Wednesday, February 10, 2010

When Does "It" Happen?

So -- let me ask you a question. Based on all the things we've talked about, when would you say that the bread and the wine actually become consecrated -- that is, become Jesus' body and blood?

Take a moment, think about it. I'm not going anywhere.

Now, I'm going to bet that you said, it's during the institution narrative we've been talking about the last couple days. And there's some really good reasons why someone would say that. First of all, the institution stands out, plain and simple. It's the only dramatic moment in the eucharistic prayer. Plus, not to be too obvious, but hello, it's the part of the eucharistic prayer where the consecration gets talked about. And, if all of that weren't enough, we might also note that at the end of each beat of the institution there's a moment where the element gets raised up, as though to say, poof! It's happened. And oh yeah, in case you didn't get it -- they ring those cotton-picking bells. (And the priest(s) bow or kneel.)

When you ring those bells, this is how I feel.

So, lots of signals that this is a key moment.

But then again -- let's not forget that the institution narrative is preceded by the calling down of the Holy Spirit upon these gifts. "We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this eucharist" (Euch III). What's that, if not a clear moment of consecration? There's even choreography! The priest brings his hands down together over the gifts, then makes the sign of the cross over them as he speaks.

And here's another twist -- the eucharistic prayer does require an institution narrative to be valid. It's true. In fact, one rite approved by Rome has no institution narrative, nor parallel sort of moment.

What allows them to get away with that is the understanding that the eucharistic prayer as a whole is the act of consecration. Not any one moment, even if it is eye-catching and even has a soundtrack, but the whole darn thing. Which is why -- well, did you ever wonder what the deal is with that little prayer at the end? "Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, Almighty Father, forever and ever." Most of the time, I barely noticed it was there until I had to say it. Unless the priest was forced to sing it, and did that whole Gregorian chant thing off-key (which happens, let's admit, WAY TOO OFTEN).

That prayer is called the doxology. And if you read it -- go back, read it again right now -- you'll see it's a hymn of praise and offering. In fact, it's the high point of the eucharistic prayer, the moment we stop and say, Wow. Thank you. It's all yours. For those who know Ignatian spirituality, it's like the Suscipe -- "Take, Lord and receive, all my liberty...everything is yours, do with it what you will. You have given it all to us...." It's like when the jock wins the big game or makes the astonishing catch and then points up to the sky -- an acknowledgement of who is good and gracious, and an offering of self.

Associating the elevation of the eucharist with making a basket. Hmm... Ok, It's a loose analogy, but you understand what I mean.

And that's why, if you ever noticed, this final moment is when the priest holds the gifts the highest. Little inside presiding for you: there are three distinct levels at which the presider holds the gifts. The first is just above the altar; that's the level you use at the beginning, right before the eucharistic prayer: "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation..." It's a moment of acknowledging what we're working with. Then, there's the level you use when you're doing the institution. Some guys get all carried away and raise the bread and the wine way, way up, at this point -- why does it make me think of a kid saying "SOOO BIGG?" But if you're keeping to the moment, the reenactment of the Last Supper, the level should be more at eye level. You're not offering right now, you're presenting the gifts to the congregation.

At the end, you're offering and praising God for what He has done, and so then you raise those gifts high. Ideally, a person should be able to not hear any of the eucharistic prayer and still understand what is going on, just from the gestures. Each one identifies a different moment.

So, "When does it happen?", is actually a trick question. It's the prayer as a whole that is consecratory, not any one moment. Again, we are not in the business of magic spells -- much as we sometimes act this way. Transsubstantiation is not an "Alakazam!" kind of thing.

Wizzo, you're cute, but unacceptable.

And that's why after the institution the eucharistic prayer talks about us "offering in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice" and asks that God "look with favor" on it. The "moment" isn't over. In fact, it's not a moment at all! The action is ongoing.

Tomorrow: Things that We Do During the Eucharistic Prayer that Drive Me Batty.


Michelle said...

My parish doesn't ring the bells -- but even after 25 years I still hear them in my head (and wince...). Scarred for life, I'm afraid.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Seriously, there should be a Hitchcock film about those bells. They really do stay with you...