To Be Close to Jesus

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

(Corpus Christi)

For the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, I share with you a transcript of the homily I preached one month ago for my daughter’s First Holy Communion. If you prefer, you may listen to it here.

When I was in high school I had a part time job working in a warehouse. It was good work for a teenager, but it was boring work. Not that boring is bad. Now if you are a parent, like me, your child has come up to you at some point and said, “I’m bored!” And, if you are like me, you’ve probably responded by giving your child a list of possible chores they could be doing. “Clean your room. Unload the dishwasher. Put away the laundry.” Of course they don’t want to do those things. We don’t either! When a child complains about being bored, they are not looking for work to do. They are looking for games to play, for secrets to discover, for wilderness to explore.

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The Indwelling of the Body

Solemnity of the Body & Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)

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Last Sunday the Church celebrated the great solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. On that day above all others we meditate upon the mystery of the inner life of God revealed to us in Christ; that the one eternal God exists as a community of three Persons. Divinity is Trinity in Unity. It is impossible for us, with our finite human minds, to fully understand what this communal life of God must be like, but theologians tell us that the three divine Persons are so united in love that they actually dwell within one another.
The Father lives in the Son and in the Spirit. The Son lives within the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit lives within the Father and the Son. Where any one of them are, there is the whole united Godhead. We cannot imagine what being inside another person must be like, although true romantic love can inspire in us something like a desire to dwell within our beloved. But even if we could imagine living inside of another person, that’s only part of the equation. In the Trinity, the Person you are dwelling inside of also dwells in you. To live inside of someone who is also inside of you is impossible, right?
But something like the mutual indwelling of the Trinity is what God calls us to. On the night before He was to suffer, Jesus prayed to the Father “that they may all be one, just as You are in Me and I am in You” (Jn 17:21). He doesn’t say “with me,” but You are in me and I am in You. Christ wants us to have that same sort of indwelling unity. We may think that this is impossible — but all things are possible with God.
This Sunday, we celebrate the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, also called Corpus Christi. It is the day that the Church celebrates in a special way the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The gospel reading for the feast of Corpus Christi comes from John chapter 6, from what is called Jesus’ “Bread of Life” discourse. In it, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him” (Jn 6:56). Jesus uses the same sort of language here as He does to describe His relationship to the Father.  You are in me and I am in You.

The Eucharist is not the only thing we refer to as the Body of Christ. We also use that term to refer to the Church. And just as with the Eucharist, we do not use the term metaphorically. The Catholic Church is, in a real and substantial way, the Body of Christ. The Church is the continuation of the Incarnation here on earth. When you are baptized into the Church, you are baptized into Christ’s body. You become a part of His Body. Jesus is the head. We are the members. As St. Paul says in the second reading, “We, though many, are one body” (1 Cor 10:17).

Now think about what happens when you receive the Eucharist. It may look like you are just receiving a little piece of bread and a little sip of wine that a man in fancy robes said some nice words over. But we know it is more than that. We know that the bread and wine is not ordinary food and drink, but the Flesh and Blood of the Son of God who became flesh for us.

So now we, who dwell within Christ’s Body by grace of our baptism, are now able to receive Christ’s Body within us by the grace of the Eucharist. We dwell within Christ at the same time that Christ dwells within us. You are in Me and I am in You.

As Catholics, we know that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. We know that the bread and wine, once consecrated, become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is a miracle, and more than we deserve. But for Jesus, it isn’t enough. Jesus does not stop at giving us His Body and Blood. He gives us His divinity. He gives us, in the Eucharist, a taste of the Trinity. He draws us into the life of God, a community of Persons dwelling within one another in an eternal communion of Love.

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To Whom Shall We Go?

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I think it would be rather nifty to have my own coat of arms.  Below those arms would be an escroll emblazoned with my motto: Domine ad quem ibimus?  That is the Latin for “Lord, to whom shall we go?”

It may seem strange to want to have a question for a motto.  Most of the time we think of heraldic mottos as something aggressive or affirming.  My grandmother’s family were Armstrongs, and the motto of that Scottish border clan is Invictus Maneo, or “I remain unvanquished!”  It is typical for a motto to be a strong, affirmative statement.  So why a question?

It is because I think this just may be one of the most important questions any of us could ever consider.  To me, it ranks up there with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” which Jesus asks the disciples (Mt 16:15).  That is a vitally important question.  Each of us must make up our minds about who we believe Jesus to be.  As I wrote in my reflection last week, Christ is either a lunatic, a liar, or the Divine Son of God.  And if He is the Divine Son of God, then we really ought to be paying close attention to what He has to say.

