20th Sunday Ordinary Time
A Homily - B Cycle - 2002-2003
First Reading - Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm - 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7
Second Reading - Ephesians 5:15-20
Gospel - John 6:51-58
John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said to the crowds: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world."
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you , unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever."
While in the seminary at Mt. St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Maryland, I befriended the seminary seamstress, who is somewhat of a seminary mom. Her name is Riccé Christopher and she is a convert to the Catholic faith from a branch of the Mennonites. Riccé came into the Catholic Church because of an experience she had at the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes which is up on the mountain behind the seminary. When she was still a Mennonite, she used to take her son up to the Grotto, with its well-manicured gardens and neatly-groomed rosary walking paths. She treated the Grotto like a nice park. One day, she happened into the chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, while her son ran around the Grotto area outside. She noticed two other people kneeling in the chapel and so she knelt too. She recalls that it was the first time in her life that she felt as if she was truly and really in the presence of God. So, she began a little deductive reasoning. She figured that if that host was God, then the priesthood that confected that host had to be authentic and the bishops and the Pope that governed these priests had to be legitimate as well. And if it was through the bishops and the Pope that all of this was held together, then the Church that they represented also had to be authentic and true. That began her journey towards full-communion with the Catholic Church. The priest who hired her became her Catechetical instructor in the faith. His name was the late Msgr. Kenneth Roeltgen, the rector of the seminary.
Riccé's journey to the faith is another installment of the countless numbers of persons who have come into the Faith because they were graced in a special way with a strong faith in the Eucharist. These are individuals, who, in many cases, have sacrificed friendships, family ties and employment to become Catholic, all because they had come to believe in the Eucharist and knew that they had to be a part of the Church that celebrates this sacrament in its full reality - the Catholic Church.
Riccé's testimony of faith shines amidst so much darkness in our day when it comes to the Eucharist. It is sad to read statistics that reveal that only 33% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence; when Mass attendance in some parts of the world is at an all-time low; when many fail to keep the one hour Eucharistic fast; or even worse - when people come forward to receive communion when they are in a state of mortal sin. Sacrilegious communion offends our Lord grievously - the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary throughout history reveals this fact.
Today's Gospel provides us with another installment in John's 6th chapter - The Bread of Life discourse. This is the crucial chapter where Jesus establishes our belief in the Eucharist. This claim, "I am the bread of life" would cost Jesus some credibility and certainly some popularity. At the end of the sixth chapter of St. John, we will see that many would abandon our Lord. The claim costs all of us as well - at least for those of us who live according to the "Amen" we say when we receive Holy Communion or when we sing the Great Amen just before we pray the Our Father. You see, when a communicant says, "Amen," to the words "The Body of Christ" when they receive the Eucharist at Mass, they are saying "Amen" or "So be it" to several things, whether they know it or not. First, they are saying "Amen" to the reality of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Next, they are saying "Amen" to the priesthood which confects this Eucharist and the authority of the bishops and the Pope that ordain that priesthood. Finally, they are saying "Amen" to all that the Church proposes as being true and definitively taught as worthy of our belief. So, in order to make a genuine communion, a person receiving the Eucharist must be in full communion with the Church - that is, they accept all of what the Church teaches, not just what they like or what they agree with. To believe in anything less, makes that person's "Amen" nothing short of a lie and thus, a disingenuous act. A true "Amen" links us to Jesus and nourishes us into everlasting life.
This is related to the reason why we don't share Holy Communion with non-Catholics, an unfortunately sour subject at funerals, weddings and Christmas and Easter. I'm often asked why we don't offer Holy Communion to non-Catholics. After all, in this day of inclusivity and religious tolerance, it seems to violate the spirit of our times. The reasoning is really quite simple. If, for example, a Protestant or a Jew were to come up in the communion line and the priest says, "The Body of Christ," the only response is "Amen" or "so be it." Well, Protestants and Jews don't believe in the Eucharist in the same way we do. In fact, the Jews don't believe in the Eucharist at all - they don't even believe that Jesus is God. For either a Jew or a Protestant to say "Amen" is simply a false statement. They can't say "Amen" because it's not something they believe. Not only do they not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; they don't hold for our priesthood or for the papacy or for all that the Church proposes of worthy of our belief. As a priest, I would never want to put such a person in an awkward position where they would be almost compelled to say "Amen" when in fact they really don't mean it and thus saying "Amen" would be a violation of their conscience. If that Protestant or Jew did believe in the Eucharist in the same way that we do, then they should become Catholic.
