The Eucharist as Tradition Par Excellence

In the first Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass (also called the ‘Roman Canon’), we hear the priest say, at the point of consecrating the host, “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” With these very words—the ‘words of institution’—the bread is transubstantiated into the Body of Jesus Christ. The mystery of transubstantiation is worth a whole post, but instead I’d like to focus here on the words of institution.

Any authentic analysis of… well, anything—requires a look at the original ‘thing.’ In this case, to examine the words of institution, let’s look at the original Latin prayers used in the current edition of the Roman Missal. The words of institution are: Hoc est enim corpus meum quod pro vobis tradetur—literally, “This is indeed body mine which for you-all will be handed over.” From this text, two words strike me as differing greatly from the English: enim (“indeed”) and tradetur (“will be handed over”). With enim, emphasis is obviously placed on the veracity of the Eucharistic Sacrifice; it really is Christ’s Body and Blood. But perhaps more interesting is the use of tradetur as a verb for what Christ does with his true Body and Blood.

The Latin tradere is the root of traditio, which can be recognized in English as “tradition.” Ultimately, ‘tradition’ is when something is handed on from one person or group to another; in its original meaning it contains this aspect of linear ‘passing-on.’ However, it also contains a sense of ‘surrender.’ In terms of the Church’s prayer, both are very present. Christ is obviously handing over his Body in sacrifice on the Cross—the very day following the Last Supper—but he is also handing over his Body to the Apostles, so that they may continue ‘handing-on’ the Eucharist to the universal Church through the ages. We miss this distinction with the English, “will be given up for you,” which isolates the sacrificial reality and says nothing of the ‘traditional’ one.

A brief mention should also be made about the place of tradition within the life of the Church. When the Catholic Church speaks of “tradition,” the normal sense of the word entails the whole history of faith, handed down from the Apostles (i.e. the ‘deposit of faith’), which still informs the decisions and teaching of the Church today. Sometimes this is called ‘big-T’ Tradition. On the other hand, ‘little-T’ traditions are those things we encounter in the visible parts of the liturgy (e.g. sitting, kneeling, folding hands, candles, incense, etc.) and in other aspects of Catholic life. Although the same word—“tradition”—refers to both, it is very important to separate the two and make a clear distinction. The ultimate point to remember is this: traditions can change, but the Tradition of the Church cannot.

When we see all of this together—from Jesus’ words prayed at the Mass to the two-fold sense of the word itself—the real meaning of “tradition” becomes even more alive, and the prominence of the Eucharist, as the means of this ‘handing over’ on both the spiritual and doctrinal level, becomes much richer!