I think that Peter’s question in today’s reading is just as important, especially considered in context.  If you recall  the past few Sunday’s readings, Jesus has been preaching quite emphatically that to have eternal life we must eat His body and drink His blood.  A gruesome thought!  Jesus persists in reiterating that His flesh is true food and His blood true drink, using words like “Amen, amen,” or “verily, verily,” or “truly, truly” (depending on the translation you read).  It is painfully clear that Jesus means what He says and wants us to understand how important this teaching is.

But the disciples who heard Jesus preach said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” The gospel tells us that “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6:66).  They abandon Jesus because they could not accept what He was telling them.  All but the twelve.  (Or more accurately, the eleven.  Judas decides to betray Jesus at this time (Jn 6:71), though he remains with the Apostles).

Jesus asks the Apostles if they, too, will leave.  But  Peter answers for them all by simply saying, “Lord, to whom would we go?  You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that You are the Holy One of God.”

I love Peter’s answer for how it expresses both the weakness of human understanding and the strength of faith.  You can tell by these words that Peter has no better understanding of what Jesus means by “eat my flesh” and “drink my blood” than any of the other disciples who chose to abandon Christ. But while Peter doesn’t understand the meaning of Jesus’ words, he knows Jesus.  The difference between him and those who walked away is that Peter trusts Jesus.  He has faith.

The Catechism teaches us that faith is both a gift from God (CCC 153) and also a human act (CCC 154).  Faith can be described as a wonderful cooperation of the human intellect and the Divine will.   But sometimes our intellect and our wills can fail us.  Sometimes we may encounter difficulties in our faith.  Many Christians, especially those of a college age who are starting to come to an adult appreciation of the faith, will experience doubt — or what they call doubt.

It is helpful to clarify the difference between true doubt and a difficulty in belief.  A difficulty is a question or a struggle to accept something.  The willingness is there, but the understanding is lacking.  A true doubt, however, is a more cynical denial of the faith.  Think of it as the difference between saying, How can this be so? and This cannot be so!  Blessed John Henry Newman once said, “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.”

It is typical to experience difficulties in your faith on occasion.  This can be a good sign that you are examining your faith and taking it seriously.  Even I must admit that from time to time, when I am praying or engaged in spiritual reading, the thought will pop uninvited into my head, “What if none of it is real?

Rather than run away from the question, I prefer to tackle it head on.  What if none of it is real?  What if Jesus was a fraud?  What if the Apostles and martyrs were wrong?  What if the scriptures are just a bunch of ancient folklore?  What if there is no heaven, no hell, no God?  Considering these questions, I can easily imagine the face of Christ looking down at me: Do you also want to leave?

It is then that Peter’s question becomes so important.  “Lord, to whom would we go?”  If none of this is real, then what else is there?  If there is no God, no judgment, no heaven or hell, then what does it matter if I am good or evil?  What does it matter if I love or hate?  All that I could hope for would be to wring as much selfish pleasure out of my time on this earth as possible.

What if this physical world is the only world there is?  What if there were no spiritual goods?  No virtues, no vices, no such things as faith, hope or love?  Then what would all of our human struggling amount to?  What would there be left to strive for?  And what sense would it all make?

If Christianity is false, then to whom would we go?  There would be no one.

Christianity teaches us our proper place in the universe — that we are not the highest beings, but we are created beings, made by an all powerful and transcendent God.  Christianity tells us that that God loves us — not only as an anonymous whole but each of us personally.  Only Christianity tells us that God loves us so much that He entered into this creation and took on our very nature, so that He might live with us, suffer and die for us, and rise from the dead to bring us to eternal life with Him.

People don’t reject Christianity because it is false.  People reject it because it is too good to be true.

Our God loves us so much that He gives us Himself to consume.  The same God who became man becomes food for us at each and every Mass, so that He may be one with us and we with Him.  You have an invitation to this feast.  Do you also want to leave?  Or will you say, with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You are the Holy One of God.  In light of your goodness, there is no one else I can follow.  There is no place else I can be.”

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Food for the journey

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Fans of Lord of the Rings will be familiar with Lembas bread, also known as elven waybread, the special bread given to the Fellowship of the Ring by the elves to sustain them on their journey. It was said to be more strengthening than any food made by man.

J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Catholic, steeped in the scriptures and Catholic history, so it is no wonder that the supernatural and life-giving bread he created should have Biblical precedence.  In our first reading from Mass this Sunday (1 Kg 19:4-8) the prophet Elijah journeys but a single day into the desert before he collapses, exhausted.  After he eats bread given to him by an angel of God, however, he regains enough strength not only to travel another day, but forty more days to Mount Horeb.

