Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Corpus Christi, Year A
May 29, 2005
Deut 8:2-3, 14-16; 1Cor10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58
1) On this Solemnity of Corpus Christi one year ago, Pope John Paul II declared that the Church would celebrate a Year of the Eucharist from October 2004 to October 2005. He also said that he hoped that the climax of this Eucharistic Year would be a more solemn celebration of the Feast of the Lord’s Body and Blood. “This year let us also celebrate with PARTICULAR DEVOTION the Solemnity of Corpus Christi,” he wrote in his document for this year. “Our faith in the God who took flesh in order to become our companion along the way needs to be EVERYWHERE PROCLAIMED, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our GRATEFUL LOVE and as an INEXHAUSTIBLE SOURCE OF BLESSINGS.”
2) This year’s celebration of Corpus Christi is a time for us to ask ourselves whether we proclaim everywhere – especially in our homes and in our streets, in our world – the great gift of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with “grateful love” as the “inexhaustible source of blessings.” The Pope called this year so that every Catholic could grow in “Eucharistic amazement” against every tendency to take this great gift for granted and make it routine. He called it so that we could make our Eucharistic Lord the “magnetic pole” of our entire existence. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist “the SOURCE and the SUMMIT of the Christian life.” That means that Christ in the Eucharist needs to be the source and the summit of OUR life, if our life is truly Christian. Christ in the Eucharist needs to be the reality FROM WHICH everything in our life flows (source) and the reality TOWARD WHICH everything in our life is directed (summit). This feast of Corpus Christi is the chance for us to determine if he truly is, and if he’s not, to respond to the help he’ll give us so that he may truly become the alpha and omega of our life.
3) Immediately after my priestly ordination, I was covering for a priest on sabbatical at a parish in Fall River. A priest came from the Sudan to preach the missionary co-op appeal. It was his first time in America and he was insecure about his English and even more nervous about asking American Catholics for money to try to help the persecuted Catholics in his country. He told me he didn’t know what to say and asked for my advice. I had read a lot about the situation of Catholics in his country and I told him, “Simply tell them what your people need to do to get to Mass on Sunday.” He replied, “But I’m supposed to be asking them for money.” I promised him – with one whole month of priestly experience under my belt! – that if he did as I said, the people would be generous. Not even I was prepared for what he was about to preach. He described that most of his parishioners needed to walk 15-20 miles to Mass each way. They would have to wake up between midnight and 2 am to begin their journey, but they also preferred to walk at night, because it was somewhat less risky. That’s because the fundamentalist Muslim government in Khartoum would often send snipers down to wait along the road sides ready to shoot and kill these Christians heading to Mass. He said that one of his problems was that he doesn’t have enough sets of rosary beads to give to his people for those journeys; they pray the rosary the entire journey so that if there are snipers waiting for them, their last words will be, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners NOW and AT THE MOMENT OF OUR DEATH.” (At that point of the homily, a quiet reserved parishioner who used to make durable rosaries for missionaries stood up, with tears running down his face, and shouted, “I will give you ten-thousand rosary beads tomorrow morning!”). Father continued by saying that if they made it to the Mass – and every once in a while a group would not make the Mass because they had been ambushed – they celebrated Mass with great joy for 3-4 hours. They rejoiced in their faith. They adored Christ in the Eucharist whom they received each time as if they were receiving him for the last time, because they never knew if that communion would in fact be their viaticum. After Mass there was a common meal and then the Catholics would begin their walk back to their respective villages, praying the rosary, hoping that snipers were not waiting for them.
4) Why would our Sudanese brothers and sisters go through so much each week? Why would some of them walk almost two marathons each Sunday, spend three-to-four hours at Mass, at the serious risk of their own lives? The reason is because Jesus in the Eucharist was the magnetic pole, the source and summit, of their entire lives. They loved Jesus Christ in the Eucharist enough to do everything it took to come into his presence. Jesus gave his life out of love for them and they were willing to give their lives out of love in return.
5) Their example provides the raw material for an examination of conscience for each of us. How much are we willing to sacrifice for the One who gave it all for us? Unlike the Sudanese, we don’t have to walk twenty miles each way to Mass; we can simply hop in a car and be here in no time. Unlike the Sudanese, we don’t have to risk our lives to get to Church, thanks to the sacrifices of so many whom we remember on this Memorial Day weekend. But do we use the gift of that freedom to worship God, like the Sudanese would if they had similar freedom?
