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The Priest and the Eucharist by Louis Bouyer from 'To be a priest'

The Priest and the Eucharist

by Louis Bouyer

from To be a priest, pp. 103-109,
edited by Robert E. Terwilliger and Urban T. Holmes, Seabury Press, New York, 1975.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions.

Louis Bouyer, priest of the Oratory, is a theologian of liturgy and spirituality. He has lectured at the Institut Catholique in Paris and has published widely in the field of liturgy and spirituality.

The priest is, above all, the man responsible for the Eucharist. To see this as the most central of his functions is the best way to perceive the various aspects of his role in their proper perspective and organic unity. But this requires that we recover the full and wide vision of the Eucharist, or more precisely of the complete eucharistic celebration.

If it is true that the priest, as the minister par excellence of Christ, is to be a “man for others,” it is in the full eucharistic celebration that “the others” are brought together, and reconciled to one another by heing reconciled to God in Christ. Not only is the eucharistic celebration the supreme manifestation of this unique society, the Church of Christ, at once interpersonal and universal; it is also in and through this celebration itself that the Church, as St. Paul says, is “edified”; that is, is “built” out of “living stones” into that total body of Christ which is to become the temple of the Spirit. This building of the eucharistic temple in which we ourselves are introduced as so many living stones, implies the taking up of all our human activities into a higher reality. It involves not only the fulfillment of the ideal human society, the City of God among men, but the ultimate completion of the cosmos itself, so as to make God in Christ, through the Church, all in all things.

If we adopt this perspective, which is that of the New Testament, especially of the Epistle to the Ephesians, we have the most precise, and also the most inspiring and exalted vision of the total humanity and reality of the role of the priest.

Primarily—and I insist on this—because the eucharistic celebration is the Church seen in the making, and because the priest is, first of all, minister of it, he is not a “man for others” in any vague or shallow meaning. He is the man who is to enable his fellow men to become fully themselves by living in the common fulfillment of the society of divine love among men, working together and individually to bring the world at large to its final goal, its own proper consummation.

The priest, in spite of the singularity of his vocation, is not an isolated man. He is to live among all sorts and conditions of men to help them to live together. He is to make them realize that their distinctive activities, their distinctive types of life are consonant and concordant parts of a great enthusiastic purpose within a most intimate but widely open community. They do not simply receive this community ready-made, but build it up—edify it—by their own unique and irreplaceable contributions into its ultimate perfection in Christ.

In this work the priest is to be the confidant of all, able not only to sympathize equally with all but to bring to all—in spite of his own limitations, inadequacies, and even shortcomings—what they need to find their place in the world and to be fully themselves, by being taken up into the most wonderful exchange, not only among all men, all created beings, but between the whole creation and its Creator—and everyone with his most personal Savior.

How can this be? We shall begin to discover it by considering in depth the first role the priest assumes in the celebration of the Eucharist, the ministry of the word of God to man. This is above all the ministry of the Gospel, the Good News of salvation in Christ.

This ministry of the word, which is now the first part of the eucharistic celebration, is the final blossoming of what had become the liturgy of the synagogue at the time of Christ. This, in turn, is seen by Judaism as making its first appearance and disclosing its full meaning in the ninth and tenth chapters of Nehemiah. There we find the scribe Ezra, after the return of the exiles, in a Jerusalem still desolated, which they are trying to rebuild. He gathers the people on the site of the ruined Temple, and reads to them the whole of the five Books of Moses, the permanent nucleus of their Bible and ours. These had just been definitively compiled by his fellow scribes during the captivity. They had done this to prepare for the new gathering and rebuilding on the basis of a renewed faith in the saving deeds of God in the past, now to prolong itself into the faith in God’s readiness to repair, to restore, and ultimately to fulfill the hope of Israel.

Now they hear together the whole great epic of creation and salvation—the initial fall of man, who is made after God’s image; the election and separation of Abraham; then the similar separation and exodus of the children of Abraham, freed from material and spiritual captivity out of Egypt to be brought through the desert land to the land of promise, the land where they would be at home with God, who has become their God, and they a people after God’s own heart.

That reading, however, since it concluded with the solemn warnings and promises of Moses in Deuteronomy, could not but make them interpret their own exile and return from captivity as a new Exodus. Again the people of God, having been thrown into the crucible of such a trial, at last are to be disengaged, as a true and faithful remnant, from the mass of unbelievers, and gathered into a newly built Jerusalem, there to serve God forever in his perfect service.

This reading was not for them a pious remembrance of the past. They heard it at this precise moment in their personal and individual history. It made clear to them that the God who had spoken to their fathers all through that history was speaking to them in the same way, in a manner still more decisive here and now. Here was the gathering together of a renewed and perfected people of God, having had its faith put to the test, in order to build together with God, not only Jerusalem, but a temple, the temple of the living God now and forever living in men fully alive.

