I wish to talk about the meaning of the three prayers which the priest recites right before his own Communion at Mass. Not only are they an appropriate way of preparing the celebrant to commune with the thoughts of Christ but they show also a rich theological insight into the mystery of Holy Communion.
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Who didst say to Thy Apostles, peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: regard not my sins, but the faith of Thy Church, and vouchsafe to her that peace and unity which is agreeable to Thy will. Who livest and reignest, God, forever and ever. Amen.”
Here, this prayer is addressed to Christ to grant the Church the peace He gave to His Apostles at the last Supper and in the evening of Easter Sunday: “My peace I give to you… Peace be with you.” What is the nature of this peace? It is signified by what takes place at the solemn Mass: the priest along with the deacon kisses the altar, and gives him the sign of peace saying: “Peace be with you,” to which the deacon answers: “And with Your Spirit.” The deacon then transmits it to the subdeacon, who repeats this gesture to all clerics present. What is indicated in the sign of peace is the unity among all clergy members.
This peace which Our Lord wishes to grant is not the same as the world understands it. In the world, perfect peace is absent. We are constantly tossed around, perturbed by events and people and things. Man in the world is distracted from that rest which alone feeds the deepest needs of our soul.
We understand peace as that which satisfies all our desires. Wherever there is desire, there is no peace. But once we have it all, we are at rest and we enjoy peace. Raised to the spiritual realm, divine peace can only be the fruit of charity, the greatest of all virtues. And pretty much as charity feeds on the two horns of the love of God and the love of neighbor, peace, likewise, consists in the twin love of God and neighbor.
We enjoy truly God’s love when He becomes the sole object of our desire. “God alone!” is written in every saintly soul. The Psalm 94 indicates that our rest is found in God. In its full sense, happiness, and beatitude, consists in the possession and vision of God’s goodness. True divine peace reigns in the soul, but it comes at a price. It is given us only when we wish for God alone and His glory. It is achieved only when we have silenced the distractions and nagging of creatures: “Love the Lord Thy God above all else.”
And once purified, this love of God conveys along with it the love of neighbor. True charity consists in making ours the desire of our neighbor: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This translates into: “Love one another as you would have them love you.” This altruistic love must be free like Our Savior’s love for us. We need to offer love firstly, and hope it will be reciprocated; and if not, it will be so much the more gracious and Christlike. It must be unconditional too, seeking after all the things which our neighbors desire and which we would wish to receive from them. It must be affective and effective, that is to say, in thoughts, words and deeds, sometimes demanding a wholesale sacrifice: “Better love no one has had than to give his life for those he loves.”
This double love of God and neighbor is the source of true peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers” is the beatitude which crowns the virtue of charity. By contrast, the more desires we have other than God and our neighbor, the less peace will reign in our soul.
“O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, Who according to the will of the Father, through the cooperation of the Holy Ghost, hast by Thy death given life to the world: deliver me by this, Thy most sacred Body and Blood, from all my iniquities and from all evils; and make me always adhere to Thy commandments, and never suffer me to be separated from Thee. Who with the same God the Father and the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest, God, forever and ever. Amen.”
This prayer begins with a profession of faith in Christ. It echoes that of Peter in St. Matthew XVI: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the Living One.” (The Jews would never dare utter God’s name.) Peter was rewarded for his solemn profession of faith by Our Lord promising to give him the Papacy over His Church.
The prayer mentions the cooperation, besides the Son, of God the Father and God the Holy Ghost in the work of Redemption summed up in striking words said of Christ who “hast by Thy death given life to the world.”
How the Father participated in the Redemption is told us by St. Paul to the Romans: “The Father did not spare His only Son, but delivered Him for us.” God the Father preordained the work of Redemption which was to be fulfilled in His own Son. St. Thomas Aquinas adds that the heavenly Father infused in the human soul of Christ the charity to suffer for us, so that He would thus fulfill “the will of His Father.” He also was involved in the Passion of Christ by not protecting Him from His executioners, which occasioned Christ’s cry on the cross: “My God, why hast Thou forsaken me!”
But the Holy Ghost was also involved in the mystery of Redemption in that He provided the matter for the sacrifice, as it is indicated in the words of the Angel Gabriel to Mary: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon Thee.”
After this preamble, the prayer begs for the communicant to receive the fruit of the Redemption, by saying: “deliver me from all my iniquities and from all evils.” It continues with a double positive petition: “make me always adhere to Thy commandments, and never suffer me to be separated from Thee.”
Can we truly say that Holy Communion preserves us from all sins? In as much as Communion is received by way of food and medicine by the body, it signifies the help which the Eucharistic Christ gives the soul by protecting it from decay and corruption. Or, as St. John Chrysostom puts it: “Holy Communion makes us as lions breathing for fire and terrible to the devils.”
After communion, we do not reach heaven. So how does Holy Communion provide us with eternal life? This effect is only mediately, after our human existence with Christ suffering. As Christ our Head suffered on earth, so we also must suffer with Christ in order to reign one day with Him. In this sense, and only in this sense, the Holy Eucharist is a pledge of eternal life.
“Let not the partaking of Thy Body, O Lord Jesus Christ, which I, unworthy, presume to receive, turn to my judgment and condemnation; but through Thy goodness may it be to me a safeguard and remedy both of soul and body. Who with God the Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, livest and reignest, God, forever and ever. Amen.”
The third prayer starts with an avowal: only God is worthy of God. No man, however saintly he be, is ever worthy of hosting the Living God!
It asks also that “it be to me a safeguard and remedy both of soul and body.” The aspect of protection and remedy refers again to the species of food. As human food and drink restore man’s health, so also the Holy Eucharist acts as a safeguard against temptations and a remedy to our spiritual losses.
One might rightly wonder how the prayer can be so bold in mentioning the body along with the soul. How can one say that Holy Communion, the spiritual food for the spiritual soul, profits also the material body? This is due to the intimate connection—they call it psychosomatic union—that joins body and soul. It is not improper to affirm that the sanity and integrity which the soul enjoys by grace will have physical repercussions upon the body too, although the negative impact may be felt more visibly in souls dispossessed of God. Likewise, hereafter, the body will share in the glory and splendor of the just soul in heaven.
By contrast with the other sacraments, the Holy Eucharist acts as a sustenance and preservation of divine life within the soul. It preserves from decay and ulterior death. It urges the soul to practice all Christian virtues under the motion of charity. This practice of the highest virtues should connaturally culminate in the perfect “communion” with Our Lord: our mind one with His mind, our soul with His soul, leading to the transformation into Christ in the words of St. Paul: “I live, not I, but Christ in me.” Holy Communion is the tremendous gift of God to unworthy man, and it belongs to us to approach this divine mystery with fear, humility and hope, not unlike Moses climbing the Sinai Mountain to meet the Lord of Hosts face to face.