THE EUCHARIST IS JESUS!
“Always remain close to the Catholic Church, because it alone can give you true peace, since it alone possesses Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the true Prince of Peace.”
–St. Padre Pio
We, Catholics, believe that Jesus Christ is really, truly, and substantially present in the Eucharist. There are many stories of miracles throughout Church history that seem to confirm this important teaching.
- One of the reasons why (Saint) Anthony worked so hard to convert heretics was because he genuinely felt sorry for them. He saw that they were depriving themselves of the most precious gift of the Eucharist, and he believed that no one could long survive without this spiritual nourishment.
One day, a heretic told Anthony that he would believe that Christ was truly present in the Eucharist only if his mule bowed down to it.
They established that the test should take place in three days. The heretic starved his mule for the next three days. When the appointed time had arrived, Anthony stood off to one side with the consecrated host in his hands, while the heretic stood to the other holding some fodder for the mule to eat. The mule, ignoring its own extreme hunger, went before the Eucharist and knelt down to adore the Blessed Sacrament.
- In the 8th century, a priest in Lanciano, Italy was experiencing doubts about the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the middle of saying Mass, he said the words of consecration (“This is my body,” “This is my blood) and saw the bread and wine transform into real human flesh and blood. The blood coagulated into five globules (later believed to be representative of the five wounds of Christ). Word of the miracle quickly spread, the local archbishop launched an investigation, and the Church approved the miracle.
The flesh is still preserved to this day. Professor of anatomy Odoardo Linoli conducted a scientific analysis of the flesh in 1971 and concluded that the flesh was cardiac tissue, the blood appeared to be fresh blood (as opposed to blood that was 1200 years old), and there was no trace of preservatives.
You can visit the miraculous flesh and blood in the Church of San Francesco in Lanciano, Italy.
- The Eucharistic Miracle of Santarém – 13th century
A woman living in Santarém, Portugal in the 13th was distressed that her husband was unfaithful to her, and she decided to consult a sorceress for help. The sorceress told her the price of her services was a consecrated host.
She went to Mass at the Church of St. Stephen and received the Eucharist on her tongue, removed the Eucharist from her mouth, wrapped it in her veil, and headed to the door of the church. But before she got out, the host began to bleed.
When she got home, she put the bloodied host in a trunk. That night, a miraculous light emanated from the trunk. She repented of what she had done and the next morning confessed to her priest. Her priest came and retrieved the host and took it back to the church.
After an investigation and approval of the miracle, the church was renamed Church of the Holy Miracle, and the bloodied host remains on display to this day.
This Sunday we celebrate a second Solemnity during this period of Ordinary Time in the Liturgical Calendar. Today is the Solemnity of “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” The Feast owes its existence to Blessed Juliana, an Augustinian Nun, in Liege, France, who had a great veneration for the Blessed Sacrament around 1230 and longed for a special feast in its honor. Largely through her insistence, in 1264 Pope Urban IV commanded its observance by the Universal Church, on Thursday after Trinity Sunday; however, where it is not a day of obligation it is usually celebrated on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday.
In a way, we have already celebrated this feast. We did so on Holy Thursday in Holy Week. On that occasion, the emphasis was on the institution, the gift of the Eucharist to us as one of Jesus’ last acts before his suffering and death. It was, moreover, to be an enduring memorial of that great liberating act by which God’s love would be forever kept before our minds. One reason why we may have this second feast of the Eucharist is that it takes place during the more joyful period of the Ordinary season when we can celebrate it with greater freedom from the constraints of Lent and Holy Week.
The First Reading from the Book of Deuteronomy tells of Moses’ advice and warnings to his people not to forget the deeds God had done for them when they travelled through the desert after being freed from the slavery of Egypt. He recalls the way in which God fed the people of Israel in the desert with manna, that miraculous food which Christians were later to see as a prefiguration of the Eucharist. In contrast with Exodus 16, however, which presents the gift of manna simply as a miracle of feeding the people, today’s passage interprets this event in a more particular way. The manna is to teach the people of Israel that God’s Word is the source of life on which they must depend. As they relied on manna for life in the desert, so they must also continually depend on the Word of God.
The Second Reading from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians is a powerful witness of the Eucharistic faith of the Christian community. St. Paul provides us with the earliest detailed account of the Lord’s Supper and the Institution of the Eucharist. He says, the Eucharist builds the Church, whose head is Jesus Christ. Participation in the body and blood of Christ is the source of the life and unity of the Church as one body. Through eating the bread and drinking the cup Christians are united to Christ in an intimate fellowship, because the Eucharist is his body and blood. From this Eucharistic fellowship with Christ follows the real union of all the faithful with one another in one body. The Eucharist strengthens the members and is an effective sign of their unity.
Gospel: For millions of non-Catholic Christians, Jesus was using pure symbolism in John 6:53 when he declared to his followers, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” The reasons non-Catholics give can usually be boiled down to these: First, a literal interpretation would make Christians into cannibals. Second, Jesus claims to be a “door” in John 10:9 and a “vine” in John 15:5. Do Catholics believe they must pluck a leaf from Jesus the vine or oil the hinges on Jesus the door to get into heaven? So the non-Catholic claims Jesus is using metaphor in John 6, just as he does elsewhere in the Gospels.