6) The Eucharist is the great test of our faith in God and love for God. In the first reading today, God through Moses clearly told the Israelites that he was testing them during their forty years in the desert. He kept them there “”in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.” He wanted to see whether they would understand that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” He wanted to test whether they would trust in him, who could make manna fall from heaven and have water flow from a rock. This was all, he reiterated, to “humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good.”
7) The same God provides an ever greater test for us in the Eucharist. He gives us the Eucharist to humble us, test us, and in the end do us good. So often we try to worship God on OUR own terms. God wants us to worship Him on his own terms. We see this EUCHARISTIC TEST in today’s Gospel. Jesus tells us very clearly that he is the true Manna come down from heaven, the true rock from whom living water flows. He says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood we have NO LIFE within us, but that if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will abide in Him and he in us. It was a great test of faith and love. How did people respond?
a. First, many of the Jews asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” For a Jew it made one ritually impure even to touch blood, and Jesus was asking them to drink blood. They thought Jesus was a madman and they refused to believe. They were not humble enough to accept what God was asking of them. They failed the test, like many of their ancestors failed God’s test in the desert.
b. The second group of people were the majority of the disciples. Jesus had worked so hard over two years trying to preach to them the Gospel and help them to live it. St. John tells us what their reaction was: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60). There’s no question that the teaching was difficult, but they were not willing to work to over come that difficulty by working and praying to grow in faith. Against all that they had heard and seen over the past two years, they didn’t believe. They thought Jesus was some type of sick cannibal. The result: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66). They, too, failed the test.
c. The third group was the twelve. Jesus turned to them and asked, “Do you also wish to go away?” They didn’t understand better than any of the disciples who had just left how they would eat Jesus’ flesh and drink his blood – they wouldn’t know until exactly one year later, during the next Passover in the Upper Room, when Jesus would take bread and wine, change it into his body and blood, and give it to them to eat. But Simon Peter had true faith and showed us what that faith is all about. He stood up and said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69). They believed in Jesus and therefore they believed in what he said and did. And if He said that they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, they would do it, because, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his beautiful Adoro Te Devote 750 years ago, “nothing is truer than the Word of Truth.” They passed and they continued to pass.
d. But among their number, there was one who not only would flunk that test but kill the test-giver. He remained but didn’t believe. St. John tells us that it was then, in Capernaum, that Christ realized that Judas didn’t believe and that he would betray Him (cf. Jn 6:64). Judas started his betrayal of Christ because he really didn’t believe in what Christ was saying about the Eucharist. Is it any surprise that he fulfilled his betrayal during the celebration of the first Mass one year later, when he left Mass early to go out and betray the Word made flesh? Judas remained present in body but he didn’t believe.
8) So we see that when Jesus presented the Eucharist as a test during his own lifetime, only a few passed the test. The Jewish crowds failed the test. Many of his disciples failed. Judas failed. Jesus continues to give us the same test today. The question for each of us today is whether we are passing that same test. Do we really believe that Jesus Christ – God incarnate – is present in the Eucharist and that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we have no life within us? Do we base our whole lives, our comportment and our choices on this awesome reality? Do we respond with love to what we believe in faith?
9) One of the great American defenders of the faith, Peter Kreeft, teaches philosophy at Boston College. After one of his classes, a devout Muslim student came to ask him a question on a topic unrelated to the philosophical lecture he had just given, knowing that Dr. Kreeft had a reputation for being a famous Christian writer. “Do Catholics really believe that that little white thing they receive is actually not bread, but Jesus?” “Yes,” Kreeft replied. “And you believe that Jesus is actually God?” “Yes we do.” Kreeft began to launch into a defense of how God, who created the heavens and the earth, the seas and all they contain from nothing, could easily change bread and wine into flesh and blood and even to the body, blood, soul and divinity of God. But the Muslim interrupted him. “I don’t have any doubts about Allah’s omnipotence. That’s not my issue.” “What is, then?,” Kreeft queried. The Muslim told him that out of curiosity he had gone to a Catholic Mass on the campus of BC, sat in the back and observed what the Catholics did and how they behaved. He watched them go up to receive Holy Communion – and he watched what they did after Communion. Some, he said, immediately went straight out the door. Others returned to the pews and started to talk to their friends. Many others returned as if nothing really important had just happened. Dr. Kreeft asked him what he thought their response should have been. The Muslim said, “If I really thought that that little white thing were Allah, I don’t think I could ever have gotten up off my knees!”
