Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
20th Sunday of OT, Year B
August 17, 2003
Prov 9:1-6; Eph 5:15-20; John 6:52-59
1) Today we enter into one of the most important and dramatic scenes in the life of Jesus — and, because Jesus is the Savior of the world — into one of the most consequential events in human history. Today Jesus presents us the raw truth about the incredible gift of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist and calls us — like he called his listeners 2000 years ago — to make a choice, and he frames the choice as a matter of eternal life and death. So let us listen with the utmost attention to our Savior is telling us.
2) Jesus had tried to prepare his listeners for what he was about to tell them through the miracle of the multiplication of the five loaves and two fish to feed more than 5000 people, which we heard at Mass three weeks ago. Jesus almost always coupled his teaching to miracles, so that people would more easily recognize the same authority behind his words as behind his actions. “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me… If you do not believe me, at least believe the works that I do.” But rather than come to trust in Jesus’ authority, many of those who received that miracle came for another free meal. “Amen I say to you,” as we saw two weeks ago, “you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus then tried to change their motivation, to help them believe in the One God the Father sent, as we saw last week. After explaining to them that the Father wants to give them the true bread from heaven, and they replied, “Sir, give us this bread always,” Jesus said “I AM the bread that came down from heaven.” That was far more than they were willing to bear. First they objected, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose parents we know? How can he say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” Jesus told them not to complain. Rather than slow down, however, he pressed on the accelerator: “I am the bread of life. Unlike your ancestors who ate manna in the desert and still died, this is the bread that comes from heaven so that they may eat of it and not die. …Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” Doubtless they were wondering how they would eat of this living bread whom Jesus claimed to be, but Jesus didn’t leave them guessing. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is FLESH.” His flesh! To those without faith, who didn’t grasp the meaning of who Jesus was by the incredible miracles he worked, this seemed preposterous. “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”
3) But Jesus wasn’t done. “Amen, amen, I say to you — he was swearing an oath to them! — unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and DRINK HIS BLOOD, you have no life in you.” This would have been positively scandalous. Jews were not allowed to consume blood in any form. The Kosher dietary laws which they followed to the letter mandated that animals had to be killed in such a way as to drain all the blood from the animal before it could be eaten. Now Jesus was telling them that they had to drink his blood. But didn’t even stop there. He upped the ante even further. We can’t notice this last stage in English, because many of the English translators of the Bible have tried to water down the impact of Jesus’ words, but in St. John’s original, Jesus changes the verb “eat” in “eat my flesh” to the verb “gnaw.” “Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Even many of Jesus’ disciples, for whom Jesus had worked so hard — who had seen so many Jesus’ miracles, watched cure the sick, expel demons, even raise people who were dead; who had felt their hearts burning as Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount — had had to much by this point. As we’ll see in next week’s Gospel, these DISCIPLES said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” and many of them walked away. Jesus didn’t run after them and say, “You misunderstood me; I was really only talking metaphorically.” No, he knew that they had understood him well, but they were unwilling to accept that reality. They were unwilling to believe. Rather than watering down this reality to try to get them back, Jesus instead turned to the Twelve, those closest to him, and said, “Do you also wish to go away?” What a dramatic question. We’ll have a chance next week to ponder the depth of St. Peter’s response, but in short, he stood up and said, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” The words of Jesus probably didn’t make any more sense to Peter than they did to the others who had just abandoned Jesus because of his teaching on the Eucharist. The words would only make sense one year later when Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, took bread and changed it into his body and took wine and changed it into his blood and allowed his apostles for the first time to eat his flesh and drink his blood. But Peter, even before the Last Supper, trusted in what Jesus said because he trusted in Jesus.
4) On Holy Thursday this year, Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful encyclical on the Eucharist, “Ecclesia de Eucaristia” (“The Church draws her life from the Eucharist”). In it he reiterated in very clear terms what — WHO — the Eucharist is, namely Jesus Christ. He stated the perennial truth that in the Mass, Christ himself, through the priest he himself has chosen and ordained, completely changes bread and wine into his body, blood, soul and divinity: after the words of consecration, there is no bread or wine left at all, just the appearances of bread and wine remain. The appearances remain because the Lord in his wisdom probably knew that it would be almost repulsive for his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood if what we were eating and drinking really looked like human flesh and blood. So out of love, he allowed the appearances of the bread and wine to remain, but the substance of what we receive has not bread, not wine, but Christ himself. In the Mass, the Pope wrote, the celebration of the Eucharist is the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ in the Last Supper and on the Cross. We enter LIVE into this event, which is eternal; the priest is the same — Christ; the victim is the same — Christ. The only thing that changes from one Mass to the next is the sacrifice we unite with Christ’s to present to the Father.