One of the major characteristics of the Catholic faith is the very physical nature of much of what we do and believe.  We see this in Elijah’s story today.  When Elijah is exhausted in the desert, God sends him an angel, not to simply tell him to persist in faith, but to give him bread and water.  In this way both his body and his spirit are sustained.

God made man as both a physical and spiritual being.  Our great hope is that after the resurrection of the dead we may exist as God made us to be, body and soul, in the new heaven and new earth.  Since God made us as both physical and spiritual beings, it should not surprise us that God relates to us in both physical and spiritual ways.

This is the great beauty of the sacraments; that in each one God communicates His grace to us via a physical sign.  With baptism that sign is water; with confirmation it is holy oils; with marriage it is husband and wife, and so forth.  But there is one sacrament where God communicates Himself to us in such a special way that we simply refer to it as the Blessed Sacrament.  I speak of the Eucharist.

Under the species of bread and wine, those who receive the Eucharist receive the full Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.  We bring ordinary bread and wine to the altar where it is blessed by the hands of a priest, who repeats the words of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper.  “This is my body, which is given up for you,” and “This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.”

Writing to the Emperor of Rome in the mid-second century, St. Justin Martyr explains what the Eucharist means to the Christian people.

This food we call the Eucharist, and no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that our doctrines are true, who has been washed with the bath for the remission of sins and rebirth [baptism], and who is living as Christ commanded.  We do not receive these as common bread and drink.  For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.  Likewise, we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word — and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed — is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology 65-66).

Out of all the sacraments, the Eucharist alone is called The Sacrament because it most perfectly reflects the sacramental nature of Christ Himself.  In Jesus Christ, the Divine Logos became incarnate.  That word — incarnate — which we profess in our creed, simply means “enfleshed.”  He took on flesh in order to communicate Himself to us.  The Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation, in which Christ becomes not only flesh and blood, but flesh and blood that we can ourselves consume.

God desires to nourish both our bodies and spirits.  Moreover He desires to commune with us most intimately, to make His dwelling with us.  The Eucharist is how this is achieved.

Lembas Bread

The angelic bread given to Elijah, the manna in the desert; these were but signs of the true bread from heaven Christ offers.  Jesus is blunt about it in our reading today.  “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.”  It sustained them, but only for a while.  The manna was the shadow.  What Jesus offers is the substance.  “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” (Jn 6:51).

In The Lord of the Rings, Lembas bread was a sign of goodness and holiness.  It was offensive to those who were corrupted by evil (Gollum refuses to eat it).  Likewise, we are taught by the Church to prepare ourselves to receive the Eucharist by remaining in a state of grace, participating in sacramental reconciliation (confession) if we have committed mortal sin, and fasting for at least an hour before we receive.  As St. Justin said above, “we do not receive these as common bread and drink.”  St. Justin says the Eucharist not only nourishes us, but changes us.  “You are what you eat,” as they say.  When we consume the Eucharist we consume goodness, purity and sanctity.  We consume love.

Like elven waybread, the Eucharist is food for the journey — in this case, our journey through this life and into the life to come.  Nothing else will do to give us strength into eternity but He Who is the Living Bread.

“There is no surer pledge or dearer sign of this great hope in the new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells, than the Eucharist.  Every time this mystery is celebrated, the work of our redemption is carried on and we break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live forever in Jesus Christ” (CCC 1405).

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Gospel For Today: Corpus Christi


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Today we celebrate the solemnity of Corpus Christi, that great solemnity of the Eucharist, which the Second Vatican Council calls “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11).  The popular hymn At That First Eucharist sings of it as the “great sacrament of unity,” and the Catechism says, “The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion of the divine life and that unity of the People of God” (CCC 1325).

Yet for many people the Eucharist can seem like a source of division.  Consider this not uncommon scenario.  You have been talking with a friend about your faith.  He is not Catholic, but has been asking questions about Catholicism.  You have been sharing what you know, and what the faith means to you (especially your love of the Eucharist).  You are excited by his interest and want to encourage him, so you invite him to come to Mass with you next Sunday.  To your great joy, he accepts.  You go to Mass together, but before you enter the church you remember something you need to tell him.  “Oh, before I forget,” you say, “During Communion, when everyone goes up to receive, you can’t.  That’s just for Catholics.  Non-Catholics can’t receive Communion in our Church.”
His face looks crestfallen.  He was excited about attending his first Mass, and now, despite all your efforts to be welcoming, he is met at the door by a message of rejection.  He gets offended, feeling he is not welcome at your table.  What can be done here?  How can we be welcoming and invitational to others (which is a necessary component of evangelization), while respecting the laws of the Church regarding reception of Holy Communion?
First of all, when bringing someone new to Mass with you, right before you sit down in the pew is probably not the best time to bring up the matter.  Talk with them well beforehand about what the Church teaches regarding who may and may not receive the Eucharist.  And make sure you know what that teaching actually is.  
The “Order of the Mass” booklets we have in the pews in our campus chapel contain this statement on the inside cover.  Most worship aids and pew missals used in other parishes will contain something very similar.
Reception of Holy Communion is open to Catholics in a state of grace (not conscious of any mortal sin), who have fasted for at least one hour prior to reception.  (Water and medicine do not break the fast.  The elderly and those who are sick as well as those who care for them, are not obliged to fast.)  Non-Christians, and those Christians who are not in full communion with the Catholic Church, are welcome to worship with us, but should not present themselves for Communion.  We invite you to pray for Christian unity.

