What you see here on the Lord’s table, my dear brethren, is bread and wine. But once the word is pronounced over them, this bread and this wine become the body and the blood of the divine Word. He is the very Lord who “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) Owing to his mercy, the Lord did not disdain the nature created by him in his own image, but, as you know, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) The same Word assumed human nature; in other words, he took a human soul and body, became man, yet ever remained God. And since the Word suffered on our behalf, he left us his body and blood in this sacrament, in which he also included us. For we, too, have been incorporated into his body, and through his mercy we are the very thing that we receive.
Bear in mind what this creature, wheat, was formerly when it still grew in the field; how the earth caused it to germinate, how the rains nurtured it, how it ripened in kernels; and how afterward the laborers carried it to the threshing floor, treaded it, winnowed it, stored it in the granary, brought it out again to be milled, then added water to it and baked it, until at last it emerged as bread. Bear in mind what happened in your own case, imagining a time when you did not yet exist, but then you were created and brought to the threshing floor of the Lord, threshed by hardworking oxen, that is to say, by the heralds of the Gospel. The period of your probation as catechumens was the time when you were being stored in the granary. Then came the day when you handed in your names, and the milling process began by means of the fasts and the exorcisms to which you were subjected. Afterward you came to the font, were immersed in the water, and kneaded into one dough. Finally you were baked in the fire of the Holy Spirit, and became the bread of the Lord.
Now ponder on what you have received. And as it dawns on you what the unity that ought to prevail among yourselves, causing you to love one another, to remain steadfast in one faith, in one hope, and in mutual charity. Heretics, when they receive this sacrament, bear witness against themselves, for they promote discord, whereas this bread signifies concord. So, in the chalice after being crushed in the wine press. In Christ’s name you also, as it were, have come to be present in the chalice of the Lord, through your fasts and good works, through your humility and contrition. There you are on the altar, there you are in the chalice. In this sacrament you are united with us – we are joined together, we drink together, because we share life together.
Shortly you are to hear for the second time what you already heard last night. But today you are going to receive an explanation of the words you heard and the responses you made – or perhaps you remained silent while the others made the responses. At any rate, you were made aware last night of the responses you are to make today.
Following the greeting, “The Lord be with you,” which you know so well, you heard the words, “Lift up your heart.” Now the whole life of true Christians is a matter of lifting up the heart. To lift up the heart is a duty of Christians who are such in very fact and not in name alone. To lift up the heart – what does this mean? It means that you must trust in God, not in yourself since God is so superior to you. When you trust in yourself, your heart stays fettered to the Earth, not fixed on God. So when you hear the priest say, “lift up your heart,” you respond, “We have lifted it up to the Lord.” See to it, then, that your response rings true, since it is God, himself, who takes cognizance of your words. Let there be truth in what you say, lest your conscience deny what your tongue professes. And since it is by God’s grace, not by your own resources, that you are enabled to lift your heart heavenward, the dialogue proceeds, after you have averred that your heart is lifted up to the Lord, with the words of the priest, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” Why should we give thanks? Because our heart has ascended on high, and yet, had he not raised it up, we should still be wallowing in the earth.
Now this is what happens in the sacred prayers you are about to hear. As soon as the word is spoken, the elements become the body and blood of Christ. For take away the word, and there is simply bread and wine. But add the word, and it is altogether something else. What else is it? The body of Christ and the blood of Christ. Take away the word, and it is only bread and wine. Add the word, and it becomes a sacrament. Thereupon you say, Amen. To say, Amen, is to subscribe to what has taken place. Amen, in Latin, signifies, “So be it.”
Then the Lord’s Prayer is said, the prayer that was handed over to you and that you in turn gave back.* Why is this prayer said before one receives the body and blood of Christ? Because it may have happened, through human frailty, that our mind conceived an improper thought, or that our tongue let slip an unseemly word, or that our eyes gazed on an indecent object, or that our ears listened avidly to evil speech. Now if anything of the like was committed through worldly temptation and human frailty, then all is blotted out by the Lord’s Prayer, namely, when one says, “Forgive us our trespasses.” And thus we can approach the sacrament in the assurance that we do not eat and drink to our condemnation.
This is followed by the words, “Peace be to you.” What a lofty sign is the kiss of peace! Let this kiss be given so as to foster mutual love. Be not a Judas. Judas, the traitor, kissed Christ with his mouth, although there was treachery in his heart. If it happens that a person is unfriendly to you, and you cannot win him over, then you must bear with him. Your heart must not repay his evil with evil. If he hates you, you must love him nevertheless, for then you can feel free to give him the kiss of peace.
You have heard only a few things, but they are great. Do not regard them of little worth. For the present you ought not to be burdened with more, so that you may easily retain what has just been explained to you.
*These words are a reference to the practice of “handing over” formally the Lord’s Prayer to the candidates for baptism, and their own formal recitation of the same at a later date in the course of the rites of initiation.