The most popular book in the world, after the Bible, is The Imitation of Christ. Since it was published in the early fifteenth century, it has deeply influenced the spirituality of millions of believing Christians. Its basic theme is that, since Jesus Christ is true God and true man, by imitating Christ as man, we become more and more like Christ, who is God.
We commonly associate the imitation of Christ by following the example He gave us during His mortal and visible stay in Palestine two thousand years ago. However, as the great Eucharistic saints make clear, we are also to imitate Christ in the Holy Eucharist. After all, that is one reason why He instituted this sacrament. By reflecting on the virtues which the glorified Savior manifests in the Eucharist, we are inspired to imitate Him now living on earth in the sacrament of His love.
Before we go any further, let us be very clear in understanding that the whole Christ, in the fullness of His divinity and humanity, is among us in what we casually call the Real Presence. It is the same identical Jesus who was conceived in the womb of His Mother, who was born in Bethlehem, who lived for some thirty years in Palestine, who died on the cross on the first Good Friday, who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, and who is now seated at the right hand of His heavenly Father.
This now glorified Jesus is living among us as the primary source of the grace we need to reach our celestial destiny.
There are three forms of the sacrament of the Eucharist, as Real Presence, as the Sacrifice of the Mass, and as Holy Communion. We are to imitate the Eucharistic Christ on each of these three levels and obtain from Him the power we need to become more holy, which means to become more Christlike.
HUMILITY AND THE REAL PRESENCE
We know what humility is. It is the virtue that keeps a person from reaching beyond himself. It is the virtue that restrains the unholy desire for personal greatness and leads people to an orderly love of themselves based on a true appreciation of their position with respect to God and their neighbor. Humility recognizes one’s total dependence on God. Yet humility is not only opposed to pride; it is also opposed to immoderate self-abjection, which would fail to recognize God’s gifts and use them according to His divine will.
Humility is the one virtue that Christ most stressed in teaching us to follow Him. “Learn of Me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” During His whole visible stay on earth, Jesus practiced humility to a degree beyond our comprehension. A good definition of the Incarnation is the humiliation of God. The Creator of the universe, without losing His infinity, assumed our humanity. The Creator became a creature.
Now we turn to Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. During His visible stay on earth, the Savior concealed His divinity so that only His humanity could be seen. But in the Holy Eucharist, He hides not only His divinity but His humanity as well.
No one has improved on the hymn, Adoro Te, of St. Thomas in which we pray: “Only the Godhead was hidden on the cross, but here the humanity is hidden as well. Yet I believe and acknowledge them both, and make the same request as did the repentant thief. I do not see the marks of the wounds, as Thomas did, yet I too own You as my God. Grant me to believe in You always more and more.”
Whatever else is humility, it is not displaying the talents or the gifts we possess. Passage after passage in The Imitation of Christ tells us to be humble. Like the Savior, hidden in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, we literally hide what others may see and praise. Says A’ Kempis, “this is the highest science, truly to know and despise ourselves.” And again St. Bernard, “Humility is the mother of salvation.”
Where do we obtain the grace to be truly humble, which means never to exhibit, never to display, never to show off who we are or what we have in order to be praised by others? Where do we obtain this grace? From Jesus Christ, present in the Eucharist. The almighty God who became the Son of Mary appears now on earth only as what seems to be a piece of bread. We must beg Him, and I mean beg Him in the Blessed Sacrament to give us the humility, without which we cannot reach our heavenly destiny.
SELF-SURRENDER AND THE MASS
In the Sacrifice of the Mass, Jesus offers Himself to His heavenly Father just as truly as He offered Himself on the Cross. On Calvary, He offered Himself by shedding His blood and thus merited the salvation of the world. In the Mass, He continues to offer Himself just as truly as He did on the first Good Friday. But now, He confers the graces that He won for us on Calvary. What are these graces? In one sentence, they are the graces we need to surrender ourselves to the will of God.
