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!