Eucharistic Adoration

Jean-Marie Henneaux SJ FAITH Magazine January-February 2003

The Link Between Adoration and Celebration

Eucharistic adoration is nowadays experiencing a renewed fervour, chiefly thanks to the spiritual renewal movements. Simultaneously, some Christians are asking themselves questions about the thinking behind the practice. In the following pages, we propose to take up the question, seek the foundations of Eucharistic adoration and cast light on its theological meaning. We will mainly base ourselves on several New Testament texts[1].

The idea that we would like to develop is the following: in order to retain its full meaning, Eucharistic adoration cannot be detached from the Mass, in which Jesus' Eucharistic Act at the Last Supper is commemorated and re-presented (in the strongest sense of the word). Conversely, to make memorial of what Jesus fulfilled at the last Supper (cf. Lk 22:19 and 1 Cor 11:24-25) leads to adoration of his real and definitive presence in our midst and in our universe, beyond the precise moment of the liturgical celebration of the Mass.

When the Church speaks of the "real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist, she does not intend only to affirm that Christ is really present in the bread and wine. She also wishes to express the fact that the sacramental presence of the Lord in the bread and wine is the sign of his definitive - or eschatological - presence in our history. The "real presence" and "eschatological presence" of Christ are practically equivalent expressions. The eschatological presence of the Lord has two aspects: 1) by his incarnation, his death and resurrection, the Son of God has made himself present to our universe (to persons and the material universe) in a definitive and irrevocable fashion; in Christ, history has already and forever reached its fulfillment - the "last times," foretold by the prophets,have begun; [2]) however, this fulfillment attained in Christ and by Christ has not yet produced all its effects. The result of this relationship between the two dimensions of the real or eschatological presence of Christ is that our Eucharistic devotion likewise necessarily has two complementary expressions: the celebration of Mass and Eucharistic adoration outside Mass. We shall try to demonstrate this by considering different aspects of the eschatological reality of the Eucharist. The point of departure for our reflection must obviously be what Christ did at the last Supper.

Jesus' Eucharistic Act at the Last Supper

The Lord "took bread and after having given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my Body given for you'" (Lk 22:19). After Jesus had said these words, he was present in his own body and, outside that body, in the bread which he proffered to those present. This presence of Jesus outside himself (if we can put it in such terms), is only possible through love. It is love which makes us go out from ourselves and dwell in the beloved. Just as the spouse wants only to be one flesh with his bride, Christ Jesus wishes to make his disciples, his communicants, become his body. The link of the Eucharistic body of Jesus (his presence in the bread: "This is my body") with what we call his mystical body is clearly pointed out by St. Paul: "Since there is only one bread, we are allone body; for we all share in this one bread (1 Cor 10:17).

But to enable Jesus to make us his (mystical) body, it is necessary that he be prepared to die to his own particular, limited body. The institution narratives of the Eucharist make it clear in many ways that the condition for Jesus to go beyond himself (language here is radically inadequate), and so really pass into the bread, and through the bread into his own, so that they should become his body, is his bodily death: the bread is "broken", the body is "given for you", the blood is "poured out". The Last Supper is an anticipation of the death (and resurrection) of Christ, and it is only because it is such an anticipation that the Eucharist (the presence of Christ outside himself, in the bread and in his own) is possible.

