It has occurred to me recently what is probably already obvious to many people, namely that scripture and the Eucharist are similar in many ways. I came into this line of meditation as I was trying to answer the question, “What is Holy Scripture?”
The first answer to this question is the Bible, meaning the specific canon of books which the Church compiled, called by that name, and judged as a part of divine revelation. But I was not satisfied with this answer. Someone might say, who has been asked what a person is, that a person is an intelligent being with a will and a mind. Boethius answered this question with the phrase, “an individual substance of a rational nature.” But do these definitions, however precisely correct they may be, hold all the truth of personhood? Is the beauty and significance of “person” at all captured in these expressions? Certainly not; although perhaps this is because the definitions given are of “person” and not “a person.”
But I had a similar reaction to this simple answer, “Holy Scripture is the Bible.” It is true, but there seems to be so much more to say. And as I began thinking about the other ways in which Scripture is significant, it began to dawn on me that many of these things can be said about the Eucharist too. Let me list some of the things I was thinking about, and then I will conclude by saying why I think this comparison is useful.
1. Scripture and the Eucharist share the name “Word of God.” Mysteriously, Scripture itself and many of the teachers of Church use this name to signify the second person of the Trinity, the Son, even without regard to his incarnation. This is very interesting. This means that a name which is used to signify the divinity of the Son is also very commonly used to mean Scripture. This sets Scripture apart from all other writings in history, even from the pseudo-divine oracles and writings of other religions and false gods. Scripture seems, by token of this name, to have a specifically and inherently divine nature: it was not made by people alone. There must have been some kind of cooperation between God and Man to make it, although it did not lose its divine character in the process. But is not this true of Jesus also in the Eucharist? The body of Christ was made by a woman, our mother Mary, even though the person to whom that body belongs is the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, fully divine and yet fully human. The bread of the altar is the “fruit of the earth and work of human hands,” and is even transubstantiated by human hands, and yet it truly becomes the same body of Christ, who is God.
2. Scripture and the Eucharist are both incarnations of the Son of God. The Eucharist is literally an incarnation (caro is the Latin word for flesh), because God became a man, took on human form, received for himself a human body, just as all humans receive a body. That body immediately became identified with God because it belonged to Him in His person, just as all our bodies are identified with our very selves, because they belong to us in our persons. But Scripture is the incarnation of the Word of God according to human speech. God does not make sounds. He does not literally have a mouth or ears, so in the Trinity, there is not a “word” like human words. And yet Scripture is just as much the Word of God as the Son is the Word of God. Therefore Dei Verbum says, in paragraph 13, “For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took to Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like men.”
3. Scripture, just like the Eucharist, is transmitted through the Church alone. The Eucharist can only be consecrated by an ordained priest, and the priestly ministry is maintained only through the Apostolic character of the Church. Scripture, too, receives identity and continuity from the Apostolic character of the Church, insofar as the canon of Scripture was defined by the Church, and its correct interpretation is handed down through her sure teaching, so that there can be no confusion in faith and morals.
4. Scripture, like the Eucharist, is at the center of the Church’s common prayer. The two highest prayers of the Church are the Mass and the Divine Office. The Eucharist is present only in the first, but if one considers that the Office is a kind of extension of the Mass, and praying it prepares one for the reception of the Eucharist, then I think it will be clear that the Eucharist is important even to the latter. But both prayers are steeped in and born from Scripture. Much of the Mass is taken from Scripture: indeed, the whole Eucharistic celebration is scriptural. The Office is not much more than a devoted routine of praying the Psalms. In another way, the Church prays publicly with both Scripture and the Eucharist through teaching the former and adoring the latter.
5. But it is clear from that consideration that the two also have essential roles in the private prayer of the Church. The reception of Holy Communion, of course, is a most sublime prayer (I do not know if it is surpassed by any other because of the deep union which it causes), and there is a long history of praying before the Sacrament. Scripture, too, as the source and root of Theology as well as a living Word has great power in prayer for the life of each person that is devoted to it. I can think of two reasons to think this. The first is the personal witness that all the faithful have who have habitually read Scripture. The second is the Church’s constant encouragement that people everywhere read Scripture as often as possible. Thus, for the individual as well as the whole Church Scripture and the Eucharist provide spiritual nourishment and food for the life of the soul.
There are other similarities, but these seem to be the major ones.
Why is such a comparison important? Because there are innumerable benefits which proceed from the habitual reading of Scripture. It is not at all incidental to Revelation, or God’s plan of salvation, or even Jesus’ institution of the Church. It is not merely a “tool,” not just something “useful.” It is certainly not an optional devotion, of which there are many for the faithful. Scripture is, like the Eucharist, one of the essential, ultimate supports of faith. And yet in my experience it is sometimes easier for people (as it is for me) to form a good attachment to the Eucharist than to Scripture, as though Jesus were present in the one but not the other.