Why Holy Communion is the most astounding food on earth
November 14, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — I don’t know what it is about November, but it always makes me think more about food. It could be that the weather is getting noticeably colder (at least in the northern hemisphere), and one seems to need more sustenance, not to mention hot beverages. It could be St. Martin’s day, which brings to mind the roast goose we ate on November 11 in Austria during the years I spent there with my family. It could, naturally, be the anticipated aroma of Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the cause, I have tried to turn the inner rumblings to advantage by asking myself what God intended to teach us when He made us the sort of beings who have mouths and stomachs, who need to keep taking in substance from the outside in order to live, and who in this way are both dependent on the cosmos and superior to it, because we can transform some small portion of it into ourselves.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a reliable and profound guide to the seven sacraments of the Church, tells us we can learn about the effects of each sacrament by looking to the typical effects of the material things and actions it makes use of. For example, water washes off dirt from the skin and refreshes when ingested; thus, in baptism, guilt and sin are washed away, and the soul is refreshed with the grace of adoption.
In the case of the Eucharist, the matter employed (by Christ’s institution) is wheaten bread and wine made from grapes, which are food and drink for man — the most basic food, one might say, and the best beverage nature and human art produce for our enjoyment. Thus, the proper effect of the Eucharist can be discerned from the effects of the consumption of food and drink in the one who receives them: the restoration of lost bodily matter and, should there be surplus, an increase of bodily substance. To these physical effects, St. Thomas likens the sacramental effects of an increase in “spiritual quantity” (where “quantity” means the extent of active power) by the strengthening of the virtues and a restoration of wholeness through the forgiveness of venial sin or the repairing of defects.
But if we left off our account there, we would miss the most important point.
Following St. Augustine, St. Thomas says there is a crucial difference between the bodily food of any ordinary human meal and the spiritual food of Holy Communion. Bodily food has its effect, to restore lost flesh and increase its quantity by being converted or turned into the one fed. Spiritual food, on the contrary — or to be more precise, Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, who is really, truly, substantially present in the Most Holy Eucharist — is not converted into the one eating; the one eating is rather converted into (i.e., turned ever more toward and likened unto) Christ, for He acts upon the communicant to turn him into Himself.
The notion of being changed into the food we eat might seem odd, since that would be exactly the contrary of what happens with all other food and drink. Were the food in question mere food, it would be impossible to speak this way, as Jesus recognizes when He says: “the flesh profits nothing” (Jn. 6:64) — that is, as the Church Fathers interpret the saying, mere flesh is lifeless in that it cannot bring the life of holiness to the spirit. But if the food is the life-giving flesh of the living Son of God, a believer’s contact with it leads to life, renewal, deification, provided he is in a state to profit from it.
This truth is central to the theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria (378–444), the first patristic authority St. Thomas cites in the important question in the Summa theologiae on the effects of the Eucharist:
The life-giving Word of God, uniting himself to his own flesh, made it life-giving. It was becoming, therefore, that he be in a certain way united to our bodies through his sacred flesh and precious blood, which we receive in a life-giving blessing in bread and wine. (III, q. 79, a. 1)
As Fr. Emile Mersch explains:
Union with food is effected in a mysterious exchange of life, in an assimilation by which one becomes the other. But in the Eucharist, the more vital of the two is the bread we receive, the “bread of life.” This bread consumes and changes into itself the one who eats it. (Theology of the Mystical Body, 590–91)
This it can do because it is none other than the Lord in person, under the appearances of bread and wine. United to Jesus through faith and love, the communicant “is transformed into Him and becomes His member,” says Thomas, “for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but turns into itself the one who takes it[.] ... This is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity” (On the Gospel of John 6, lec. 7, §969). In the Sentences, Thomas simply says: “The proper effect of this sacrament is the conversion of man into Christ, that it might be said with the Apostle, ‘I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me’” (In IV Sent., d. 12, q. 2, a. 1, qa. 1).
In addition to St. Augustine and St. Cyril, St. Thomas, devoted to the Church Fathers as he is, cites the potent words of St. John Damascene (676–749): “The fire of that desire which is in us, taking ignition from the burning coal (that is, from this sacrament), will burn up our sins and illuminate our hearts, so that by partaking of the divine fire we may be set on fire and deified” (ST III, q. 79, a. 8, sed contra). When we receive the Eucharist in a state of grace, we are feasting upon this fire of love, letting it permeate and burn into all the powers and passivities of soul and body.
St. Thomas gave himself body and soul to the Holy Mysteries because in them he found his beloved Lord, and through them feasted upon His love. He was convinced that of all the good things Jesus wants for us, the foremost is an intimate friendship with each person who believes in Him (cf. Jn 15:13–15). Giving reasons in support of the Real Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament, Thomas says:
Such a thing befits Christ’s love, out of which He took up a true body of our nature, for the sake of our salvation. And since “to live together is most of all proper to friends,” as the Philosopher says, He promises His own bodily presence to us as a reward[.] ... Yet meanwhile, His bodily presence has not abandoned us in this sojourning; rather, He joins us to Himself in this sacrament through the truth of His body and blood, as He Himself says in John 6:57: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me, and I in him.” This sacrament is a sign of the greatest love, and the support of our hope, from so close a joining of Christ to us. (ST III, q. 75, a. 1)
All of this takes place in the dark, the darkness of faith; it is with good reason that Aquinas insists on the cloudy, enigmatic nature of the sacramental event. As Charles De Koninck writes:
It is, then, by a truly unparalleled mercy that God has deigned to meet us in perfect night and that, in order to elevate us to his own heights, he has satisfied for all our insufficiencies, and has asked of us, in our act of faith, an abnegation analogous to that of his Son. ... Is it not a mercy admirable above all that, abandoned by all, we can go nowhere else except to Him, in surrender to this mystery of Faith where hides, in a perfectly adapted silence, the one whose name is Word?
This Word-made-flesh, who delivered Himself to death for me, now plants within me the seed of His glorified humanity and invincible divinity. If we have this gift, what can we be said to lack? Truly, in “the divine, holy, most pure, immortal, heavenly, life-creating, and awesome mysteries of Christ” (Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom), all has been prepared, provided, delivered. Alleluia.
 See Mersch, The Whole Christ, 337–58.