The Church defines sacrifice as the voluntary surrender of something precious to God. That is why Christ continues to sacrifice Himself to His heavenly Father in every Mass that has been offered for the twenty centuries of Christianity. In every Mass, Jesus Christ is present in the fullness of His human nature and therefore with His human will. That is what the double consecration at Mass is all about. It signifies that Jesus is just as willing to shed His blood for our salvation as He willingly and actually shed His blood on Calvary. As the glorified Redeemer, He can no longer die. But He is willing to die.
It is from the Sacrifice of the Mass offered throughout the world that we obtain the strength we need to surrender ourselves to the divine will in this valley of tears.
As we all know from personal experience, God can make heavy demands on our generosity. He will send us trials and difficulties and sufferings. Why? In order that we may prove our submission to His divine will. God will take away so many things, dare I say everything that we consider precious in this world. Again why? In order that we may recognize Him as our Lord and ourselves as His servants.
No words can describe the depth of this necessity to surrender our created wills to the divine will of the Creator. Where, where can we obtain the courage we need to make this self-surrender? Where, except from the God who died on the Cross for our salvation and continues to offer Himself in every Mass.
The lesson this should teach us is obvious. We must assist at Mass as often as we can. We must learn to live the Mass by putting into practice the graces which the Savior gives us through the Holy Sacrifice.
One more observation, in the form of a long quotation from Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Mediator Dei, which is the foundation of the true spirit of the Second Vatican Council.
It is desirable that all the faithful should be aware that to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice is their chief duty and supreme dignity, and that not in an inert and negligent fashion, giving way to distractions and day-dreaming, but with such earnestness and concentration that they may be united as closely as possible with the High Priest, according to the apostle, Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil. 2, 5). And together with Him and through Him let them make their oblation, and in union with Him let them offer up themselves.
I do not think I need apologize for this long quotation. The widespread liturgical abuses in the offering of Mass should only inspire us to participate in the Holy Sacrifice as often and as fervently as possible. Saints like Leonard of Port Maurice do not hesitate to say that the world would long ago have been destroyed for its sins except for the Sacrifice of the Mass.
It is through the Mass we are able to imitate Jesus Christ in living lives of total self?surrender to the will of God.
SELF-LESS LOVE AND HOLY COMMUNION
We are speaking about the Imitation of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. What does He reveal to us when we receive Him in Holy Communion? He shows us how deeply and completely He loves us.
Whatever else love may seem to be, it is the giving of oneself to the one whom we love. Could Christ have shown His love for us more completely than by instituting the Eucharist as the communion of Himself with ourselves? When we receive Him, we receive the whole Christ, divinity and humanity, body and soul, flesh and blood. As the Church has solemnly defined, in Holy Communion we receive everything that makes Christ Christ. In Latin, we receive the totum Christum.
Here we could begin not just the closing of this conference but a two semester series of lectures on the blessings of Holy Communion.
We are to imitate Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist. When He comes to us in the Sacrament of Communion He shows us how deeply He loves us. But Holy Communion is not only a manifestation of His self?less love. It is also, and especially, the principal source of the strength we need to love Him with our whole heart and to love others out of love for Him.
That is why true love includes pain. It is the pain of giving up what I want out of love for the God who provides me with the privilege of proving my love by surrendering my heart to His Sacred Heart. That is also why the true love of others means that I am ready, even happy, to suffer for the one I claim to love, like the one I say I love, with the one whom I love and, what is most demanding, suffering from the one whom I love.
All of this would be pious fiction except for our faith. We believe that every Holy Communion enables us to do the humanly impossible, to practice the heroic charity which the Savior tells us is the hallmark of being a true Christian, “You are my disciples if you love one another even as I have loved you.” Jesus died on His cross out of love for us. By receiving Him often, even daily, we are enabled to die on our daily cross out of love for those whom He puts into our lives to show how much we love Him.