Hope and the Eucharist: “Holy, holy, holy!”

“This solemn liturgy which leads us to such great hopes.”   That’s how Theodore of Mopsuestia, one of Christian tradition’s great theologians of the Eucharist — was referring to the Eucharist over 1,600 years ago. 

Since Sunday is the day of the Eucharist, it’s a good day to reflect a bit on the connection between the Eucharist and hope.  And the connection is not a minor one.  In fact, I’d venture to say that there is no aspect of Catholic doctrine, faith, or spirituality that can do more to nourish our hope than the Eucharist.  Theodore of Mopsuestia was right on.

If hope is about our confidence in the promises of Christ and in the grace he offers us, if it is about our longing for and assurance of one day receiving the ultimate fulfullment of those promises and pinnacle of that grace in a definitive, eternal, and perfect union with God and one another, then in the Eucharist, our hope is not only strengthened — it already begins to be fulfilled.

We see this most clearly in the part of Mass called the Sanctus, the “Holy, Holy, Holy.”  Though most of the Eucharistic prayer is prayed by the priest, raising his voice to God in the name of the Church while the rest of us listen attentively and silently join our prayers to his, the Sanctus is one part where the entire Church gets to join its voices aloud together.  And for good reason!

There are two people in the Bible who are granted a vision of heaven: Isaiah the Prophet and John the Apostle.  They lived at least 700 years apart from each other, yet each offer a similar report.

Isaiah speak of his vision of heaven (in Isaiah 6)  like this:

I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two they veiled their feet, and with two they hovered aloft.  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!” they cried one to the other. “All the earth is filled with his glory!”

And here’s John, speaking (in Revelations 4) of his vision of the worship that goes on in the heavenly Jerusalem:

A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald.  Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God. In front of the throne was something that resembled a sea of glass like crystal. In the center and around the throne, there were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back.  The first creature resembled a lion, the second was like a calf, the third had a face like that of a human being, and the fourth looked like an eagle in flight.   The four living creatures, each of them with six wings, were covered with eyes inside and out. Day and night they do not stop exclaiming: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty, who was, and who is, and who is to come.”

We mustn’t miss that fact that we make those very words our own in our own at each Mass, in the Eucharistic prayer.  After speaking to the Father of the thanksgiving we offer him in Christ, the priest says:  “And so we join the angels and saints in proclaiming your glory” (or something similar, depending on the Eucharistic prayer being used).   

And the Church proclaims:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We use these words because of the ancient and strong conviction that when the Church gathers for the Eucharist, we join ourselves in a very real way to the heavenly liturgy.  (Or, in the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in the 4th century: “We say this doxology, which was given to us by the seraphim, in order that by sharing this hymn we may be associated with the heavenly hosts.”)

But don’t take my word for it.  The Second Vatican Council taught it beautifully in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 8 (which is also quoted directly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, article 1090):

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Saviour, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.

It’s put pretty well, too, in Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, article 50:

Our union with the Church in heaven is put into effect in its noblest manner especially in the sacred Liturgy, wherein the power of the Holy Spirit acts upon us through sacramental signs. Then, with combined rejoicing we celebrate together the praise of the divine majesty;(18*) then all those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ and gathered together into one Church, with one song of praise magnify the one and triune God. Celebrating the Eucharistic sacrifice therefore, we are most closely united to the Church in heaven in communion with and venerating the memory first of all of the glorious ever-Virgin Mary, of Blessed Joseph and the blessed apostles and martyrs and of all the saints.

When we’re at Mass, then, we’re already standing with one foot in heaven.  We join our tiny little prayers into the eternal praise of God that is going on there.  Indeed, Theodore of Mopsuestia and several other early Church Fathers were convinced that the only reason our Eucharist has any value was because it takes part in the infinite and infinitely powerful praise of the angels and saints of heaven, all of whom join in the eternal offering of Christ to the Father.

At Mass, we’re there.  We’re part of it.  The Sanctus reminds us of this.  (Here’s an illustration of how valuable it is to have that reminder there.  After the Second Vatican Council, when several new Eucharistic prayers were composed for use at Mass, one of those adapted for us was the ancient Eucharistic prayer found in the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus (see section 4 at this link for the Eucharistic prayer there).  It’s the oldest example we have of a Eucharistic prayer.  Except it didn’t have a Sanctus.  Rather than leave that venerable prayer as-is, Pope Paul VI insisted that a Sanctus be inserted into it before he approved its use in modern Catholic liturgy.  Today’s it’s Eucharistic Prayer II.) 

At Mass, all that we hope for is opened to us, made available to us, if only in a preliminary way.  No, we don’t have it completely and perfectly, as we one day will.  But it’s an initial sharing, a “downpayment,” to be probably too earthy about it.  Something to remind us of what is to come, and nourish our hope throughout this earthly pilgrimage.

No wonder the priest suggests at Mass that we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ”!  If that’s what we’re waiting for, you bet it’s a joyful wait.  If that’s what we’re doing at Mass, you bet it’s a meaningful Mass (regardless of the quality of the homily or the music)!

All of this merits some attention from any Catholic who could use a deepening of hope.  There is no secret formula to growing in hope.  It’s not available only to the super-spiritual, or the only the people smart enough to find the right book to explain it.  It’s right there in the Eucharist, to which we’re invited Sunday after Sunday, in the words we’re invited to pray along with the priest each and every time.  All we have to do is pay attention to what we’re praying.

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