I was in fifth grade, and my frequent searches for craft materials sent me ever deeper into the recesses of our basement storage area. A weathered picture frame caught my eye. As I gently eased the yellowed print out into the dusty light from the exposed bulb overhead, the luminous image arrested my attention. There was Jesus, looking calm, authoritative, and welcoming, and on His chest was a burning, bleeding heart. My family had just converted to the Catholic faith, and the Sacred Heart was quite different from the religious imagery I had seen before. Why could I see His heart? Why was it burning? Where did we get this picture? My dad explained to me that this image used to hang above my beloved Catholic grandma’s bed when she was young. And He had been waiting for me all this time until the right moment.
As I added other Catholic sacraments and devotions to the Christian faith I had grown up with and loved, this picture became my own icon of a deepening knowledge of the Person of Christ. I received my first Holy Eucharist later that fall, tears brimming in my eyes, and I began to grasp that this great sacrament was nothing less than the Heart of Christ, offered for me and to me for no other reason than Love. The Heart of Christ is both literal and symbolic, because He is both fully human and fully divine. In His humanity, Jesus allowed His flesh to be beaten and pierced for our sins. The water and blood that flowed from His side completed the offering He raised to the Father at the Last Supper, transforming simple bread and wine. Yet, because He is also fully divine, the symbol of His Heart represents the fullness of His divine nature, especially as the personification of Love.
As a young adult, through daily Mass and adoration, I began to appreciate how the Mass itself brings us to an authentic understanding of the Eucharistic Lord. When I arrived at the church with a chaotic mind and troubled heart, I would walk up the aisle to my seat flanked by the Stations of the Cross, reminding me that I never need suffer alone. As the Mass began, I encountered the Word of God leading me, like one of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, through the loyalty of the Father to His chosen people, into the mystery of the Word made incarnate in the Gospels and in the Creed, where I had the privilege to bow my head in reverence and reaffirm my trust in the Savior of the World.
Every time I try to encompass God with my mind, I discover that it is impossible to describe the ardor of the Divine Heart that reaches out to me. He shatters my expectations and strides through my heart with His flame of love to illuminate every corner and reveal my misguided attempts to achieve happiness and fulfillment on my own. Attentive to my limited insight, Jesus unfolds His love to me one radiant facet at a time, so that I may learn to see the brilliance of His Presence everywhere through that new lens.
We need help to rise above the doldrums of ordinary life and into the realm of the spirit. The comforting discipline of ritual accomplishes this transformation through words more ancient and profound than our own. But what sets the Catholic Mass apart from every secular ritual or hopeful devotion, every appeal for life-giving rain and every lullaby against the dark, is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, in which we encounter a living Person who is both the source and summit of our lives (Lumen Gentium, no. 11).
Six years ago, I knelt on the cold floor of a school auditorium as the Host was held aloft a moment after the words of consecration hummed over the nodding heads of sleepy students. I too was fighting fatigue, since pregnancy and lingering nausea sapped my energy. Suddenly, I felt a flutter, a leap, in my core. It was the first time I had felt this little soul, and she was springing like John the Baptist in seeming acknowledgment of her hidden Lord. I knew that the same jubilant recognition should enflame my own heart every time my Savior is lifted before my eyes. Eucharist means “thanksgiving” (CCC 1360), and we should yearn to cry out in praise as Our Lady did in her Magnificat at the incredible gift of a Lord who desires to dwell with us and within us.
Yet sometimes we struggle to stay awake even one hour with our Lord (Matt. 26:40). We grow confused when we hope for a feeling of transformation and are left with a nagging sense that maybe we would have “done it all better” if it hadn’t been for the man whose nose was whistling one pew away from ours. Thankfully, the Mass is not a graded performance. Some days we may come with an abundance to offer our Lord, and sometimes we will arrive with a widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44) or a few loaves and fishes (Matt. 14:17). God asks nothing less at the Offertory than our very selves, frail as we may be.
Through our reception of the Eucharist, He steps past the realm of the senses, even past the fickle realm of the emotions, and communes directly with our hearts. This communion of heart speaking to heart through His Presence in the Eucharist—Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity—is the greatest manifestation of Christ’s human and divine love for each one of us. This quiet gaze of Love is the fulfillment of the promise He made to be “with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
If the incredible gift of Confession sets me free from the shackles of sin, then the Eucharist is what I am freed for. We are invited to shed anxiety, addiction, laziness, lust, envy, pride, falsehood, and every other vice that promises comfort but results in empty pain. In its place, Christ extends the cup that holds the saving blood and living waters flowing from His pierced side: peace despite pain, love despite loneliness, faithful guidance amid the chaos of this world, and joy eternally. Do we truly believe He will fulfill His promises? When He asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15), do we hesitate? Perhaps, like Eve in the garden, we are suspicious of His desire to give us all that is good for us. Or, like Judas, we may desire a change in our circumstances more than an interior transformation through the school of suffering and humility. We fear the cost of love; after all, on the crucifix we can see what love cost Him.
To be in relationship with God, there must be a response to His eternal outpouring of selfless love. Pope Benedict XVI says, “The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation … into the very dynamic of his self-giving.” As Christ says, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19), we should respond in kind. And in this way, the great mystery of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice is also the portal through which He can enter into the most mundane aspects of our lives. No humble sacrifice accepted for His sake is too little; no whispered “I love you” misses the attentive ears of this Lover.
A pernicious lie that can nag at the edges of our prayer is the feeling that we are not actually called to the intimacy with God that the saints enjoy. We think that maybe religious nuns or bishops or particularly holy, retired people are called to the highest levels of communion with God, but not we busy, ordinary people who still struggle to be patient with the least disappointment in our day. This is another miracle of the Eucharistic love; the Eucharist is the same for every person who receives Our Lord. In each Host is the complete gift of Jesus.
If we can begin working to empty ourselves of vice and selfishness, we will make room in our hearts to receive Him. He would fill us to overflowing with a purity of love beyond any earthly love we have experienced. This is the universal call to holiness. Every one of us is perpetually invited to begin anew to choose heroic love, a love that will renounce lower things for the sake of that which is better. And like children on the seashore who toss aside a chipped shell in favor of a flawless one, our movement toward Beauty will only increase our desire to ask for more of His grace and intimacy.
Christ offers Himself to be consumed so that we may be consumed by His Love. If you seek Him, you will find Him (Matt 7:7-8)—as a still voice in the wilderness, as a small child, as a humble carpenter, as a healer, as a teacher, as a warrior triumphant over evil and death, and as a God aflame with love for you. In receiving the Eucharist, each of our hearts is made a tabernacle for His Heart, and we carry Him forth to heal our broken world. May He help us to be worthy of the gift of being Christ-bearers to others, for it is our greatest joy and our salvation.
This article is from a chapter in Spirit and Life: The Holy Sacraments of the Catholic Church. It is available from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
We also recommend the articles Why I Love the Sacrament of Confession and Giving & Receiving Mercy is at the Heart of Marriage.