Steps into the Eucharist: The Phenomenology of the Mass

Phenomenology deals with the structure of the appearance of things. It tries to describe the manner in which various kinds of things appear to us, the manner in which they are disclosed. It is appropriate for us to use phenomenology in reflecting on the Eucharist, because the Eucharist, while being a true sacrifice and while involving the Real Presence of Christ, shares with all the sacraments the character of being a sign, and hence its mode of appearing is of particular importance.

In our Christian faith, we believe that the celebration of the Eucharist reenacts the sacrificial death of Jesus. The double consecration, the separate consecration of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ, symbolizes the death of Christ: the wine represents his blood as poured out for us in a violent death. One and the same sacrifice of Christ is achieved at Calvary and in the Eucharist, but in a different way: in a bloody manner on Calvary and in an unbloody manner in the Eucharist.

Consider the way in which the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the sacrifice of Calvary, is manifested to us. Although the Eucharist reenacts the death of Christ, it does not do so immediately or directly. The Eucharist is not like a ritualized Passion play. It is not a simple and direct representation. Rather, it reenacts the death of Christ indirectly, through the mediation of the Last Supper. The Eucharist goes back first to the Last Supper, and through the Last Supper it reaches the redemptive death of Christ.

The Eucharist can do so because the Last Supper anticipated the sacrificial death of Christ. We can reenact the redemptive death of Christ because he anticipated that same death. Thus, the temporal structure of the appearance of the Eucharist is complex, involving a blend of memory and anticipation. In the Eucharist we remember something (the Last Supper) which in turn anticipated something (the death of Christ), and in that way we reenact our redemption and make it present to ourselves in our time and place.

As we celebrate the Eucharist now we have a double perspective on the event of the death of Christ; we look back at it from our own point of view and our own time, through our own eyes and our own recollection. But in addition, when we recite the Eucharistic narrative and the words of institution, we look forward to the death of Christ through the eyes of Christ Himself, whose voice comes to life in the words of consecration.

This shift of perspective — from that of the Church celebrating the Eucharist here and now to that of Christ at the Last Supper — is brought out by a remarkable shift in the language, the grammar, of the Eucharistic prayer. The grammatical change is a phenomenon of great simplicity but great force. Throughout the Eucharistic prayer, from the beginning of the Preface to the great Amen, the priest speaks in the first-person plural. He says that “we” come before the Father and offer Him our praise; he asks the Father to give “us” His blessing and His peace, he prays for “our” pope and bishops and Church. When using this plural form, the priest speaks in the name of the local community and of the Church as a whole.

At the central point of the Eucharistic prayer, however, within the context set by the prayers spoken by “us,” and within the narrative describing the Last Supper, which is also stated by “us,” the celebrant begins to quote the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and in this quotation he speaks in the first-person singular: “This is my body . . . This is the cup of my blood.” This grammatical shift from the first-person plural to the first-person singular is dramatic and profound. It is not merely linguistic. It signals a shift of perspective from our own place and time, wherever and whenever it may be, to the one place and time when Christ addressed His disciples on the eve of His passion and death.

The Eucharist is celebrated, and has been and will be celebrated, in many places and at many times. All the believers in those celebrations — in Rome, New York, Tokyo, or Calcutta; in Antioch, Corinth, or Athens — all these people, wherever and whenever they may have been, with their different perspectives on the death of Christ, all are brought together into that one perspective, that one place and time in Jerusalem, when the Lord Jesus, on the night before He suffered, took bread and wine and gave them to His disciples with the words we have come to call the words of institution. The Church in all the varied times and places of her Eucharist is brought back to the upper room in Jerusalem when her priest, in a quotation, allows Christ to say, “This is my body, . . . this is the cup of my blood.” All the believers who share in the Eucharist are brought into the perspective that was held by Christ.

Saint Thomas observes that the use of the first-person singular in the Eucharistic consecration is different from its usage in the other sacraments. In the cases of baptism and penance, for example, when the minister of the sacrament says, “I baptize you,” or “I absolve you from your sins,” he speaks in his own voice. Aquinas says that the “form” or verbal expression of such sacraments is stated “by the minister speaking in his own person.” The minister, speaking as a minister of the Church, expresses himself as the one doing the baptizing and the one forgiving sins. In the Eucharist, however, the “my” stated in the words of consecration is the first-person singular uttered by Christ and only quoted by the priest. Saint Thomas says that the words expressed in this sacrament are now spoken as though spoken by Christ Himself: “The minister who accomplishes this sacrament does nothing except to state the words of Christ” (S. Th. III.78.1.c; for the explicit distinction between the consecration, which is carried out by the priest in persona Christi, and the prayers of the Mass, which the priest says in persona ecclesiae, see III.82.1 and 6). In the words used by the encyclical Mediator dei (69) and taken from Saint John Chrysostom, the priest “lends his tongue and gives his hand” to Christ: his tongue allows Christ’s words to be stated again, and his hand allows Christ’s gesture of taking the bread and the wine to be carried out again.

