From Treasures of Irish Christianity: People and Place, Images and Texts, Salvador Ryan and Brendan Leaky, editors
The Fathers of the Oratory in Birmingham relate an anecdote well over a century old. It tells of an Irish woman who immigrated to England shortly after the famine. She was always particularly happy when it was Father Newman’s turn to celebrate Mass in the Oratory Church. When asked why this was so, she replied, “Oh, Father Newman! How he used to lift our hearts!”
Blessed John Henry Newman, who lived for various periods in Ireland, from 1851—1858, crossing the Irish Sea some fifty-five times, established the Catholic University of Ireland in Dublin and wrote much about the Eucharist. He did so in both the Anglican and Catholic phases of his long life (1801—1890). The purpose of this short piece is to look briefly at the Eucharist in a few of his sermons and meditations.
Human beings are prey to a deep restlessness. This disposition stands out in a particular way in their search for happiness. If the way to happiness is not discovered, then a void opens up in the human heart. God’s response to that void consists in his own coming among us. This is a principal purpose of the incarnation of the eternal son of the father and his redemption of humanity in the fullness of time.
Just as the son came to Mary in the incarnation, so he desires to enter each person that believes and welcomes him. As he did to Mary, so he wishes to do to us. He fills the void in us through the eucharistic gift of himself. Commenting on Saint Luke’s story about the road to Emmaus, John Henry Newman writes:
Only by faith is he known to be present; he is not recognized by sight. When he opened his disciples’ eyes, he at once vanished. . . He vanished from sight that he might be present in a sacrament.
To each communicant Christ’s real presence is given. It is given in a most personal and transforming fashion. In order to explain this, Newman goes into Christology, and specifically the fact that the eternal son took on our human flesh, our very humanity, in order to take it through life, through suffering, and all the way to the cross and into the glory of resurrection:
Christ took on our nature when he would redeem it; he redeemed it by making it suffer in his own person; he purified it by making it pure in his own person. He first sanctified it in himself, made it righteous, made it acceptable to God, submitted it to an expiatory passion, and then he imparted it to us. He took it, consecrated it, broke it, and said, ‘Take, and divide it among yourselves.’
The fact is that the body which he received from the Virgin Mary and in which he suffered the cross, and then took up in glory to the very right hand of the father, is the body which we receive in Holy Communion. He fills in the void created by the fall and deepened by the malice of our sins. This is the higher gift than grace, “God’s presence and his very self and essence all divine.”
Those who lived 2,000 years ago in Palestine saw Christ, but it is a greater thing to live in him now, and this is precisely what the Eucharist enables! Through the sacrament we enter into his dying and rising. Newman explains, “In the holy Mass, that one sacrifice on the cross is renewed, continued, applied for our benefit.” In order to drive home this truth, he puts these words on the lips of our Lord:
My cross was raised up 1,800 years ago, and only for a few hours – and very few of my servants were present there – but I intend to bring millions into my church. For their sakes I will perpetuate my sacrifice, that each of them may be as though they had been present on Calvary. I will offer myself up day-by-day to the father, that every one of my followers may have the opportunity to offer his petitions to him, sanctified and recommended by the all-meritorious virtue of my passion. My priests will stand at the altar – but not they, but I rather will offer.
For Newman, the unique act of our savior’s sacrifice is the center of all religion and the axis of time.