Soon, however—we see this in the Book of Haggai—the reconstructed city, the rededicated Temple, far from being the perfect city and the eternal temple expected, were but a shadow of the former city and the glory of its Temple. The faithful remnant had not been purified and refined into the faithful servant of the second Isaiah. Therefore, the conversion of the Gentiles and the renewal of the earth and heavens was still to be expected from a Son of Man who must come down from the rent heavens to this earth of ours so that the coming of the kingdom of heaven itself in its one true king might be fulfilled indeed, now and forever.

And it was to prepare Isaiah for that— that on every Sabbath the reading of the law and the prophets, in the synagogue assemblies, had to be pursued until the coming of him who should come; and so that he should come and come quickly. This, at the time of Jesus, was the expectation of the most faithful Jews taking part in the synagogue service, and this was the expectation he was intended to fulfill.

Think, now, no longer of the assembly of liberated exiles on Mount Zion gathered around Ezra the scribe, but of the people; as St. Luke says, “expecting the consolation of Israel,” gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth around Jesus. He sits down in “the chair of Moses,” where the rabbis sat to explain and apply the promises and demands addressed to them by God through Moses and the prophets. Jesus has just read the sixty-first chapter of the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Jesus returns the book to the minister, the eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him. They await his comment. He says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. . ..”

Think of that page of the Gospel, read in this perspective, the perspective of the whole development of the Bible, of the word of God, of the history of salvation. Visualize the event which is the liturgy of the word of God in our eucharistic celebration in these terms, and in it see the function of the priest among us.

The priest is, as every Christian should be, a witness to his brethren, Christian or not, of the dynamic reality of the progressive development, of the ultimate actuality of that word of God. The priest has to be, in addition, not only an expert, able by his intellectual formation to explain what the word of God, humanly, historically, and cosmically means, but also a messenger of the one catholic and apostolic Church of all ages and countries, mandated by it to tell his local church gathered here and now, what indeed, in its common experience, the experience of all the saints, that word has actually meant. Above all, a priest, by his ordination, has been identified with the continuation all through the ages of the apostolic community of ministry gathered by Jesus himself, to be sent to man, as he had been sent by the Father. The priest, in the gathering of the believers, is for them the visible sign of the continued presence of Christ to tell them, still with his own authority: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. . . .”

Even if he is a poor preacher, even if he is a worthless tool, the priest in the eucharistic assembly, speaking to us as one of those who have been sent to us by Christ in the same way as Christ had been sent by the Father, is the permanent attestation that the word of God, coming to say its last word in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is not only a word of light, but the word of life, the presence, the perfect presence, the permanent presence of God with us in Christ. This present word of life takes hold not only of our minds but of our whole being, to bring us not only to a full consciousness of his design concerning us but to the fulfillment of that design in us, through us, and with us. It is in the nature of the divine word to be action, to be creative. Its supreme creation is to evoke a response in the heart of man, a response not merely of belief, but of obedience and love, to create a totally renewed humanity for the total renewal of the world.

Now comes the natural, the unavoidable transition from the liturgy of the word to the sacramental liturgy, to the eucharistic prayer which constitutes the consecration of the Eucharist.

Here again we have in the great assembly around Ezra on Mount Zion a first sketch of what that prayer was to be. It was a response of man to the word of God to him, evoked from the depths of his heart by the creative power of that selfsame word.

When the whole history of salvation comes at last to its conclusion, the elders of the people led by Ezra break forth into a hymn of exultant praise to God, who first created heaven and earth in all their glory, and made man in his own image to submit creation to the full design of its maker. Then they praise him that once man had forfeited his vocation, God has not abandoned him, but through patriarchs and prophets, trial and deliverance, drawn a faithful people out of an unfaithful race. Then the praise of the Creator and Savior God turns to a supplication which is the natural outcome of that praise. Now that God is near the completion of his promises, may he, as in the past, grant us to be gathered together in his faithful city, the new Jerusalem, to rebuild his final temple, when all creation reconciled around his elect will glorify him forever.

As the gathering of the people returned from exile to hear the word of God was the pattern of the future synagogue services of meditation on the word, so the rehearsal of this prayer, a fully developed berakah (“blessing”), the eucharistic praise and thanksgiving for the progressive realization of the design of God, was to be forever the continuity of the synagogue prayers. In it the people, having come to maturity, acknowledged all that God had done and was still doing to bring them to achieve in their own history the realization of his own design for them and for the whole world. And the concluding prayer, since it was for that fulfillment which would mean God in every being, was a self-surrender, a collective consecration to whatever that fulfillment might imply for them, so that all God’s creation might live only to his praise and glory.

At the center of these supplications was a prayer, borrowed from the liturgy of the Temple for the consecration of all the sacrifices of Israel so that his people, in them and through them, may be raised to God’s presence and become a perfect offering.