The interplay of the first-person plural (“we”) and the first-person singular (“I”) occurs within the wider context of the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, which develops in a beautiful progression of stages. First, there are the introductory greetings, prayers, and rituals in which the local community is assembled: the Church is actualized into this time and place, into this particular church, this particular manifestation of the Body of Christ. Second, once assembled, the community listens and responds to the word of God in the scriptural readings and responsorial psalm, as well as in the application made to the present in the homily and the prayer of the faithful. Third, having assembled and heard God’s word, the community, now acting even more explicitly through the priest, carries out its Eucharistic action, which ends in the “application” that occurs in communion, as the altar becomes the table of the Eucharistic meal. The Eucharistic action can be carried out only by the baptized; although catechumens can share in the initial assembly and in hearing the word of God, they cannot, in principle, participate in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the reception of the Eucharistic meal; only those who are formally members of the Body of Christ can do so. Eucharistically the catechumens can hear but they cannot yet act, while the baptized can both listen and act.

The Presence of Christ

The three stages of the Mass involve many presences of Christ in His Church: the community itself establishes a particular presence of the Body of Christ, Christ is present in the minister who celebrates the Eucharist, He is present in the Scriptures read during the liturgy of the Word, and He becomes sacramentally present as He is both offered in sacrifice and received in communion during the liturgy of the Eucharist (see Vatican II’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 7). These presences are graded in intensity, leading up to the Real Presence of Christ that occurs when the bread and wine are changed in their substance into the Body and Blood of the Lord. In the words of the great Orthodox theologian, Alexander Schmemann, “The Word assembles the Church for His Incarnation in her.” Moreover, there is a graded order among those who participate in the Eucharist, particularly between the priest and the congregation. This order emerges not because of any personal qualities of the individual celebrant, but because the ordained celebrant represents Christ the Lord. The liturgy culminates in the assumption of the voice of the celebrant by the quoted words and voice of Christ. In a sacramentally and grammatically perceptible way, Christ becomes the speaker of the words of institution and the doer of the gestures associated with them. Through quotation, the words and gestures of institution become those of Christ, as the “we” of the community, the Body of Christ, becomes the “I” of Christ the Head of His Body the Church. In this assumption of the words and gestures of the priest, Christ becomes not only the one offered, but also the one who offers the sacrifice of the Mass.

To specify more exactly how the words and actions of the priest become the same as the words and actions of Christ, we must discuss the mode of presentation that occurs in the Eucharist. The priest quotes the words of Jesus and his actions quote the actions of Christ. It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the priest is involved in a dramatic reenactment of the Lord’s conduct at the first Eucharist. The Mass is not a depiction of the Last Supper. We have said earlier that the Mass is not a ritualized Passion play; the Eucharist reenacts the death and Resurrection of Christ sacramentally and not mimetically. But it is also true that the Mass is not a play, a dramatic reenactment, of the Last Supper, with the celebrant taking the role of Christ and the congregation the role of the apostles. It is true that the priest lends his voice and his hand to Christ, but he does not do so in the manner of an actor.

Quotation, not Drama

Quotation, even bodily quotation, is not the same as dramatic representation. There is a phenomenological difference between quotation and dramatic depiction.

The current form of the liturgy makes us somewhat inclined to think of the Eucharist as a depiction of the Last Supper, a small drama representing it. The priest stands facing the people, who are assembled around the altar as we might think the apostles were around the table before Christ in the upper room. The bread and wine are taken up and later distributed. The ritual seems very much like a dramatic representation of what occurred at the first Eucharist, with the priest in the role of Christ and the people in that of the apostles. The impression of being a dramatic reenactment is strengthened by a practice that has become very common in the new liturgy. Very often the priest, at the consecration, will look at the congregation when he says, “Take this, all of you, and eat it,” or, with the wine, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it.” It might seem, therefore, that his words are being directly addressed to the people participating in the Mass. The priest and the congregation seem to be acting, out the Last Supper.

However, the rubrics do not say that the celebrant should look at the congregation when he recites these words. The rubrics state that he should bow slightly before saying them. When he says the words he is to look at the host or the chalice and repeat what Christ said to His apostles at the Last Supper. When he bows in this way, it becomes clear that the priest is not depicting but quoting. Furthermore, in the old rite, when the Mass was said facing the altar and not the congregation, it was obvious that the priest was not dramatically representing the Last Supper.

