By: Fr. James Gross
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Pretend that you’re hearing Jesus’ teaching for the very first time as his listeners had. Wouldn’t we have similar questions? Speaking for the Apostles later in the chapter, Simon Peter tells Jesus, “To whom else shall we go? We are convinced that you have the words of everlasting life.” But many other disciples couldn’t bring themselves to make that kind of statement of faith that day. What the Lord told them was simply too radical.
Today’s solemnity helps to shake us out of our complacency and consider what the Holy Eucharist truly means. Three weeks ago, when we celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, I mentioned that, rather than going from one place to another, Jesus made it possible to be everywhere we are. In the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, where two or three gather in his name, our Messiah is among us.
I remember how, when I would visit my grandparents as a young child, Grandma would often say, “You must be hungry!” Feeding us well was a tangible way of showing her love. Now that Christ is at the right hand of the Father, it’s as if He tells His Son, “Give my children something to eat.” Once upon a time, He provided the “daily bread” of manna for the Hebrews’ sojourn in the wilderness. We as a Church celebrate today the miraculous, divine nourishment of Jesus’ Body and Blood.
There’s a lot I could say right now academically about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, such as how we understand substantial change, etc. But this tenet of faith is also a matter of the heart, and that’s where I will direct my focus today. How many people have really come to love encountering Jesus Christ, and have experienced that encounter meaningfully in the Eucharist? What can we do to help people reach that point? Can people truly forsake or despise what they didn’t even know they were missing?
Take the celebration of Holy Mass as an example. Whether it happens to us as children, or for adults who weren’t exposed to the Catholic liturgy growing up, what are the first things we notice? For some it’s the style and sound of the music. For others it’s the language of the Scripture readings and prayers. For still others it’s the idiosyncrasies of the priest’s personality—an unfortunately exaggerated effect in the years following Vatican II. What happens when an external element of the Liturgy annoys us? It puts up a kind of roadblock that will cause some to say, “I don’t like what I’m seeing or hearing,” or “This isn’t what I bargained for,” or “This isn’t for me.” What if our great-grandparents, or the first parishioners here at St. Anthony’s, reacted the same way? How would that impact us?
At the risk of sounding dramatic, in such a case the devil has won a small victory. He’s persuaded people to take their eye off the ball. In sowing that seed of discord, he’s persuaded that person to turn his or her back on God’s gifts. The harvest that follows is the bitter fruit of despair, restlessness, isolation, failed relationships—in short, the boring, well-worn path of sin.
How can we crave the Presence of Christ inside us in Holy Communion as badly as our lungs crave oxygen or our parched mouths crave water unless we taste and see His goodness? How can our hearts ache for Christ unless we experience the difference inside us when we are not in Communion with him? This hunger for Christ of which I am speaking is not a simple feeling one conjures up; it’s a gift we can only receive, a gift he gives so freely and amply.
Christ gave His Church the Eucharist to tangibly bless and sanctify the whole world. When we “do this in memory of” Jesus, what are we actually doing? We are bringing the holiness of God more deeply into the world and causing evil to scatter. We’re dispelling the enemies of Christ in ourselves, in our families, and in the community in which we live. Think of the celebration of the Mass, the offering of Christ’s sacrifice, as one continual global exorcism, applying Jesus’ victory and vanquishing the power of evil.
The Gospels are filled with miracles, and yet it may seem that we are reading about a bygone era. We might argue that no such miracles are apparent in our day-to-day lives, but isn’t it the case that perhaps we don’t see miracles unfold in such a concrete way? For many reasons, Holy Mass is very important to me personally every single day because Jesus gives himself to us so humbly and generously. Will I see a paralyzed person attending Mass suddenly stand up out of their wheelchair and begin to walk? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean there is no miracle taking place through the words of Christ that I am privileged to speak.
In short, if we fail to see that the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist is miraculous, then we are missing something. If we truly believe what our Church teaches about what happens on this altar, how could we call every mass anything less than miraculous? We receive from Him an outstanding promise in today’s Gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Either what Jesus promised truly takes place, or what we are doing now is absurd.
This treasure that we possess in Holy Communion exhorts us to conduct ourselves accordingly. First of all, have we been forgiven of grave sin by prior confession so as to receive Jesus worthily today? When we attend Sunday Mass, are we dressed more so to do chores or go to the gym? What do we tell the Lord by our choice of attire? At Mass, are we busily chewing gum, or have we left it behind well before we arrive? Does the smartphone have to be on and in our pockets, or could we maybe leave that behind so that we are not tempted to look at it? As we approach in line, do we bow with reverence before we receive? Do those of us who receive the host in our hand make a suitable throne for the King of Kings, with an intention of deep respect? Do we seek to love God and our neighbor more throughout the remainder of this day, knowing that our Savior, whom we receive in Holy Communion, dwells in our hearts? Today let’s declare what a blessing it is to have Jesus abide in our souls and our bodies from week to week our whole lives!