However, toward the end of the Old Testament period, when messianic expectation reached its highest pitch, we see—as at Qumran—a select group; as St. Luke puts it, “those who were waiting for the consolation of Israel,” considered as better than the formal Temple offering, the gathering of a community of faithful believers in the nearness of the fulfillment of the messianic promises, around the table of their community meal, on the eve of a Sabbath or a feast day.

As these gatherings were opened by the fraction and the sharing of all in the one bread, they were concluded by drinking from one cup of wine solemnly blessed by the head of the community. But in that Eucharist of the meal, as it was called, we find again in shortened form the great berakah following the hearing of God’s word. However, this time is not just the light of the knowledge of God which is the central theme of the prayer, but rather the life found in this presence with his own.

A most interesting and important feature of the prayer was a special insertion for a Sabbath or a feast day. It centered on the idea of the “memorial.” In the case of the meal, the food reminded the people of the creation of life, and the land which had produced the food reminded them of salvific history, of which they were the heirs. So now they say to God: “Let this memorial of your own people, of your high deeds in the past of the promised Messiah and the expected Kingdom arise, be accepted in Your Presence, and may we be introduced together with it into all that You have promised and we expect in faith.”

As Jeremias, the German exegete, has shown, the “memorial” in Jewish liturgy, as in the whole Bible, is not just a subjective reminder; it is a token given to us by God himself of the permanence in the present of his saving acts in the past, of their continuing activity in our midst. But even more important, the “memorial” is given us by God to be re-presented to him, to remind him of his promises, so that we may be sure to be accepted when we supplicate him for the final fulfillment in us and for us of his loving will.

All this brings us inevitably to Jesus, at the end of the meal, taking the one bread, blessing it, and breaking it as his body was to be broken for us and given to us to make us one body; and also to his blessing the last cup, as the communion in his blood which will introduce us into his new and everlasting covenant. Henceforth, that meal was to become the “memorial,” no longer of the preparatory saving deeds of God in the Old Covenant, but of his cross and resurrection, as the fulfillment of all the images and promises. As St. Paul was to comment: “Every time therefore you eat of that bread and drink of that cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” This means, as Jeremias has shown: “Every time you eat of that bread and drink of that cup you remind God of the death of his son, so that he comes.”—so that the parousia takes place which shall be the consummation of all things.

Here we can say that as Christ appears in the Gospel as the perfect word of God to man, in his divine life become human, as the Son of God become the Son of Man, so at the summit of his human life, he becomes perfect Eucharist, the perfect surrender of man to the loving will of God, in one definitive sacrifice of praise.

Just as the priest in the first part of the celebration appears as the representative of the head to the body, to bring to its members the fullness of the presence and the creative and redemptive activity of God, given in the word made man; so the priest in the second part of the celebration appears as the representative of the head in the body, in the solemn rehearsal of the eucharistic prayer and self-oblation of Christ, in and for his body the Church, to make it possible for all the members of Christ to be consummated in their unity with him, their unity in him, their common self-offering to the loving obedience of his only Son.

When we see the priest in the midst of his brothers in Christ celebrating the Eucharist with them, it should be manifest that this ministerial oriesthood, the sacramental sign in our midst of the one priesthood of Christ, far from making useless or void the royal priesthood of all believers, has no other meaning or object but to make it fully actualized. In fact, the two fundamental priestly actions of the minister: his proclamation of the word, his consecration and distribution of the Eucharist, are deprived of content and meaning if they are not seen in their necessary connection with the three priestly actions of the whole body of Christ, constantly described by the Fathers as praying, offering, and communicating.

The proclamation of the word in its full actualization of the presence of Christ in our midst as the Living Word would be meaningless were it not to create the response of faith, exultant praise, and confident expectation which is properly the prayer of the faithful. That prayer, that response, evoked by the word itself, also has to lead to a total surrender of our human nature, of all our actions. This the faithful will express in offering the bread and wine, as their whole being and life, to be taken into its very source. However, this surrender would be ineffective were it not taken by Christ, consecrated and assimilated to his own sacrifice, through his own eucharistic prayer which the priest utters—once again, as Christ’s own sacerdotal prayer as the head, in and for the body. But again, that consecration itself, of our food and drink into the body and the blood of Christ, into the very source of the new life, would be meaningless were it not to lead to the communion of all: to our being personally and collectively renewed in our actual membership in Christ’s own body, to penetrate the whole world with the new and eternal life of the resurrected Christ, to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Spirit.

In this sense, the Christian priest, of all men, is to be fully a “man for others,” as the minister of the headship of the body. Just as Christ did not die to dispense us from suffering and dying, but to make us able to die as he only could die, to kill death, and to manifest in man and in the whole creation the life of God himself; so the priest, a shepherd following the Good Shepherd along that way that he alone could tread, leads Christ’s flock, through the word and the great sacrament of the cross, the fullness of life.

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