply be present in another individual man. Jesus was an individual man Himself. Therefore, the body of Christ was no longer to be human body of a man, but His Church which is called “the body of Christ”.
Contrary to Protestant teaching, the Church MUST be a visible body, otherwise it would not be able to serve as Christ’s “body”, but would itself be “spiritual”, and not a “body”.
This mystery of God’s presence in a human body, which was to be believed by the Jews who saw Jesus in the flesh, was replaced by the mystery of God’s presence in the Church, but distributed into seven “Sacraments”, which is simply the Latin word for “mysteries”.
Of these seven mysteries, the greatest is the sacrament of the Eucharist. In this sacrament, the presence of God is veiled, as it once was behind Christ’s human body, behind bread and wine. Jesus says, “This–the bread–is My body.” and “This–the wine–is my blood.” We are not asked to look upon the body of Jesus and believe that God is present, but upon the bread and the wine of the Eucharist.
“Word made flesh, by word he maketh
very bread his flesh to be;
man in wine Christ’s blood partaketh,
and if senses fail to see,
faith alone the true heart waketh,
to behold the mystery.”
The challenge we face in believing in the Church and in the sacraments is the challenge men faced when speaking to Christ in person–that God is really present in these physical things.
Mr. William C. Michael
Classical Liberal Arts Academy