Quotation is, in fact, a more suitable vehicle than dramatic depiction for allowing the Eucharist to reenact the redemptive action of Jesus. There are several reasons for this.

(1) Pictures, including dramatic representations, serve to draw the depicted into our present context, whereas quotations move us from our present situation to another context, to the context in which the person quoted was speaking. A dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper would seem to make the Last Supper present here and now, while a quotation of the words and gestures of Christ more clearly takes us back to the time and place of the Last Supper.

(2) To consider the Eucharist as a depiction of the Last Supper would obscure the fact that the Eucharist reenacts the redemptive death of Christ. The vividness of the dramatic presentation of the Last Supper would tend to “crowd out,” so to speak, the sacramental presentation of the act of our Redemption. The Eucharist would tend to become understood primarily as a commemoration, a play, of the Last Supper; it would tend to be taken primarily as a meal and not a reenactment of the sacrifice of Calvary.

(3) To take the Mass as a drama representing the Last Supper would also make us overlook the fact that the institutional narrative and the words of institution are set within a prayer addressed to God the Father. The quotation of the words and gestures of Christ is made with God as the one being addressed, not the congregation. If the Mass were to be taken to depict the Last Supper, the emphasis would be placed on the effect the representation has on the congregation; the center of gravity would be moved from addressing the Father to presenting a play to the congregation or to involving the congregation in the play. The primary axis would be between the priest and the people, not between the priest (and people) and God. Once again, the Eucharist would tend to become interpreted simply as a meal and not a sacrifice to God. If we are to respect the sacramental integrity of the Eucharist, therefore, we must be clearly aware of the form of presentation at work in it.

I would like to emphasize the importance of the fact that the Eucharistic prayer, including the institutional narrative and the words of consecration, is directed toward the Father. In fact, it is because the Eucharistic prayer takes place before the eternal Father that the sacrifice of the Eucharist can be the same as the sacrifice of Calvary. The redemptive death of Christ is eternally present to God, and when we proclaim the death of the Lord, we proclaim it before the Father; we enter into its presence before Him. It is for this reason that our sacrifice is the same that the Father received from the Son. The Eucharist transcends worldly time and human history because God transcends time and history, and because the sacrifice of Jesus was an action, an exchange, that stretched beyond historical time. It was the decisive action done before the Father, and we in our Eucharist are made present to that action that was once made present and is always present to Him.

The “ontological” issues of the Eucharist — Transubstantiation, the Real Presence, the identity of the sacrifice of the altar and the Cross — are therefore dependent on the “mode of appearance” of the sacrament. It is because the Eucharist is offered before the eternal Father that Transubstantiation can occur. The Eucharistic image can blend with the original before God in a way that image and original cannot blend in our normal worldly representations. The identity that is manifested to us is dependent on the identity achieved before the Father. The Eucharist brings about a change in the substance of bread and wine, but it can achieve such a change precisely because it takes place before the God Who transcends the world and its history. Thus, the issues of substance treated in the scholastic theology of the Eucharist are dependent on the issues addressed in a phenomenological analysis, which examines the mode of presentation of the sacrament.

The Eucharistic quotations are not primarily addressed to the congregation but to the Father, before Whom the sacrifice of the Cross is eternally present. In contrast, however, the words that Christ uttered at the Last Supper were directed toward His disciples. An overtone or a subtext of such an address to the disciples certainly remains in the Mass; the quoted words of Christ also speak to the faithful who participate in the Eucharist, but they do so secondarily, and this address should not be allowed to overshadow the primary address made by the Church to the Father.

(4) Quotation is a linguistic form that allows Christ to be the priest Who offers the sacrifice of the Mass. When we quote someone, we appeal to that person’s authority. We express a claim about something, but we indicate that the claim is not primarily ours; we do not exercise our own authority but invoke the authority and rely on the responsibility of another person, the one whom we are quoting.

When we quote the words of Christ at the consecration, we quote Him as anticipating His own redemptive death. In His words at the Last Supper He dedicated Himself to that sacrifice and pre-enacted what was to occur. The Church allows Christ Himself to speak again, using the voice of the priest as His instrument. It allows Christ to do again what He did at the Last Supper, which anticipated what He did on Calvary. The grammatical form of quotation allows Christ to be the offerer as well as the one offered at the Eucharist.

The Eucharist, like the sacrifice of Calvary, is offered not simply by man to God or by us to God; it is an offering and a sacrifice accomplished by God Himself, by the incarnate Son toward the Father. It is an exchange between the persons of the Holy Trinity, an exchange into which creation and the human race have been allowed to enter through the mystery of the Incarnation. The sacredness of this offering, the fact that it is achieved by the eternal Son Who became man, is expressed by the quotational form of speech, which allows Christ to be the speaker of the core of the offering, the one who declares what is taking place. It is expressed by the quotational form of speech that is carried on before the Father, before Whom the quotation is made, and it allows the obedient and redemptive action between the Son and the Father to take place again. At the center of the Eucharistic action, the Church forgoes any verbal initiative of its own and lets Christ Himself both speak and act.