10) Well, we Catholics DO believe and know through faith that that “little white thing” actually is Jesus Christ, God incarnate. How do we respond to this reality? Do we head straight out the door after we receive him, as if something or someone more important than God awaits us? Do we head back to the pews as if nothing really life-changing has occurred? Or do we realize that we have just received the greatest gift in the whole world? If we have faith in God like the Muslim has faith in God, and if we believe that Jesus is God and that the Eucharist is Jesus, then our choices will show it.
11) I’d like to consider three concrete ways we can use to examine our faith in God truly present for us in the Eucharist and determine whether we REALLY BELIEVE that the “little white thing” is God and whether we love him. They will show us whether Christ in the Eucharist is truly the “magnetic pole of our entire existence” and “the source and summit of our life.” And therefore, since the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, it will show us whether we’re passing the Eucharistic test and truly living the Christian life.
a) The first thing for us to examine is our attitude toward DAILY MASS – Daily Mass is a privilege in which Catholics can come to Mass not because they have to, but because they want to. If we truly believe that the Eucharist is Jesus – God incarnate – would anything ever be more important than coming to receive Him every day we can? God gave the Israelites manna each day, and likewise he gives us the “true manna come down from heaven” each day, but do we realize that we need this nourishment? We pray in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but do we realize that our souls need the spiritual food of the “Bread of Life” even more than our bodies need material food. There are always some people who, because of their work and family schedules CANNOT come to daily Mass – and of course the Church does not mandate that we do. But most Catholics CAN come to daily Mass, even though for many it would involve sacrifices. The question is whether Jesus in the Eucharist is worth the sacrifice or not. Sometimes people here have said, “Father, I’d come to daily Mass, but the 7 am Mass is just too early!” I always ask them, “Is 7 am too early for people to have to get up to go to work?” “No,” they reply. “Is 7 am too early for kids to get up to go to school?” “No,” again they say. “Well then why is 7 am too early to get up for God?” I always say that a priest has not done his job well enough in his parish, and his parishioners don’t yet have sufficient faith and love, until he is able to say, “We’ll have Mass at two o’clock in the morning” and everybody in the parish would rejoice because they can all attend. I’m serious about this point. We don’t appreciate the gift of the Eucharist – that the Eucharist is Jesus and that God is truly God of my life – until we would be there, even at 2 am. The fact that daily Mass is at a more convenient hour should make us all the more happy. But if we wouldn’t make the sacrifices to be there at an inconvenient hour, then it’s likely that either we don’t really believe that the Eucharist is God, or we don’t really believe that we need God each day “as the inexhaustible source of blessings,” or worst of all, that we don’t love God and ourselves enough to make the sacrifices to come to receive him. This is the first Eucharistic test before us today.
b) Eucharistic adoration – The second test involves Eucharistic adoration, which Pope John Paul II said, with the Mass, constituted the two main priorities for the Eucharistic Year. When we truly love someone, we want to spend time with him. It’s as simple as that. Jesus, out of love for us, has remained with us in the Eucharist under the humble appearances of bread and wine. He is here in the tabernacle all day long. Do we ever come to spend time with him? We have an excellent opportunity this weekend to show to ourselves, to the members of our families, to our friends, and to God, how much we really believe in and love Jesus in the Eucharist. Today, on this great solemnity, Jesus Christ will be exposed on our altar from 11:45-2:45 in Eucharistic adoration. This afternoon we also will have a multitude of excuses why it’s inconvenient for us to come. The Red Sox are playing the Yankees, some will say. But is Jesus more important than a ball game, or will Barabbas be wearing Terry Francona’s face? (Or Joe Torre’s face?!). Others will say they have guests in town. That’s great, I’d respond, and ask them to bring them along. We can give our friends no greater gift than to bring Jesus to them or them to Jesus. Others will say that the traffic will be heavy. No doubt it will be. But I’m also confident that the Sudanese would walk from the Sagamore Bridge to be here if they could. Still others will say, “I’ve already come to Church for an hour today – that’s enough!” But the question is whether we can ever love God enough. Would we ever say to someone we really love – a husband or wife, a child, a best friend – “I’ve already spent an hour with you this week. See you next Sunday!”? It is precisely because this weekend is so full that this afternoon is such a good test to determine whether Jesus in the Eucharist, God-with-us, is number one in our life or not. As I often say, I know that if Pope Benedict XVI were coming to our Church this afternoon, the Church would be mobbed. We’d all tape the Sox game or watch highlights. We’d be calling the parish office to see if we could get tickets for our friends who are in town. We’d leave early to make sure we weren’t stuck in traffic. This afternoon the Pope’s Divine Boss, the One who died for you on the Cross, will be here. The question is whether you will be here with him. Eucharistic adoration is the second Eucharistic test.
