CS Lewis said that one should read a classic 20 or 30 times. Now, whilst this book is not a classic it is nonetheless excellent and what I discovered after reading it again recently after a 4 year gap was that I had forgotten most of it. So, it seems to me to emphasise the importance of retaining and re-reading good books.
Anyway, this book is made of a number of lectures and homilies given by Joseph Ratzinger on the Eucharist. Like all books of this nature, it does not have the kind of organic unity one finds in a purpose written book. Inevitably that means one finds some sections better than others. I found the chapter entitled: "The presence of the Lord in the Sacrament" to be particularly valuable and I found the chapter "standing before the Lord- walking with the Lord - kneeling with the Lord" very moving.
Those who are familiar with Ratzinger's work including his work as Pope Benedict XVI will notice common themes. For example the chapter "My joy is to be in thy presence" on eschatology anticipates some of the themes which appear in Benedict XVI's excellent encyclical "Spe Salvi". There seems also to be some development of the thought in his book on Eschatology.
But, most of all one finds in this book as in all Ratzinger books is that lovely combination of heart and mind. Ratzinger is more like the medieval theologian who believes that his first call is to be a saint.
But let me relay why I thought this is valuable book.
The Eucharist and death
In the Chapter "The wellspring of life", Ratzinger brings to our attention the connection between the Eucharist and death:
"The Eucharist is far more than just a meal. It has cost a death to provide it and the majesty of death is present in it... Death is the ultimate question, and whenever it is bracketed our there can be no real answer. Only when this question is answered can men truly celebrate and be free. The Christian feast, the Eucharist, plumbs the very depths of death"
God's risk taking
In "Banquet of the Reconciled" Ratzinger reminds us of the risk God takes in coming to us:
"God takes an enormous risk - and at the same time this is an expression of his merciful goodness - in allowing not only our hand and our tongue but even our heart to come into contact with him".
Ratzinger echoes the Fathers
In "The presence of the Lord in the Sacrament", he echoes the Fathers by showing how the Eucharist inverts the normal rule for human foods:
"In the normal process of eating, the human is the stronger being, He takes things in, and they are assimilated into him, so that they become part of his own substance. They are transformed within him and go to build up his bodily life. But in the mutual relation with Christ it is the other way around; he is the heart, the truly existent being. When we truly communicate, this means that we are taken our of ourselves, that we are assimilated into him, that we become one with him and, through him, with the fellow-ship of our brethren".
Ratzinger rejects a kind of crass naturalism
In "The presence of the Lord in the Sacrament , he notes "This is my body" therefore means: This is my whole person, existent in bodily form." "Jesus is not like a piece of meat, not in the realm of what can be measured and quantified". Defending the continuing subsistence of Christ in the Eucharist post mass, he notes: "Wherever Christ has been present, afterward it cannot be just as if nothing has happened".
Ratzinger explains the significance of the body but particularly the resurrected body. Also in this interesting Chapter he notes that whilst the body is a kind of boundary, it is also a "bridge". Thus, he concludes:
"Resurrection means quite simply that the body ceases to be a limit and that its capacity for communion remains." "To have risen from the dead means to be communicable".
The importance of outward signs
In the Chapter: "The immediacy of the presence of the Lord", he notes:
"People are not shaped merely from within outward, another line of influence runs from without inward"
The myth of progress and the humility of God
In the Chapter ; "Standing before the Lord", we find a theme which appears in lots of Ratzinger's writings, namely the myth of progress:
"Progress can only be a meaningful term if we know where we want to go. Mere movement in itself is not progress. It can just as well represent a rapid descent into the abyss".
"We are bowing down before him who himself bowed down, because we bow down to enter into a love that does not make slaves of us but transforms us".
The dreariness of life without God: existential boredom.
In the Chapter "The Church subsists as Liturgy ad in the Liturgy", he notes a characteristic of the then Marxist world but which may perhaps be applied to western civilisation which seeks to relieve its boredom through the "finding" of more outlandish rights: ""What was most characteristic of that world, no longer allowed to be open to anything transcendent, was its unbelievable dreariness, the boredom of a world that can expect nothing but itself, the everlasting grayness of leaden everyday life with no celebration, in which nothing else can arrive, because man alone simply reproduces himself".
This Chapter also has a fascinating story of a German soldier's communion with a cretan, whose land he had just invaded.
The Chapter "On the Christian belief in eternal life" in many ways anticipates the thoughts contained in Benedict XVI's encyclical Spe Salvi, namely the existential boredom of living forever ("an endless sucession of moments would be unbearable"), defining eternal life not in terms of "endless sequence of moments" but in terms of "quality of existence" and the challenge for each generation of fighting evil. He also touches on purgatory as a "purifying pain" a thought process reflected in Spe Salvi. But who is man? "Man is the creature in which spirit and material meet together and are united in a single whole. If we set aside the word "soul", then we inevitably fall into a materialistic conception in which the body is not exalted but robbed of its dignity" But does the emphasis on the soul mark a return to a kind of Platonism? Ratzinger proposes and answer to this: "If we ourselves become members of the body of Christ, then our solus are safely held within this body, which has become their body, and this they await their final resurrection, in which God will be all in all". Thus, the platonic existence of a wandering soul never applies to the Christian soul which always has recourse to the body of Christ.
Hopefully, it should be apparent that this small little book has a lot to offer - certainly it's worth several reads!