A Presence Multiplied Through Love

Jesus proffers to his own the Bread in which he has made himself present. He hands himself over to them in entire freedom, and they are free to take or not to take, to welcome or to refuse, the gift he makes of his presence in them.
It is the power of his ecstatic love which makes it possible for Jesus, after the last Supper, to make himself present, outside himself, in the bread, and so to pass, freely and definitively, to the Father and to men (cf. Jn 13:1). His love is so powerful, so tears him from himself, that he is really able to multiply his presence (if one may so express it). For he is present in each of the bits of bread he proffers. The explanations of the "miracle" of the Eucharist are often too short: "He was God," they say, "and so he had the power to make himself present in the bread and in the wine". But it is often forgotten that this divine power (indeed received from the Father by Jesus, inasmuch as he is Son) is mediated through and by a human consciousness. People do not see clearly enough thatit is also because the man Jesus loves us to death and in a purely ecstatic fashion that what we call "transubstantiation" (the changing of the bread into the body of Christ, the real presence of Jesus in the bread) is possible. It is not just a miracle of divine power, it is also a miracle of the human love of Jesus for his Father and for us. In order for transubstantiation to take place, it is necessary for the man Jesus to die completely to himself; it is necessary that he will to die for us by love; it is necessary that his human heart live no longer except outside himself; as though in a subsistent ecstasy, in the Father and in us.

Thus, to contemplate the host is to contemplate and adore an Act of Love which perfectly succeeded. If Jesus were not really present in the bread, that would mean that he had tried to go out from himself, to die by love, to make himself present outside himself in those whom he loved, but that he was unable to attain to that. The dogma of the "real presence" bears on the reality of the love of Christ for us. A human being, Jesus, our saviour, one of our race, was able to go to the limit of love (cf. Jn. 13:1; 17:4-6; 19:30). Thus he was able to make himself present in the other as much as in himself. The aspiration of all true love is perfectly realised in him.

However, this love, in which I am called to share ("Whoever eats me will live through me": Jn. 6:57; "Love one another as I have loved you": Jn. 15:12), is completely beyond me: it is Love itself. I cannot hope to share in it unless by adoring it outside myself, so recognising fully that he and he alone is the source of love, a source which I am not. If I only adore him in his immanence in me (at the time of Eucharistic communion) I could perhaps risk forgetting his transcendence. So my practice of Eucharistic communion leads me, so as to respect the whole of the mystery, to adoration of the host, outside myself. There must be an ecstasy to correspond to Jesus' ecstasy.

"The Many" (Is. 53:12; Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24)

We have just said that Jesus gives his Eucharistic body so that those who eat it may become his mystical body. In the plan of the Father and his Christ, this should include all of humanity. Thus it entirely overflows the present circle of communicants. A similar tension can already be seen in the Eucharistic institution narratives of Mark and Matthew: "He took some bread…, gave it to them and said: 'Take, this is my body'. Then he took the cup..., and he said to them : 'This is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, poured out for the many'" (Mk. 14:22-24). Going beyond the limited number of participants in the Last Supper, Jesus= Eucharistic Act has in mind the many.[3]

Christ had already acted to take up all mankind into his body, he had already given his life for all; in him, the whole of humanity is potentially gathered in unity. But all men are not yet integrated into his one Body. Chapter 6 of St. John=s gospel constantly plays on the relationship of the crowd, who were the immediate beneficiaries of the meal Christ gave to the many, and of the totality whom they merely prefigure. As we know, this chapter presents the Eucharist as the already-begun realisation of the gathering-together of all humanity in Christ, a gathering together which, under the image of the messianic banquet, had been foretold by the prophets for the end of time. The multiplication of the loaves (Jn. 6:1-15) had already fulfilled this prophecy; the desire for another Bread,about which Jesus speaks in a long discourse (Jn. 6:26-63), remained. This discourse on the Bread of life, in which Jesus progressively unfolds the principal aspects of the Eucharist, has one of its sources, if not its ultimate source, in the universal salvific will of his Father: "The will of him who sent me is that I lose nothing of what he has given me (this refers directly to the believers whom the Father has given to Jesus), but that I raise it up on the last day" (Jn. 6:39)[4]. These words form an immediate echo to what had been said as a "sign" (Jn. 6:14) after the multiplication of the loaves: "When they had eaten all they wanted, Jesus said to his disciples, 'Gather up all the remaining scraps, so that none may be lost'. They gatheredthem up and filled twelve hampers with the scraps which remained from the five barley loaves" (Jn. 6:12-13).

