“But I say to you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I shall drink it new with you in the kingdom of my Father” (Matt. 26:29).
This word of Christ has been strangely neglected. St. Luke places the passage after the offering of the last of the Passover cups and before the words that actually institute the Eucharist. Jesus seems to be gazing through and beyond the hour of the Last Supper to the coming of the Kingdom. He is referring to the future eternal fulfillment that lies somewhere behind the inevitable death toward which, in obedience to His Father’s will, He now must stride. The passage tinges the whole memorial with a singular radiance which seems largely to have faded from the Christian consciousness.
St. Paul Connects Last Things
It might be objected that this word was perhaps important to Jesus personally, but not for His eucharistic memorial; that before His death, the Lord’s vision, grave and knowing, reached across to the end of all things; that this thought was part of the subjective experience of the hour, but it has nothing to do with the sacred act which henceforth is to stand at the core of Christian life.
But what St. Paul writes of the establishment of the Eucharist overturns all such theories:
For I myself have received from the Lord (what I also delivered to you), that the Lord Jesus, on the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and giving thanks broke, and said, “This is my body which shall be given up for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In like manner also the cup, after He had supped, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes. (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
Can anyone still speak seriously of a mere expression of Jesus’ passing mood? Specifically St. Paul connects the last things with the celebration of the Lord’s memorial, and we must not forget that the Apostle’s letters are at least as early as, some of them earlier than, the Gospels, and that they voice the powerful religious consciousness of the first congregations.
His Inner Vision
From all this it is apparent that when the Lord instituted the Eucharist things appeared before His inner vision more or less as follows: He knew that on the next day He would die. He knew, furthermore, that one day He would return; although “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). For the period between these two events He was establishing the memorial of His redemptory death. This was to be the strength and comfort of the oppressed (indeed, of all who looked forward to His coming), and a constant reminder of His glorious promise. Compared with that fulfillment, passing time with all its self-importance is really only marking time before the essential.
Holy Mass, then, is distinctly eschatological, and we should be much more concerned about our forgetfulness of the fact.
But what is this eschatology that we meet so frequently in the newer literature? It is that which pertains to the last things, and it exists in a natural form in our consciousness of the fundamental uncertainty of existence. By this we do not mean any superficial uncertainty connected with our personal existence or with general existence, although this is of course part of it, but the underlying uncertainty of all existence.
Why We Should Know
There are some individuals who know nothing of this. In fact, it has been ignored by all in certain periods. For them the world is an unshakable reality — the reality, essential and self-understood. Everything in it is regulated by a definite order of things; everything has its obvious causes and sure results, its clear, universally recognized value. But at certain periods all this changes. Usage seems to lose its validity. The whole structure of human society is shaken.
Then accepted standards of work and propriety, the
canons of taste and the rules of behavior grow uncertain. It is no longer
possible to plan the future, for everything has become fluent. A feeling of
universal danger creeps into man’s consciousness and establishes itself there,
resulting in forms of experience peculiar to persons of a certain sensibility.
What seems self-understood to those firmly implanted in action and property
appears to these singularly perceptive natures as thoroughly questionable. For
them the existing order of things, indeed of life itself, seems but loosely,
precariously balanced across the chaos of existence and its uncontrollable
forces. All rules seem temporary and threaten to give way at any moment. Things
themselves appear now shadowy, now ominous.
It is easy to reply that such feelings are typical of the emotional crises that accompany historical turning points and periods of personal turmoil; or that they are the reactions of an unsound, if not abnormal nature. This is possible; but it is also possible that they express something completely normal: the truth. The sense of the uncertainty of existence is just as well founded as that of its opposite — that of the certainty of existence. Only the two forms of experience together contain the whole truth. These vague sensations so difficult to express and still more difficult to interpret receive their clear significance from revelation, which warns us that all is certainly not well with the world; that on the contrary, human nature is profoundly disordered; that its seeming health and stability are questionable precisely because they conceal that disorder.
It revealed itself openly when the Creator and Lord of the world “came unto His own; and His own received Him not” (John 1:11). Instead, they did everything possible to destroy Him. True, His death did redeem the world; within His love a new, real protection and an eternally stable order did come into being; nevertheless, the stain of the world’s turning on its God and crushing Him remains.
He whom the world attempted to destroy will come again, to end it and to judge it. No one knows when, but come He will. Although we cannot imagine such a thing, the world will perish, and not by its own folly or from any natural cause. Christ will put an end to it in the age and hour “which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Thus Christian existence must face the constant possibility of a sudden end, irrespective of life’s apparent security, order, and promise. Now we begin to see what those sensations of uncertainty really mean: threat from the periphery of time, from Christ, who will come “to judge the living and the dead,” as we say in the Credo. The memorial of His suffering and redemption, which He placed at the heart of our present existence, is oriented toward that Coming. It reminds us how things really stand with us.
This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Guardini’s Meditations Before Mass. It is available as an ebook or paperback from Sophia Institute Press.
You can also find other works by Romano Guardini here on Catholic Exchange. To read more of his reflections on the Holy Mass, check out “The Stillness and Silence of Mass.”