c) Receiving the Lord with Purity and Love – The last Eucharistic test – and perhaps the most important – involves how well we prepare to receive Jesus in the act of Holy Communion. Every time we receive Holy Communion, we receive God inside, the same Jesus whom Mary welcomed with so much love in her immaculate womb. By baptism, we were made temples of God (2 Cor 6:16), so that we might, like Mary, be “full of grace,” fit to receive the same Word-made-flesh within. Through that sacrament, God has made us a tabernacle for the King of Kings, a monstrance through whom Jesus is meant to radiate “on our streets and in our homes.” But just like we have to keep this beautiful Church of St. Francis Xavier clean, so we have to keep our temples clean, and many times we don’t. We can sully God’s sanctuary within through sin. I don’t think there’s anyone here in the Church who believes that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ who would love him so little as to come to receive him on the hand if one’s hands were full of tar and filth. But there are those who receive him in a WORSE way, with hearts and souls in a state of mortal sin, despite the fact that the Church teaches that this is a sacrilege. If we truly love God, we would never do this.
This afternoon I want to focus on one particular sin, because so many people, for whatever reason, are confused about it, and because of that confusion receiving Jesus in a state of sin somewhat routinely. Pope John Paul II was once asked by a teenager what was the worst sin he could commit. He probably thought the Pope would say “murder” or – as young people often think – some violation of the sixth commandment. But the Pope surprised him by saying the worst sin we can commit, in terms of the damage we do to ourselves, is to sin against the THIRD COMMANDMENT. Why is this sin so serious? Because it means that when we had a choice between coming to worship God on the Lord’s day or doing something else, we chose something else. We chose to worship another god, to place something or someone else as a higher priority than God. This does not mean that we’re a serial killer, but it does mean, in Old Testament language, that we’re an adulterer, that we’re consorting with another god than the one true God who has espoused us. And that is even more serious than committing adultery against a husband or wife. As we sang in the sequence today, the Eucharist is either the “bread of life” or the “bread of death,” depending upon what state we are in when we receive him.
So out of love for you and for God, I need to be very clear: If you intentionally miss Sunday Mass (or a holy day of obligation) except for a serious reason like illness or a big snowstorm, you first need to go to Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation – the sacrament he established to clean us of our sins so that we can be a fitting sanctuary full of grace to receive him again – before you come to receive him in Holy Communion. We need to be restored to communion, to be holy, before we can receive him in Holy Communion. Jesus knew that, unlike Mary, we would sin and therefore we would need his help to be cleansed to receive him. This is why he founded the sacrament of confession and made it so available through the same priests through whom he gives us his flesh and blood. But we need to make sure that we don’t take the sacrament of confession for granted either!
12) This feast of Corpus Christi, the high point of the Eucharistic year, is a time when God is waiting to pour out his graces upon all of us. He loved us so much that not only did he take on our flesh to give it for us in the Upper Room and on the Cross, but left us this great sacrament so that he could be with us until the end of time. The Eucharist is, yes, a test, but God wants to give us all the help he knows we’ll need to pass that test with flying colors. May we respond to this tremendous gift of gifts with great love, making Jesus in the Eucharist the magnetic pole of our life, the alpha and the omega of our entire existence. When we do, we will experience the joy of what it means to live a truly Christian life.
Brothers and sisters, the “little white thing” whom I’m about to hold in my hands and give to you, really is God! May we love him with the love he deserves, with the total self-sacrificial love with which he loves us.