It is very important to understand that this is not a simple matter of “Catholics get to receive the Eucharist, non-Catholics don’t.”  If that were all it was, it would be exclusionary and divisive.  But this is not the case, and it is important that the newcomer you bring to Mass, and you yourself, understand this point clearly.

The invitation to the Eucharist is open to all.  But, as the Catechism reminds us, “To respond to this invitation we must prepare ourselves for so great and holy a moment” (CCC 1385).  The Catechism then goes on to quote from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.  For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. (1 Cor 11:27-29).

Christ promises life to those who eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn 6:53), but Paul warns that those who do so unworthily risk receiving spiritual death.  The Church therefore, out of care for the souls receiving the Eucharist, wants to ensure that those who do so are adequately prepared.

This means, first and foremost, being in a state of grace.  In other words, the one receiving is not conscious of any mortal sin.  If one has committed a mortal sin (which includes neglecting the Sunday Mass obligation), one needs to have recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), to repent and receive the Lord’s forgiveness before receiving the Eucharist.  In this way you make your soul a welcoming home for the presence of the Lord.
Secondarily, you must also prepare your body.  This means observing the Church’s fasting requirements.  Currently, one is only required to fast for one hour before receiving Holy Communion (past generations had stricter requirements).  
So, if a Protestant Christian believes in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is not conscious of having committed any mortal sin, and fasts for one hour, can he or she receive the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?  The answer is still no.  
The reason is that the Eucharist is not just one aspect of the Catholic faith which non-Catholics can take or leave.  The Eucharist is the faith.  Again, we turn to the Catechism, which reminds us that the Eucharist completes Christian initiation (CCC 1322).  “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it.  For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch” (CCC 1324).  
We call the Eucharist “Communion” because it is both the sign and means of our communion not only with Christ, but with the Church (which, not insignificantly, is also called the Body of Christ).  In other words, it is by reception of the Body of Christ (the Eucharist) that our union with the Body of Christ (the Church) is made complete.  
Those Christians who remain outside of the Catholic Church are, by definition, not in full union (communion) with the Catholic Church.  We wish them to be.  We strongly desire them to be.  And we hope, though our witness and our welcome, and the Holy Spirit working through us, that they may seek to be united with the Catholic Church.  If they do so, then receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist will be the completion of that unity.  But until that time, reception of the Eucharist by a non-Catholic is a dishonest act.  
I find marriage to be a helpful metaphor here.  As Catholics we believe that the sexual act between a husband and wife is a beautiful, holy, life-giving act.  It is a supremely good act, but one that belongs properly only within marriage.  By that act the husband and wife are saying, “I give myself completely to you.”  This is why premarital sex is wrong, because you are saying with your bodies “I am united completely with you,” while in fact you are not united in marriage.  It becomes a dishonest and sinful act.
Likewise non-Catholics who receive the Eucharist, as well as those Catholics not in a state of grace, are saying with their body, “I am in full union with the Church,” when in fact they are not.  Reception of the greatest gift Christ intends to give to us therefore becomes an act of dishonesty and occasion of sin.  One begins to understand why St. Paul warned against this so strongly.
We don’t just want non-Catholics to receive Communion in the Catholic Church.  We want them to be in communion with the Catholic Church, and receive all the graces that entails.  So the next time you bring a non-Catholic to Mass and have “the conversation” with them about the Eucharist, make this point.  We care for their spiritual good, and it is for that reason the Church cannot admit them to Communion.  But we desire to; moreover we want them to desire to.  And if they do so desire to receive the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, that path is open to them.  It is a path to unity with His Church, to the fullness of the faith, to the source and summit of the Christian life.

WCU Catholic Campus Ministry
Matthew Newsome, MTh, campus minister
(828)293-9374  |   POB 2766, Cullowhee NC 28723

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