5) Popes in general only write encyclicals when something necessary for our salvation — what we have to believe (faith) or what we have to do (morals) — is under attack or underappreciated. The Pope wrote this beautiful encyclical on the Eucharist because in the Church throughout the world, far too many Catholics no longer practically realize that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ, that the Eucharist is Emmanuel, God-with-us. He describes many of the ways this lack of faith is shown. First and foremost, many people are no longer coming to Mass to adore and receive Jesus. In the US, about 40% of Catholics come to Mass each week, but in some places in Europe, it’s less than 10%. The Pope asks, as any one of us might: What could be more important than receiving GOD inside? But practically speaking, many Catholics have routinely been saying by their actions that work is more important than Mass, that sports is more important than Mass, that sleeping late or a hearty breakfast is more important than Mass. Clearly if they really understood WHOM we receive in the Mass they wouldn’t be choosing in that way. The Pope describes other indications of people’s taking Jesus in the Eucharist for granted. Many come to receive Him spiritually unprepared. The lines for Holy Communion are often very long, while the lines for the Confessional are very short — not because Catholics aren’t sinning, but because many have lost the sense of the incredible Holiness of Jesus in the Eucharist. In order to receive Him in Holy Communion, Catholics must be in moral communion with Christ, which is ruptured by grave sin; hence they need to go to Jesus in the sacrament of confession before coming to receive him here. The Pope notes that many others come to Mass out of a sense of duty rather than out of a love consistent with the love of God we receive here. Some seem to be coming to Mass in such a rush, as if it can’t get over fast enough, rather than looking at every moment with Jesus as an incredible privilege. Could anything we’re doing after Mass be more important than a few more minutes with the Lord? Eucharist adoration, the Pope laments, is down in many parts of the Catholic world. If Catholics recognized Who is in the Tabernacle, how could they not be busting down the doors of this Church to come and spend time with him. On First Fridays, here, starting next month, we will have Eucharist adoration and benediction during the afternoon, to which everyone is invited. But, as you know, our Church is open from 6 am to 4 pm every day for Jesus to receive you.
6) The Pope is calling us as Catholics to take the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist seriously, to love the Mass, to show by our actions where our heart, where are treasure, is. And in some areas, even faithful Catholics have gotten sloppy. We can take a few examples, which most of us have probably noticed. We’ve gotten sloppy in our language. Many Catholics refer to the Eucharist as “bread” and “wine,” when we know that there’s no bread or wine at all, just the appearances. In some Catholic hymnals, the linguistic laxity can be — to be it bluntly — heretical: i.e., “Look beyond the bread you eat,” when we don’t eat bread at all. Some of us have gotten sloppy in our dress. The Mass is the wedding banquet of the Lamb of God with his bride the Church. We’re coming to a wedding, the wedding of the best friend we’ll ever have, Jesus, the Divine Bridegroom, and in a real sense, we are His bride. Our dress should show that we believe this. It’s of course true that the most important thing in coming to Mass is not our clothes, but our love, but our love and respect are often shown by our getting dressed up, just like we get dressed up for anything truly important. And nothing is more important than what happens here. Some have gotten sloppy in the way the come to receive the Lord. This involves a couple of things. Because of Whom we are receiving, the Church asks all of us to make a sign of reverence — a bow — before we receive the Lord. This is an external sign that helps to strengthen our own inner conviction that we know we’re receiving God. Then for those who receive Holy Communion on the hands, the Church asks them to make a throne for the King of Kings, with one hand over the other, to show, even for a short time, that they realize they’re receiving the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth, Who fashioned them in the Womb.
7) These external gestures are important. Professor Peter Kreeft of Boston College, a convert and one of the great defenders of the Catholic faith, wrote in an article a few years ago about a converation he had with a Muslim student after one of his lectures. The Muslim, knowing that Dr. Kreeft had a reputation for being a famous Christian writer, asked him: “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 found that many didn’t seem to show, by their behavior, by their dress, that they were doing anything truly sacred. He watched them go up to receive Holy Communion. While some received with reverence, most didn’t he said. Several received and went straight out the door. Some returned to their pews as if nothing really important had just happened. After watching them, he couldn’t fathom 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 solemnly and slowly, “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 ) Well God is not just “in” that little host, but that host IS GOD. And it’s quite possible that someone with the same questions as that Muslim could be here in this Church today, watching you, watching me, watching all of us to determine if we take what we’re doing seriously, if we take the words of the Lord Jesus in today’s Gospel seriously. They may be watching you now, or at Holy Communion, or what you do after Communion. That person might be one of the children here, who are trying to learn what we believe, and for whom all of us need to set the best example. Regardless of what other human eyes may be on us, God is watching us, hoping that we respond to this incredible gift with a faith and a love worthy of it. Doubtless God is hoping that each of us will make the commitment, strengthened by his grace, to stake our whole lives on this reality, to see Jesus in the Eucharist as the “pearl of great price” worth selling everything else we have to obtain. Because, in reality, it is worth it! Jesus loved us so much that not only did he take on human nature to save us, but humbled himself even further to be our spiritual food. May we receive him today with the same faith with which we received him at our First Holy Communion. May we receive Him today with the Love with which we hope to receive Him at our Last Communion. He says to us again, live, “I am the bread the living bread come down from heaven. The one who eats this bread will live forever!” Thank you, Lord Jesus!