By: Fr. James Gross
Believing in one God is a relatively simple thing. Accepting what Jesus has revealed to us about God’s true identity is another matter. Scholars of other monotheistic religions, like Islam, for example, don’t trouble themselves over this question. They say, “God is one,” and are done with it. But we who pledge faith in Christ have to take seriously what he has taught, even if we find it to be inconvenient or baffling.
There’s so much to God that we cannot know, but in the Church’s teachings on God as a trinity of persons, we have a breakthrough. On one hand there is God, the creator of everything, infinite in power, and on the other hand there is humanity, creatures with limited knowledge and all sorts of weaknesses. Our abilities of reason and intellect help us a great deal, but they alone do not bridge this enormous gap between us and God. God sent His only Son, Jesus, to Himself be that bridge, and to enable us to peer into the inner life of God in a way that we never could through our own faculties.
Consider this example: let’s say you come upon a large, warehouse-style building with absolutely no windows. If you cannot get inside, there’s no way to tell what it looks like. Now imagine there’s a small window along one wall. It’s not as good as walking around in the structure, but you can see well enough to get the layout of the interior. That’s what the Church does for us.
Our scripture readings today give what I call cursory indications of the Holy Trinity. To add to what they have to say, I took a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Along with the Bible, every Catholic household without exception ought to have a copy. Here’s just a taste of what you will find in the Catechism on the subject of the Trinity.
The Holy Trinity is a communion of persons, and therefore perfectly one. In God there is not a single person, but there exists among them a total unity. In the persons of God one finds no contradiction or dissension. Each one is constantly a complete gift of self, a gift of love, to the others.
Each divine person is distinct. They are not interchangeable, or like three separate costumes the same actor would wear during a stage production. The identity of each person flows from their relationships to each other, and not from some act that one can perform but another cannot. The Father is “Father” because He has a Son, and vice-versa. The Holy Spirit is their bond and pledge of love, personified, flowing out from them both.
To describe this reality, the church struggles to find just the right terms, since all we can really do is come close. One term that works well is substance. All three persons of the Trinity consist of the same thing, or substance, so to speak, but all three Persons are distinct beings. Here are a couple of examples from nature that I like to use. First of all, imagine that you’re enjoying a mild, clear summer’s evening. You notice one cloud rising above the western horizon, behold it for a moment, and look away. A minute later you look at the same spot and see two clouds. The first cloud didn’t make the second one, and so the second one is not of a lesser status. The clouds are equal, of the same substance, but are two distinct clouds. We might say one proceeded from the other.
Another example that illustrates the idea of “three-in-one” is an apple. Let’s pretend I’ve cut an apple in half and am holding a cross-section for you to see. You could identify three distinct parts: the skin, the flesh, and the core. None of these parts turns into any of the others. But all three are apple. Take one away, and something essential is missing. So it is with God: the three Persons are distinct and not interchangeable, but they are not made up of three different things, so to speak.
The question then arises: what about us? How did we come along? It’s not as though God was bored or incomplete. The reason for creation was to express God’s love and glory in something outside of Himself. We exist because of God’s abundantly gracious and free will. There is none other who could force God to create. But not only did God create the universe: He placed within it creatures who uniquely bear the stamp of His image and likeness—men and women. Chapter one of Genesis states that on the sixth day God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Pay attention to that wording. He didn’t say, “Here’s what I’m going to do.” He used the word us, a plural pronoun. The author of Genesis gives the world in that sentence its first hint of what’s really going on in the life of God.
This celebration in the Church is really about the gift of revelation. Jesus, the Word of God, through both His message and His personhood, revealed the nature of God to an extent beyond which we could figure out on our own. Jesus is for us the window into the mystery, making it possible, as he told the woman at the well, to worship in Spirit and in truth. God sent His Son, not to condemn, but to be the means of our salvation. Jesus came to ransom us all who by sin were led astray, and to disclose God’s very identity to us. Anyone who is aware of this but still says, “God is God and that’s plenty good enough for me,” is not acting out of wisdom, but ignorance.