The Holy Father writes that the sacraments are not intended to engender unity. Rather, they are intended to express the unity that already exists among believers. Receiving Holy Communion ought not to be treated as a just going up and "getting something" as if we are entitled or owed it. The Eucharist is intended for the nourishment of those who believe in it and are members of the body of Christ that celebrates it together. Even St. Paul tells us that open communion is not to be done because persons outside membership of the Catholic faith can't say "Amen" to what we believe. In the same way, Catholics are not to receive Holy Communion in Protestant ecclesial communities because we would be saying "Amen" to what they believe and we don't believe the same thing. Of course, we are usually free to receive Holy Communion at Eastern Catholic liturgies, like the Byzantine Rite, for example, and the Orthodox (like Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox) are allowed to receive our communion because we all believe in the same doctrine in the Eucharist. In any case, all of this should compel us to pray for the unity of all Christians, that we be united again one day under one shepherd (the Pope) and one Eucharist, as we were before the rise of Protestantism and the Great Schism of the 11th century.
So, receiving Holy Communion is much more than just a private act - it is a Church-wide moment. It expresses the unity of believers under the headship of the Roman Pontiff and collaborators and it expresses our unity of belief. In a similar way, when the priest say, "This is my God," he is saying those words on several levels:
First, the priest is acknowledging the real presence - transubstantiation that has just occurred in his very hands - that as he speaks the words of consecration in the person of Christ, a miracle has just occurred. The miracle of the Eucharist is two-fold. First, it's the miracle of changing ordinary bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. Second, it's the miracle of the appearances of bread and wind remaining intact, even though nothing of bread and nothing of wine remain. Usually, a substantial change also means a change in appearance. If I take a lighted match and hold it up to a piece of paper, in about ten seconds, we'd call that paper a pile of ashes and it would look like and feel like ashes. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine are changed, but the appearances remain - that's the second miracle.
The next level of faith that the priest is expressing when he say, "This is my Body" is that of when he speaks in his own name. In other words, the priest offers his own body under the charism of celibacy for the sake of His people. the priest's very life is reflective of his belief in the Eucharist - that he, like the Master, is to be broken and spent as a ransom for many souls. The priest lays down his life for his friends in the greatest act of love that our Lord identifies. Celibacy also opens him up to an unfettered intimacy with the Lord Jesus, unencumbered by worldly concerns or the married life - and yet lives in service of the married vocation.
Finally, when the Priest says, "This is my Body" he is also referring to his parishioners and all those present for the Mass. He presents these persons as a portion of the People of God in the person of Christ to the Father as an acceptable offering of worship and praise. so, as much as we offer the Eucharist through the mediation of the priest, we also should be offering our very lives on that host - our work; our studies, our joys and sorrows; our concerns; our leisure our illnesses and our Crosses in life. We constitute the mystical body of Christ on earth, joined not by natural blood, but by the body and blood of Christ in a unity of belief and true communion.
My brothers and sisters, as we continue our celebration of Holy Mass, let us recommit ourselves to a more fervent Eucharistic belief. May the miracle that occurs on this altar at every Mass not be lost on us and may it not pass us by unnoticed. May the "Amen" that we say at Holy Communion be authentic - reflective of our unity of belief in all that our Lord has deemed necessary for our salvation and made known through His Bride, the Church. May we rejoice that the Eucharist, the great sacrament of Christ's love for us challenges us to return that love to Him in a state of grace - that we too must be broken and spent for others and love others as Christ loves us. And, may the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first and best tabernacle of the Bread of Life, teach us the virtues of humility and deep faith so that when we approach for Holy Communion, our "Amen" will be authentic and our faith in the real presence - most certain.
Praised be Jesus Christ! Now and forever.
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