One of the most profoundly moving parts of being a priest is accompanying people in the last stages of their life. Of those moments I think especially of the grace of the Last Rites. First, is that final Confession to surrender those sins, wounds and regrets we pick up as we go through life. Second, is the Anointing of the Sick, asking for the Lord’s strength and healing as we approach that final journey of this life. Third, is the person’s final Communion. In all these ways Jesus draws close and we allow Him to do the very things He came to do free us from sin, be healed, and then be given the food needed for the journey.
In this time of Eucharistic Revival, I want to focus on Communion, this food God has given us. In the context of the Last Rites, it is called Viaticum, which means food for the
journey. It comes from the story of Elijah the prophet 1 Kings 19:3-8:
“Elijah was afraid and fled for his life, going to Beer- sheba of Judah. He left his servant there and went a day’s journey into the wilderness, until he came to a solitary broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: ‘Enough, LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ He lay down and fell asleep under the solitary broom tree, but suddenly a messenger touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat!’ He looked and there at his head was a hearth cake and a jug of water. After he ate and drank, he lay down again, but the angel of the LORD came back a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat or the journey will be too much for you!’ He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”
In Elijah’s life God provided this food that provided not just physical strength but mental,
emotional, and spiritual strength to keep on fighting when he is utterly exhausted in every way. Without that miraculous food, this prophet of God would have gone no farther than that broom tree out in the midst of the desert. The Church has always understood this miraculous intervention in Elijah’s life to be a prefigurement of Jesus’ gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist.
Like Elijah we need that food to give us strength we would not otherwise have. We need to be strengthened physically for the fight. We need to be strengthened mentally, emotionally, and spiritually to confront the regular demands of life, not to mention the obstacles that are sure to arise. Without it the journey will be too much for us. We will end up not following Christ, but simply following the world with its well-worn paths. It is not easy to go against the
current—without the Eucharist we won’t have the strength to fight its pull, and we will look not like Christ, but simply like the culture around us.
This leads to answering one question: Why is the Mass so critical to our lives? After all, there has been a general drift in America from attending Mass that Covid only accelerated.
Because at the Mass in the Eucharist we receive a food that we can get in no other way in any other place. If we understand what the Eucharist is and the role it plays in our lives, then we will rearrange our lives around the Mass and not the other way around. What we miss when we miss Mass! When we don’t have that grace, there are battles we might otherwise have won, temptations we could have resisted, patience for the moment. God gives us this great gift—may it strengthen us every step of our lives, right until the last time we receive it for that step into