By: Fr. James Gross
A number of high schools in North Dakota have banners hanging in their gyms with the words “Spirit Award” on them. At a State Tournament, an anonymous panel of judges is scattered throughout the arena to pick which town’s fans and cheerleaders displayed the best sportsmanship and most positive attitude. At many a sporting event at Napoleon High School, during a lull in the action, our student section would lob the following chant across the gym: “We’ve got spirit—yes, we do! We’ve got spirit; how about you?” Usually it only took a couple of attempts to draw the opposite side into this little back-and-forth. A friend of mine once shared with me a response he wanted to use: “We’ve got spirit just the same; please sit down and watch the game!”
When we think of the word “spirit,” there are certain images that quickly come to mind. People in the stands at events like the NBA or NHL finals can cheer like their very lives depended on it. It makes me wonder if, for those who will be at Church on Sunday, they are ever even half that animated while praying or singing. What does it mean, in a religious sense, to be filled with the Spirit? What demonstrates the Holy Spirit’s activity in us? As we celebrate Pentecost Sunday, let’s take a closer look at the working of the Holy Spirit.
If I were to describe someone to you as “being filled with the Holy Spirit,” what images come to your mind? Are there certain behaviors or actions that you’d expect to see from that person? Would the exterior evidence be that obvious? Sadly, many Americans would use that kind of narrow set of criteria. Unfortunately, people often define being “on fire with the Holy Spirit” as a dramatic, exterior spectacle, the domain of a rare and elite group that has little to do with them. This attitude even crept into parts of the Catholic Church as the “charismatic movement” which took off in the 70’s and 80’s.
The Church’s message to us on this Day of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit is a gift given to all. How we manifest that gift and apply it will yield different kinds of fruits, from one person to the next. But the Father and the Son have sent the Holy Spirit, their dynamic bond of love, into the world, to abide with us on our pilgrimage and to confirm us in the truth.
We cannot behold the Holy Spirit with our senses, and so the Church points us to various symbols. I’d like to share some great analogies from two saints of the early Church to help us better understand the Holy Spirit. St. Cyril of Jerusalem used the analogy of water in saying this: “All things are dependent on water; plants and animals have their origin in water. Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects: one in the palm tree, another in the grape vine, and so on throughout the whole of creation. It does not come down, now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature that receives it.”
Saint Basil employed the analogy of the sun’s rays. “The whole of the Spirit’s being is present to each individual; the whole of his being is present everywhere. Though shared in by many, he remains unchanged; his self-giving is no loss to himself. Like the sunshine, which permeates all the atmosphere, spreading over land and sea, and yet is enjoyed by each person as though it were for him alone, so the Spirit pours forth his grace in full measure, sufficient for all, and yet is present as though exclusively to everyone who can receive him. To all creatures that share in him he gives a delight limited only by their own nature, not by his ability to give.”
I like to explain Pentecost as a present tense and future tense celebration, not just a past tense celebration. Yes, at one moment in history, 50 days after Jesus rose from the dead, he sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and the Blessed Mother. They experienced the Holy Spirit’s descent in the signs of a rushing wind and tongues of fire coming upon them. Fortified with this gift, their whole outlook changed. No longer did they need to sequester themselves in uncertainty. As if knocking down the front door, they strode out into the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming to all who would listen that Jesus is the risen and triumphant Messiah, not only of the Jews, but of all who would place their faith in him. The miracle which accompanied this first day of preaching was two-fold; all the listeners could understand the Apostles as though their message were in their own language, and secondly, heeding Christ’s call to repentance, three thousand souls came into the fold that very day.
All of this is true and worthy of celebration. But that was only the first chapter of a long and beautiful story. The history of the first Day of Pentecost is not the whole story. For the past two thousand years, missionaries have been bringing about the Day of Pentecost to the new lands and peoples to whom they ministered. It has not been easy. Many of them, in saintly acts of courage and perseverance, endured mistreatment, torture, and even death. But they knew that the Holy Spirit would not allow their efforts to be in vain. The blood that they shed became the seed, so to speak, that later blossomed and grew.
There is nothing stale about our celebration of Pentecost. We not only look backward on this occasion; we look to the future, too. The gift Jesus bestowed upon us in the Gospel, along with the twice-uttered greeting of “peace be with you,” is the same gift offered to us here and now. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that what we mean by peace is not merely the absence of war or a temporary setting aside of hostilities, but a power that transforms the heart. This is why he speaks immediately about the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit takes us farther than we can go by ourselves. He is working, not only in our parish community, but in our own hearts. Let’s think about the obstacles in our lives that we need to remove so that the Holy Spirit can dwell with us as He desires.