Jesus Speaks: The Eucharist

Yesterday was the third session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  As I’ve already shared in my posts following the first two sessions, the reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ. Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

We began our session with a rich discussion of insights participants gained from their reflection this past week on the Beatitudes. Then we moved on to the focus of today’s session: the Eucharist. In my talk, I shared some implications that flow from the belief of Catholics and some Protestants that the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ, some thoughts about why that changes everything about who and what we are in the world and in relation to each other.

I also invited participants to reflect on the Eucharist as an agent of transformation – of us and of the world. In that context, I quoted something Michael Himes wrote about the Eucharist in his book The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to Catholicism (a small volume which I frequently recommend to people). Himes writes

Not only does the Eucharist make us who we are, it tells us where we are going….[If bread and wine] can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point….The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ…That is the destiny that the Eucharist reveals to us now: the transformation of the universe into the presence of God, so that the presence of God may be everything in everything. The Eucharist makes us who we are and reveals to us where we are going. That is why we are a Eucharistic people; because we are made into a people by the sealing of the covenant in the Eucharist, a people who know what the destiny of the world is.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:29.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the “Great Commandment.”

Eucharist: What Is Your Opening Line

Yesterday was the Feast of Corpus Christi – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. At the Mass I attended, the priest gave what he called the “5 W’s and 1 H” – the Who, What, Why, When, Where and How of the Eucharist.

The priest led off with the Who. This is not an exact quote, since I was not recording the sermon, but what he said essentially was: “First who can received communion? Only Catholics in a state of grace may receive communion. So if you have a mortal sin on your soul, you cannot receive communion. Those of you who have been divorced, but not annulled, and remarried: know that God loves you, the Church loves you, we love you and you are welcome here but you may not receive communion. Those of you who are not Catholic: know that God loves you, the Church loves you, we love you and you are welcome here, but you may not receive communion. We in the parish office will be happy to talk with you about the annulment process or about RCIA.”

After this, he then went on to talk about why we receive Eucharist, what the Eucharist is, when and where we receive it, etc.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything the priest said about the Why and the How, but what I really reacted to was the Who – more precisely the placement of the Who.

To be very clear: I recognize everything the priest said about who can receive Eucharist is in accord with Church teaching and the point of this post is not to argue the merits of the Church’s teachings about divorced and remarried Catholics or about non-Catholics not being invited to participate in Eucharist. (We can find plenty of other opportunities to engage in those debates.)

My point is the effect of making the exclusionary claims the opening lines to a sermon about the Eucharist. If I’m sitting there as a non-Catholic or as a divorcee, once I’m told I’m not one of the “who” can receive, am I likely to hear anything more of the sermon? Even if one doesn’t fall into those two categories, it seems to me the focus has already been drawn away from the Eucharist itself.

Wouldn’t a stronger lead-off hitter be the “What” of the priest’s 5 W’s? Perhaps involve something of the beauty of the portion of the Bread of Life discourse that was today’s Gospel? Isn’t that really what we celebrate on this feast day?

Why start with who is not invited to the feast, rather than focus on what it is we are celebrating?

And maybe a sermon on today’s feast day was not the place to talk about the exclusionary rules at all.

This is perhaps a long way of saying: it is not just the teaching itself that matters. It is also the tone and how the message is conveyed.

What We Receive in the Eucharist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ and our second Mass reading is the account in the First Letter to the Corinthians of the Institution of the Eucharist.

Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., in a book of reflections on the Eucharist, says that for Jesus, the Eucharist means,

I love you so much that I want to get as close to you as I possibly can. No sacrifice is too great in my desire to express and communicate that love. As I approach my death, it is the communion of love I live with my Father that I want to impart to you.

Father Cameron’s articulation suggests that the Eucharist is not only the Body and Blood of Christ, in the sense of nourishing us to be as Jesus was in the world, to do as Jesus did in the world. Rather, when we receive the Eucharist we really receive the entire Trinity. We receive not only Jesus, but also the communion of love Jesus lives with the Father, which also implies the Holy Spirit.

