The Real Presence and Our Response, 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B), August 10, 2003

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
19th Sunday of OT, Year B
August 10, 2003
2Kings4:42-44; Eph 4:1-6; Jn 6:1-15

1) Today we enter together into the third week of Jesus’ five-week course on the mystery of his body and blood in the Eucharist, which Jesus taught for the first time in the Synagogue of Capernaum and renews for us live every third Summer. Today we enter into the heart of his teaching, in which Jesus begins to tackle in very clear language what the Eucharist is and what its relevance is for our salvation. He frames it literally as a matter of eternal life and death. Let’s therefore give him our full attention.

2) Following upon the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish and his declaration that too many seek him for merely human reasons as a free meal rather than out of a desire to know, love and serve God — as we saw in the last two weeks — Jesus today gets right to the point about what he came from heaven to give us. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Next week he will add, even more explicitly, that “My flesh is true food; my blood is true drink.” These sentences point to what we call the Real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Jesus is really and substantially present in Holy Communion. This is a truth all of us should remember from our catechesis, but just so that we’re all on the same page: we believe that after Jesus says the words of consecration through the priest, the reality of bread and wine completely changes into Jesus’ own body, blood soul and divinity (the whole person of Christ); there is no bread or wine left, just the appearances of bread and wine. We believe this incredible truth, not because it appears that way to the senses (it obviously doesn’t), but on account of the crystally-clear words of Jesus, the Truth incarnate. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” “My flesh is true food.” “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.” We believe in Jesus and therefore we believe what he says, even when it is hard to believe. St. Thomas Aquinas described this source of our faith in the Eucharist in the beautiful hymn he wrote for the first celebration of Corpus Christi in 1264, Adoro Te Devote: “Visus, tactus, gustus, in te fallitur; sed auditu solo tuto creditur; credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.” “We’re received by the senses, seeing, touching, tasting. Only by listening (to the Lord) is this all believed. I believe whatever the Son of God has said. Nothing is truer than the Word of Truth.” We believe in the reality of the Eucharist ultimately because Jesus told us it was true and he cannot lie.

3) This stupendous truth about the miracle of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist has been becoming increasingly underappreciated throughout the world. This past Holy Thursday, Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful encyclical on the Eucharist, “Ecclesia de Eucaristia,” (“The Church draws her life from the Eucharist”) to confront this new reality. The Popes write encyclicals mainly when many people are confused about something that is crucial for our salvation. The Pope recognizes that far too many Catholics throughout the globe no longer practically realize that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the Eucharist is God. There are many ways people have shown this. Many no longer come to Mass at all, even though the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth is here. Others, in coming to Mass, don’t come with adequate love, but seem just to be trying to fulfill a duty as fast as possible. Eucharist adoration is down in many parts of the Catholic world. The decreased love for the priesthood Jesus instituted — without which there would be no Eucharist — is another negative sign. These indications and many more led the Holy Father to write every Catholic in the world to try to fire up our knowledge and love for God in this wondrous Sacrament.

4) The Pope acknowledges that to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not easy. It requires great faith in Jesus, in his words and in his power. What starts off as unleavened bread and simple wine is, after Christ says the words of institution through the priest, his own body and blood, the same body and blood that he took from the Blessed Virgin, that hung upon the Cross for our salvation and that now rests at the right hand of the Father in heaven. When Jesus presented this teaching for the first time, many murmured, “This is a hard teaching.” It is hard! Sometimes doubts may creep in about whether something that sounds too good to be true really is true. But the Lord in his loving mercy over the course of the centuries has allowed several Eucharistic miracles to occur to help the whole Church through them recognize the truth of his words. Joan Carroll Cruz recently wrote a book entitled Eucharistic miracles (which I would recommend to everyone) on 33 of the most famous of these theophanies. I talk regularly about the miracle in Bolsena, Italy, in 1263 which led to the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi, and I’m sure I’ll mention it again next June. But today I’ll talk about another very famous one from Lanciano, Italy, which occurred 1203 years ago but has a particular modern involvement.

5) In the year 700, in the Monastery of St. Longinus in Lanciano, a Basilian priest who had begun to doubt the Lord’s real presence in the Eucharist was celebrating Mass. He had prayed to the Lord to increase his faith in the Eucharist. Right after he pronounced the solemn words of consecration and genuflected, he noticed that the priest’s large host suddenly changed into a circle of flesh and what was formerly wine had turned into visible blood. With a stunned look on his face, he alerted the faithful that a miracle had just taken place among them. They rushed the altar, marvelled at the sight and spread word to neighboring towns to come to witness the miracle themselves. The flesh remained intact and the blood in the chalice soon coagulated into five pellets of unequal sizes. The host and the five pellets of precious blood were put into ivory reliquaries until 1713 when they were put in a silver and crystal reliquary, so that people could more easily see them. That is how they remain to this day. In 1970, Pope Paul VI, recognizing that some people were disbelieving in miracles and beginning to lose faith in the Eucharist, allowed a medical team to examine the miracle. Professors of anatomy, histology, chemistry and clinical microscopy were called in, including non-Catholics. They presented their conclusions to the Church and to the Italian media on March 4, 1971. Their investigations showed that the flesh of the host was human: specifically, the striated muscular tissue of the myocardium — the heart wall. It had no trace whatsoever of any any materials or agents used for the preservation of flesh. When the blood was tested, it was found to be human blood type AB, which is the same blood type found on the Holy Shroud of Turin. Proteins and minerals in the blood were in the same percentage as those found in normal, fresh human blood. The experts added that it would have been impossible for a doctor to make a similar cut of flesh from the human heart wall with instruments we have today; to do so in the year 700 would have been impossible — ruling out all attempts at fraud. The phenomenon of how the flesh and blood without any preservatives or agents never decomposed over the course of nearly 13 centuries ALONE was enough for the doctors to admit that science couldn’t explain the reality according to natural laws. When you added in all of the other details, the doctors admitted there’s no other explanation for the event other than a miracle.