Contrast the consecration of the Mass with the offertory. In the offertory the gifts are prepared for the consecration; the bread and wine are taken out of their normal use and dedicated to the ritual that will follow. The prayers of the offertory, however, are stated simply in the voice of the Church, not that of Christ. The offertory represents what the Eucharist would be like if Christ were not the one Who offers the sacrifice of the Mass: it would be our gift to God of the food by which we are nourished, our return to Him of His gift of creation, but it would not be the reenactment of the redemptive sacrifice made by the Son to the Father.

(5) Observe, too, that the gestures of Christ are also quoted, not imitated or depicted or dramatized, in the institutional narrative, when, for example, the priest takes up the bread and wine. The gestures are less central than the words, but they are important and they enhance the piety of the prayer. They bring out the fact that the Last Supper was an action and not merely a verbal exhortation, that Christ did something then and does something now. The difference between mimetic, dramatic action and quoted action is a difference in modes of presentation, one that a phenomenological analysis would be especially sensitive to.

From Prayer to Narration to Quotation

(6) A word should be said about the institutional narrative, the recitation of what Christ did: “The day before he suffered, he took bread. . . .” The canon of the Mass moves from prayer to narration to quotation, and all three forms of discourse are expressed before the Father. The institutional narrative provides an apt setting for the words of consecration, since every quotation requires at least an elementary narrative report, such as the phrase, “He said,” as an introduction. In the Eucharist we turn from prayer to narration; we mention a particular place and time and say what Christ did there and then; this recital provides a context for us to quote what He said, thereby allowing Him to say it again. Quotation fits best into narrative, not into prayer: a transition between the prayer and the words of institution would be grammatically abrupt and would lack context.

These speculative remarks about quotation have a practical application in the attitude that the priest and the congregation should adopt during the Eucharist. It is especially important to remember that the Eucharistic prayer is directed toward God; it should be both read and heard with that focus in mind. The Preface begins the Eucharistic address to the Father and the Sanctus places us before the glorious presence of God in a spirit of adoration and reverence. In that spirit we continue the prayer, which flows into the narrative of institution, which in turn culminates in the quoted words of Christ, whose words are spoken in anticipation of his redemptive death and resurrection. These transitions in the mode of address and the mode of presence help raise our hearts to the celestial liturgy, even when we pray as members of the Church on earth and recall the events of the Last Supper. The priest faces the people, but he does not address them during the Eucharistic prayer; both he and they speak to the God who created and redeemed us through His Son.

Our discussion of the mode of presence of the Eucharist has been carried out from a phenomenological point of view. We could call our description an attempt at “phenomenological theology,” but this term is awkward in English; I suggest that we use the terms “theology of disclosure” or “theology of manifestation” instead. Such a theology can serve as a helpful addition to both scholastic speculative theology and positive historical theology. The theology of disclosure examines Christian things in regard to the structure of their appearance: not only how they have in fact been revealed to us in the course of history, but how they must appear and differentiate themselves from other phenomena. It strives to bring to light necessities of manifestation. In this way, a theology of disclosure can mediate between historical and scholastic theology, and make the things of our faith more vividly present to us.

 Bibliographical Note

I have used a phenomenological approach to theology in my book, Eucharistic Presence: A Study in the Theology of Disclosure (The Catholic University of America Press, 1994). Besides examining the Eucharist, the book discusses theological doctrines, such as Creation and Redemption, that serve as the context for the sacrament, as well as the concept of sacrifice. It also describes the nature of a theology of disclosure, relating it to current philosophical and cultural issues concerning appearances. On Pope John Paul II’s use of phenomenology, see Robert Sokolowski, “What is Phenomenology?” and Kenneth Schmitz, “Modernity Meets Tradition: The Philosophic Originality of Wojtyla,” in Crisis, April 1994. For Alexander Schmemann’s discussion of the Eucharist, see The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988). Klaus Gamber criticizes the interpretation of the Mass as a dramatic depiction in The Reform of the Roman Liturgy (Una Voce Press, 1993). Gamber observes that our standard image of the Last Supper, of which Leonardo da Vinci’s painting is the most famous example, is a medieval development. The original configuration was different, as archeological excavations and earlier depictions show (see Gamber, Ritus Modernus [Pustet, 1972.] and The Reform of the Roman Liturgy).


  • Robert Sokolowski

    Robert Sokolowski is the Elizabeth Breckenridge Caldwell Professor of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

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