The idea that receiving the Eucharist nourishes us with the love and communion of the entire Trinity suggests an even fuller, richer experience and reality of what we receive in the Eucharist. We are all a part of the communion of love Jesus shares with the Father and the Spirit.

You might take some time today reflecting on Fr. Cameron’s expression of Jesus’ thought and see where it takes you.

Bread and Wine as the Tip of the Iceberg

Yesterday morning I had a conversation with someone about the Eucharist. We had been talking about the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel and the person confessed to some difficulty with the idea of bread and wine becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ.

As we talked, I remembered a passage in Michael Himes’ The Mystery of Faith talking about what it means that the Catholic “eucharistic celebration centers on bread and wine that we believe becomes the blood of Christ.

Speaking about the bread, Himes observes that “there is no intrinsic difference” between the bread and wine that become the Eucharist and the bread we eat for sandwiches and the wine we offer friends at dinner. Thus, he asks, “If this bread can become the body of Christ, why not all that other bread? If this wine can become the blood of Christ, why not all wine?” And, he pushes further, if the bread and the wine, why not the grain, the vine, the soil and the rain that produce the bread and wine?

In fact, Himes says, “if this tiny fragment of the material world can be transformed into the fullness of the presence of Christ, and therefore the fullness of the presence of God in human terms, then why not the whole material universe? And that is, of course, precisely the point.”

Reminding us that in the liturgy of the feast of Corpus Christi the Eucharist is termed “the down payment, the first installment of future glory, Himes says:

Precisely right: the eucharistic bread and wine are, as it were, the tip of the iceberg, the point at which we see what the whole universe is destined to become. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of Christ, the fullness of God in the flesh. The whole universe is destined to be transformed into the presence of God in Christ.

It may be hard to grasp completely, but it sounds awfully exciting to me.

Reflections on the Eucharist

This Sunday will be the fifth of five Sunday’s during which we listen to the sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel – the Bread of Life Discource. Rarely do we listen to an entire chapter of a Gospel; that we do so with this one of John’s, once in every three-year cycle, underscores the centrality of the Eucharist to our Christian faith.

Raymond Cardinal Burke has written a new book on the Eucharist, which was sent to me for review by the Catholic Company. In Divine Love Made Flesh: The Holy Eucharist as the Sacrament of Charity, Cardinal Burke provides commentary on two papal documents on the Eucharist: Pope John Paul II’s final Encyclical Letter, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (published on Holy Thursday in 2003), and Pope Benedict XIV’s Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis (published on Feb. 22, 2007).

I tend to have mixed reactions to commentaries of papal documents. There is a part of me that says: go read the document rather than read someone talking about the document (even as I recognize that Pope John Paul II’s writings are not always the easiest reading). Thus, I was happy to see Cardinal Burke’s suggestion in the Introduction to the book that readers obtain copies of both Ecclesia de Eucharistia and Sacramentum Caritatis. For many people, reading this book might, in fact, encourage them to read the original documents, both of which have tremendous beauty and power.

The book is a very clear and straightforward exposition of each document. If at times I found the Cardinal’s tone didactic, at other times I found it inspirational. Although devoting the first part of the book to one document and the second part to the other document made for a certain amount of repetition, I’m not sure how that easily could have been avoided. One other observation is that, particularly in the part of the book devoted to Pope Benedict’s document, it was not always clear to me (without looking back at the original document) what was Pope Benedict and what was Cardinal Burke. For purposes of reflecting on the Eucharist, perhaps that doesn’t really matter all that much.

For me, as we reach the conclusion of this period during which we have been focusing on Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, the book was a valuable reminder of some of the really beautiful passages in both documents. Among the most important, in my view, is Pope Benedict’s reminder in Sacramentum Caritatis that the changing of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is “a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all.” Amen to that!

A Morsel of Bread and a Sip of Wine (Who Could Believe That?)

Yesterday’s Mass was the third of five Sundays during which we hear from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel – what is termed the “Bread of Life Discourse.” Yesterday’s passage ended with Jesus’ words, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of his bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The visiting priest at Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis (where Elena was singing at the 11:00 Mass) began his homily with the story of a man who experienced Job-like suffering, but who always returned good for whatever evil or suffering he faced. When he got to heave and was asked to choose anything he would like, he asked that he be able to begin each day with a warm roll. The priest extolled his simplicity, contrasting it with the complexity of our lives and desires.