6) In this miracle of Lanciano, God could have had the host turn into any part of the human body, but he chose for the host to become human myocardial tissue, the heart wall. I think there’s a deep spiritual meaning here. God had prophesied through Ezekiel 700 years before Christ that he would one day take out our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh (Ezek 11:19), that he would give us a new heart (Ezek 36:26). This is essentially what the Lord is doing every time we receive him in Holy Communion properly disposed, giving us a new heart, his very heart, so that we might love the Father and love others as he did. And of course the reason why we celebrate this great gift as a sacrament, under the appearances of bread and wine, is because the Lord knew that we wouldn’t be able easily to take to eating what is clearly human myocardia or digesting human blood. He hides his real presence underneath the appearances of bread and wine so that we can be nourished.

7) The Lord could choose to perform another Eucharistic miracle at this Mass, but whether he does or not is really beside the point, because what — Who! — we receive is the same Jesus who took flesh of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who died on the Cross and who sits at the right hand of the Father. And we’re called to respond with adoration and love. This is something that, in our day, needs to be SEEN, to help others believe in this reality, and to reinforce our own faith. But often it’s not seen. Catholics sometimes don’t show in their external comportment that we believe that we are approaching God in Holy Communion. This need is illustrated very well by a story told by Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College, a convert and one of the great defenders of the Catholic faith. 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 doubt God’s omnipotence. That’s not my problem.” “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 received with reverence. Some left. Some returned to their pews as if nothing really important had just happened. After watching them, he couldn’t believe that Catholics believed that the little white host was actually God. “Why not?,” Kreeft asked him. “If I thought that that was Allah,” the Muslim student finished, “I don’t think I could ever get up off my knees!” The Muslim knew that if the host were God, that God would deserve all of our love and adoration. He concluded that either most of the Catholics he saw didn’t believe that God was in the little host or, if they did, that they didn’t love Him.

8) Imagine if that Muslim were here this morning and were going to observe you. (There likely are some non-Catholics here coming with their loved ones who might be observing you today, wondering whether what the Church teaches is true). Would your comportment toward Jesus in the Eucharist help to convince someone else at least that YOU believe that you’re receiving God? In the light of Jesus’ words today, it would be good for all of us to examine ourselves about how much we treasure this gift and look prayerfully at our actions and attitudes to see if they are consistent with this gift. Do we receive the Lord with great love, and show that love externally by making a sign of reverence before Holy Communion as the Church asks us? Do we treat the Mass as the most important event of our life, of our week, when we come to receive God inside? Do we personally prepare ourselves for something so holy, by first going to Jesus in the sacrament of confession if we’re committed any serious sins, so that we might receive him “full of grace” as the Blessed Mother did within her womb? Are we in a hurry when we come to Mass, just trying to “get it over with,” or are we grateful for the time the Lord concedes us and do we recognize that there could really be nothing more important in the whole world than spending this time with Him? Does the way we dress give an indication of how much we treasure this incredible gift? Practically all of us dress up for events we consider important, like the wedding of a good friend or to meet someone very important, like the President. Here at Mass, though, we meet the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and attend His Wedding, the nuptial banquet of the Bridegroom of the Church. Just like we would dress up in our best for a friend’s wedding — even if it were hot — even more does the Lord deserve our best. I know this may seem old fashioned, but it’s important, especially for our children and for those who aren’t Catholic. And even though God cares more about our insides than what we wear, it is important for our own faith and for the example he calls us to manifest to others to show externally what we believe internally.

9) Ultimately the Holy Father in his beautiful encyclical calls us to recognize that the Eucharist is God’s greatest to us here on earth, the food of everlasting life, which is supposed to nourish us on our journey toward the heavenly Jerusalem like Elijah was nourished in the desert for his journey to Mount Horeb, God’s Holy Mountain. We’re called to receive the Lord today with the love and devotion of our first communion, or as someone would if he knew he were receiving the Lord for the last time as viaticum. And we never know: today could be the last time. I’ll never forget the homily preached by a Sudanese missionary at SS. Peter & Paul parish in Fall River about four years ago this week. I had just been ordained. The priest asked me, “What should I preach to your people?” I just told him to preach about what it takes for his people to get to Mass and I promised him that the people would be generous. So he told them. He described how many of his parishioners have to walk up to 20 miles to attend Mass each Sunday, leaving in the middle of the night. They march as sitting ducks not just for bandits, but for the Muslim fundamentalist snipers, sent from Khartoum, who occasionally machine-gun them down from the roadsides. They pray the Rosary the whole time, asking our Lady to pray for them now and at the moment of their death, which they know could come at any time. After the 3-4 hour Mass, they return home, again, praying the Rosary once more as they walk the dangerous road home. Why do they go to all the effort, to risk their life, to walk so far in such dangerous territory?, the priest asked. Because his parishioners KNOW that they will meet and receive JESUS at the end of their journey. And Jesus is worth everything, including their lives, he who gave His life for them.

10) Jesus is worth it! Thanks be to God, we live in a country in which we don’t have to risk our lives to come to receive the Lord, but our freedom shouldn’t decrease our love, but fill us with gratitude to God and a real hunger to use our freedom to come to worship and love him all the more. We’re called to become more and more like Him whom we eat in Holy Communion, as St. Paul says in the Second Reading: “Be imitators of God… and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” As we receive that great sacrament in which Christ gave himself up for us and for our salvation, we ask him for the grace that we might honor him and love him in this great gift, so that through our reception of this food of everlasting life, we may come to praise, love and adore him forever in heaven! Praised be Jesus Christ!