The twelve hampers bring to mind the twelve tribes of Israel, in other words, Israel in its totality. The huge crowd whom Jesus has just satisfied is not yet the whole of Israel. It has not yet been possible to gather together that whole, a figure of the Church and of Humanity, but this totality to come, where once again nothing will be lost, can henceforth be represented and symbolised by these twelve hampers, since they contain the surplus from a meal which, in all truth, is already an anticipation and a beginning of the gathering together of all[5].

Communion and Community

In our Eucharistic life we already experience the same tension. Our community - our Church - communicates, but this communion cannot be equated with the gathering of all in unity which Christ has already brought about by his Eucharistic act. That is why our relationship to the Eucharist is not exhausted by communion. If we want to make an adequate response to the depth of the Eucharistic mystery, beyond our communion in the body and blood, we must adore the real Presence of Christ which is already in communion with all mankind, with the many.

When we adore the host, we contemplate in it the many whom Christ has already gathered together by his sacrifice. Beyond the communities which our liturgical celebrations gather today, we see the great crowds to whom we are sent. Making use of the Fourth Gospel=s imagery, we lift up our eyes and we see the fields already white for the harvest; we find ourselves sent to reap where we have not toiled, but where Jesus himself has already toiled; and here we are, called to inherit the fruit of his labours (cf. Jn. 4:35-38). This is why Eucharistic adoration has for centuries nourished the Church=s missionary dynamism. Had she not been enlivened by the prolongation of the celebration of Mass in Eucharistic adoration, would the Church have been tempted to close in on herself and so fail to seethat the real Presence of Christ remains - because it is the Presence of the "Saviour of the world" (Jn. 4:42), whose flesh - before it was given up for her[6] - was given up "for the life of the world" (Jn. 6:51)?

The Resurrection of the Body

We have just considered the eschatological character of the Eucharist, in connection with the many already taken up in their totality by the Lord into his Eucharistic act. Another important aspect of the eschatological reality of the Eucharist is shown to us by the following verses of St. John: "The will of him who sent me is that I lose nothing of what he has given me, but that I raise it up on the last day" (Jn. 6:39); "This bread is that which comes down from heaven so that whoever eats of it may not die" (Jn. 6:50); "Who eats my body and drinks my blood, has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day" (Jn. 6:54). "(This bread) is not like that which our fathers ate: they are dead; whoever eats this bread will live forever" (Jn. 6:58).

By participation in the Eucharist the believer receives, here and now and here below, the eternal life of God, a life stronger than death, and the believer=s very flesh, through the act of eating and drinking, the act of assimilating the body and blood of the Risen One and so being assimilated by Him, is from this moment introduced into the world of the Resurrection. "In contrast with the manna", writes André Feuillet, "the Eucharistic food puts the faithful in possession of an eternal life over which physical death has no hold, a life which is to come to full flower at the end of time in the glorious resurrection"[7].

The Bread of immortality and resurrection, given by Him who conquered death by giving up his own life, who now is risen, living forever. When we go to communion, we believe that He who comes to "dwell in us" and who brings us to "dwell in Him" (Jn. 6:56), communicates eternal life to us through the gift of his flesh enlivened by the Spirit (cf. Jn. 6:63). We believe that we receive the gift of "dwelling", which is to say, subsisting forever (unless we interpose a radical obstacle) in the "Me" of the Risen One.

The Power of the Risen Christ

But we also know that on account of sin, we will have to undergo bodily death, separation of body and soul, separation of the spiritual and material elements of which we are made up. That is why it is good for us to contemplate the Risen One in the host, really present in a material element: bread. Here we find the reassurance that the power of the Risen One is so great that it can take on, and save forever, even what is most material and fragile in us: our flesh. The Lord wishes to save us in our entirety, soul and body, spirit and flesh. He wants to "lose" absolutely nothing of us, not even this poor flesh, which of itself "like grass, withers and fades" (Is. 40:7).