We do tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. Not only are our lives complex, but we look for complex answers to big questions. But it is really quite simple, as revealed by a line shared by the priest that was used with great frequency by one of his theology teachers: It’s all about a morsel of bread and a sip of wine. It is as simple as that.

And that is the the message of today’s Gospel. It is the central message of our faith, which is the reason we hear all of this chapter of John’s Gospel in every three-year cycle. The message that all of the nourishment we need is found in Christ.

At every celebration of the Mass, we receive Christ in the form of bread and wine transformed into Christ’s body and blood.

Some may ask, the priest suggested, “Who could believe that?”

I do.

Disposition, Reception and Going Forth

We attended Mass yesterday at Our Lady of Lourdes, since Elena was again singing there. Although I love my own parish, I enjoy masses at Lourdes, presided over by my friend Fr. Dan Griffith.

One of the points Dan made in his sermon had to do with the unity of the three fundamental aspects of the Mass: We listen to the Word of God, which creates in us a disposition of gratitude at God’s presence and work in the world. With that spirit of gratitude, we partake of the Eucharist, by which we are filled with the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus transformed, we go forth to bring God to those we encounter.

The relationship of those three elements is important for us to remember for at least two reasons. First, I have heard many people respond to criticisms of homilies at Catholic Masses by saying, “what’s important is the Eucharist, not the homily.” While we do speak of the Eucharist being “the sum and summit of our faith,” our disposition in receiving the Eucharist matters, which means the Liturgy of the Word is an essential element of the Mass. The breaking open of the Word in the homily is an important part of that.

Second, I’ve commented before about people departing Mass immediately after they receive the Euchrist. I understand that on occasion people are rushed and need to get out of Mass as quickly as possible. (I have left a couple of weekday Masses that were running late immediately after communion where I’ve had someplace I had to be immediately thereafter.) But some people make a habit of behaving as though Mass is over as soon as they receive. It is a bad habit; the sending forth that ends Mass reminds us that our experience of the sacrament is not over when we walk out of Church. Instead we are sent forth to “love and serve” the Lord, to be Christ to those we encounter.

Disposition, reception, and going forth. All are important aspects to our celebration of the Mass.

The Manifestation of God’s Presence

Today is the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

What I have read about the history of the feast is this: A Belgian Augustinian nun named St. Juliana of Liege, who from her youth had a great veneration for the Blessed Sacrament and longed for a special feast in its honor, is said to have had dreams of a full moon with a small dark spot, signifying the absence of such a feast. In 1246, at her suggestion, Bishop Robert de Thorete of the Belgina diocese of Liège, convened a synod at which the feasts was instituted. It spread from there and in 1264, Pope Urban IV issued Transiturus, the papal bull establishing the Feast of Corpus Christi as a universal feast of the Church. The office for the feast was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas and is considered one of the most beautiful in the traditional Roman Breviary.

In one sense, we might question why we have this feast – we celebrate the Eucharist at every Mass we attend. During each Mass we listen to the Eucharistic Prayer, hearing Jesus’ words to his disciples during the Last Supper and then we partake of the Eucharist.

But it is easy when we do something repeatedly to take it for granted, to become casual about it, to forget what is really going on. And what the Eucharist represents is way too central to who we are for us to be casual about it.

Hopefully the solemnity helps us to deepen our understanding of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Thomas Merton describes powerfully an experience he had at a Mass in Havana during the Consecration. I leave you with an excerpt of that description with the wish that on this feast you may experience something of what Merton experienced that day:

Then, as sudden as the shout and as definite, and a thousand times more bright, there formed in my mind an awareness, an understanding, a realization of what had just taken place on the altar, at the Consecration: a realization of God made present by the words of Consecration in a way that made Him belong to me.

But what a thing it was, this awareness: it was so intangible, and yet it struck me like a thunderclap. It was a light that was so bright that it had no relation to any visible light and so profound and so intimate that it seemed like a neutralization of every lesser experience….