The real presence of Christ in the bread is a guarantee of the resurrection of our flesh. The contemplation of "Christ in us" which we practise in our thanksgiving after communion also calls for the contemplation of "us (flesh and spirit) in Christ" which we practise at leisure in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Assumption of the Material Universe into Christ

God's salvation concerns the whole of creation. God does not wish to "lose" anything of what he has created. At the Parousia, the material universe itself will be transformed and in some way taken up into the glorified Body of the Risen One. All things having been "created in Christ" (Col. 1:16), all will be saved in him.

In the host, we contemplate a small part of the material universe, the bread, which has become the body of Christ. In the Eucharist the Parousia, Christ=s total presence in men and the material universe, has already begun. That is why it is possible to talk of the Eucharist in terms of a "sacramental parousia" (F.-X. Durrwell). This aspect of the Eucharistic mystery profoundly affects our view of the material universe and nature.

There is indeed a great risk that homo technicus - which is what we have become - may see nature as no more than something to be transformed, something to which to apply technology, a slave which we master. Our relationship to nature then becomes no more than the attitude of a domineering and despotic master to a worker. (We have only to think of the misdeeds of the industrial era, denounced by modern ecologists). The universe would no longer be the object of ecstatic contemplation, source of wonderment, of inspiration and poetry, the epiphany, the revealing, of a mystery, a word of God. The Eucharist preserves us from this danger. In it, material elements are "placed in a direct relationship with God". The Eucharist safeguards the whole of nature=s character as divine sign. It educatesus to respect and reverence it as the place of an epiphany of God. It enables us to contemplate nature still, and remain poets.

Eucharistic adoration and the contemplation of God who appears in the bread and wine, overturns the attitude which we and our culture spontaneously adopt in relation to nature: an attitude of domination. This overthrow has considerable ethical repercussions. It does not just make us treat nature in a quite different fashion, it also transforms the way in which we relate to our own bodies, because nowadays present-day man spontaneously looks upon his body as a "bit of nature" which he can tame, rule and transform, just like the rest of the material universe. He body is no longer a sign of transcendent values.


We hope we have been able to make the reader realise that, far from opposing it, our participation in the Mass calls to adoration of the Eucharist outside the Mass itself. It seems to us that adoration and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, as they developed in the Middle Ages, were not a matter of a passing fad, a fleeting and accidental devotional current. Do they not rather appear as a normal complement to participation in the redeeming sacrifice of Christ?

[1] As is well known, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and contemplation of the host developed in the devotional life of the Church during the mediaeval period. The classic work on this remains E. Doumoutet=s Le désir de voir l=hostie et les origines de la dévotion au Saint Sacrement (Paris: Beauchesne, 1926). We will not give the history of Eucharistic adoration here. One could consult the article AEucharist@ in the Dictionnaire de Spiritualité, chapter III, ADévotion eucharistique@ (Vol. IV, col. 1621-1648), where one will find a description of the principal forms of Eucharistic adoration from the Patristic period to our own times, as well as a study of the interventions of the Magisterium on the subject.
[2] The word "eschatological" comes from the Greek ta eschata: the last, definitive, ultimate things.
[3] In Semitic thought "the many" may (but need not necessarily) include the totality. This safeguards human freedom, which has to open itself to the salvation which has been given.
[4]This saying irresistibly brings to mind the saying concluding the parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew: "In the same way your Father who is in heaven does not wish that a single one of these little ones should be lost" (Mt. 18:14).
[5]We have developed other aspects of St. John chapter 6 in "La nourriture du ciel" [Food from Heaven], in Pâque nouvelle, 1996/2, p. 27-31.
[6]The relationship of Eucharistic adoration to the Mass is also a relationship to the Word of God. Listening to, or silent meditation on Scripture before the Blessed Sacrament constantly sends us back to the universality of God=s plan.
[7]Feuillet, A., Le discours sur le Pain de vie, coll. Foi vivante, 47, (Paris: DDB, 1967), 43.

Faith Magazine

January - February 2003