It was as if I had been suddenly illuminated by being blinded by the manifestation of God’s presence.

The reason why this light was blinding and neutralizing was that there was and could be simply nothing in it of sense or imagination. When I call it a light that is a metaphor which I am using, long after the fact. But at the moment, another overwhelming thing about this awareness was that it disarmed all images, all metaphors, cut through the whole skein of speciesand phantasms with which we naturally do our thinking. It ignored all sense experience in order to strike directly at the heart of truth, as if a sudden and immediate contact had been established between my intellect and the Truth Who was now physically really and substantially before me on the altar. But this contact was not something speculative and abstract: it was concrete and experimental and belonged to the order of knowledge, yes, but more still to the order of love.

Another thing about it was that this light was something far and beyond the level of any desire or any appetite I had ever yet been aware of. It was purified of all emotion and cleansed of everything that savored of sensible yearnings. It was love as clean and direct as vision: and it flew straight to the possession of the Truth it loved.

And the first articulate thought that came to my mind was: ‘Heaven is right here in front of me: Heaven, Heaven!” It lasted only a moment: but it left a breathless joy and a clean peace and happiness that stayed for hours and it was something I have never forgotten.

Blessings on this Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

Actions vs. Things

Todays’s Gospel from St. Luke picks up at the tail end of one of my favorite stories – that of the two disciples who encounter Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

Almost all of us can recount their encounter with Jesus by heart. Two disciples are walking along, trying to make sense of the last few days – the torture and execution of Jesus, what it means that he is gone, the strange stories of an empty tomb. They start talking to a man who approaches them, telling them all about what has been going on. And he starts explaining scripture to them. They invite him in and it is only when he breaks and blesses the bread that they recognize that the man is Jesus. They immediately go (and this is where today’s Gospel picks up) and tell the other disciples what they have experienced, including “how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”

During the consecration at Mass, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is, of course, fine (not to mention a central aspect of Catholic faith) to recognize Jesus in the bread.

But I read an article recently that prompted me to ask: do we focus too much recognizing Jesus in the bread rather than recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread?

The article referenced Martin Luther criticism of the Mass as turning an action into a thing, the Church having by that time determined the exact moment during the consecration when bread and wine became Body and Blood. As the author observed, “things” can be “precisely determined.”

Actions, he suggests, are a completely different thing:

Can you isolate the precise point during a birthday party in which someone’s birthday is actually celebrated? Is it the moment we finish singing “Happy Birthday,” the candles are blown out, the gifts opened, or the cake eaten? When do we “genuflect”?

On the other hand, an “action” obviously implies some sort of interaction with something or someone. In this situation, Luke’s Easter Sunday disciples on the road to Emmaus came to recognize the risen Jesus during the interaction of the meal they shared with a stranger they’d encountered on the Emmaus road. It was precisely while they were breaking bread that their eyes were opened and they discovered someone sharing their meal whom they hadn’t noticed before.

The lesson for us today is to be attentive to the interactions that help us recognize Jesus. If we recognize Jesus only in the bread and not in the breaking of the bread, we are missing out on a whole lot of the presence of Jesus in the world.

As A Little Child

At Mass yesterday morning, twenty-nine children from our parish received their First Holy Communion. I smiled watching them all process up to the first several pews with their parents at the beginning of Mass. I listened as Fr. Dale directed his homily to them, focusing on how they had each been called by name. And I watched as each of them approached the altar for the first time to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. It was a beautiful sight.

As the children filed up to receive the Eucharist for the first time, the song that was sung was a a Marty Haugen song, Unless You Learn. The song conveys a useful reminder and instruction to all of us. Here is the first verse:

Unless you learn to see as a little child,
you will never see the Reign of God.
Let your hearts be open to the holiness
in the simple and the small.
Come and learn from these little ones,
learn to see with the eyes of faith,
and you may touch the Reign of God
in the gentlest touch of all.

Let us all learn to see, love and live as a little child…to let our hearts be open to the holiness in the simple and the small.