The charge of cannibalism does not hold water for at least three reasons. First, Catholics do not receive our Lord in a cannibalistic form. Catholics receive him in the form of bread and wine. The cannibal kills his victim; Jesus does not die when he is consumed in Communion. Indeed, he is not changed in the slightest; the communicant is the only person who is changed. The cannibal eats part of his victim, whereas in Communion the entire Christ is consumed—body, blood, soul, and divinity. The cannibal sheds the blood of his victim; in Communion our Lord gives himself to us in a non-bloody way.
Second, if it were truly immoral in any sense for Christ to give us his flesh and blood to eat, it would be contrary to his holiness to command anyone to eat his body and blood—even symbolically. Symbolically performing an immoral act would be of its nature immoral.
Moreover, the expressions to eat flesh and to drink blood already carried symbolic meaning both in the Hebrew Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament, which was heavily influenced by Hebrew. In Psalm 27:1-2, Isaiah 9:18-20, Isaiah 49:26, Micah 3:3, and Revelation 17:6-16, we find these words (eating flesh and drinking blood) understood as symbolic for persecuting or assaulting someone. Jesus’ Jewish audience would never have thought he was saying, “Unless you persecute and assault me, you shall not have life in you.” Jesus never encouraged sin. This may well be another reason why the Jews took Christ at his word.
Not Metaphorically Speaking
If Jesus was speaking in purely symbolic terms, his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. No one listening to him understood him to be speaking metaphorically. Contrast his listeners’ reaction when Jesus said he was a “door” or a “vine.” Nowhere do we find anyone asking, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?” When Jesus spoke in metaphor, his audience seems to have been fully aware of it.
When we examine the surrounding context of John 6:53, Jesus’ words could hardly have been clearer. In verse 51, he plainly claims to be “the living bread” that his followers must eat. And he says in no uncertain terms that “the bread which I shall give . . . is my flesh.” Then, when the Jews were found “disput[ing] among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” in verse 52, he reiterates even more emphatically, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Compare this with other examples in Scripture when followers of the Lord are confused about his teaching. In John 4:32, Jesus says: “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” The disciples thought Jesus was speaking about physical food. Our Lord quickly clears up the point using concise, unmistakable language in verse 34: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (see also Matthew 16:5-12).
Moreover, when we consider the language used by John, a literal interpretation—however disturbing—becomes even more obvious. In John 6:50-53 we encounter various forms of the Greek verb phago, “eating.” However, after the Jews begin to express incredulity at the idea of eating Christ’s flesh, the language begins to intensify. In verse 54, John begins to use trogo instead of phago. Trogo is a decidedly more graphic term, meaning “to chew on” or to “gnaw on”—as when an animal is ripping apart its prey.
Then, in verse 61, it is no longer the Jewish multitudes, but the disciples themselves who are having difficulty with these radical statements of our Lord. Surely, if he were speaking symbolically, he would clear up the difficulty now among his disciples. Instead, what does Jesus do? He reiterates the fact that he meant just what he said: “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (61-62). Would anyone think him to have meant, “What if you were to see me symbolically ascend?” Hardly! The apostles, in fact, did see Jesus literally ascend to where he was before (see Acts 1:9-10).
Finally, our Lord turns to the twelve. What he does not say to them is perhaps more important than what he does say. He doesn’t say, “Hey guys, I was misleading the Jewish multitudes, the disciples, and everyone else, but now I am going to tell you alone the simple truth: I was speaking symbolically.” Rather, he says to them, “Will you also go away?” (v. 67). This most profound question from our Lord echoes down through the centuries, calling all followers of Christ in a similar fashion. With St. Peter, those who hear the voice of the Shepherd respond: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
Today is what we traditionally call “Corpus Christi” Sunday, “Body of Christ” Sunday. How unusual: we gather to celebrate someone’s body. Of course, we are not celebrating just anyone’s body, or just any body. We celebrate the Body of Christ.
Today we acknowledge, in a special way, this mysterious gift we call “Eucharist” or “Communion” In the end, this gift is the reason for the Church. In the end, therefore, this gift is the reason we go to church.
Why do we go to church? It is a great and important question, for the list of reasons not to go is long. One often hears it said,
• “You don’t need to go to church to be a good person.” or
• “You don’t need to go to church to pray”. Both statements are true.
We do not go to church to be good persons. We do not go to church simply to pray.
We go to church to receive a gift that we cannot give to ourselves at home. We go to church to receive Jesus in the Eucharist.
We go to church because “unless we eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood we have no life within us.” Such is the Eucharist: “the flesh and blood of the Son of Man”
• which Jesus suggests is necessary so to enter into fullness of intimacy with Him.
• which Jesus suggests leads to a unique experience of love with God. Do we really believe in the Eucharist? Do we really believe that
• the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Jesus?
• Jesus transforms the bread and the wine into an abiding presence of His? It is not easy to believe. Consider the response of the Jews in this encounter: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (verse 52) or the response of the disciples “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” (verse 60) It was so hard for Jesus’ own disciples to believe and accept that “many returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” (verse 66) “Sorry Lord, can’t go there. Good luck.”
We come to church precisely to go there. It is all about going there: receiving this gift which is too deep for words. Everything revolves around this. Everything flows from this. Such is why you will notice in a Catholic church that the altar is central.
What is central in an evangelical, a mega-church? The pulpit (or the drum set!). There is no altar. “Evangelical” Christians think we are terribly misguided. Are we? “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you.” (verse 53) We take this seriously—as outlandish as it may sound. We believe in this mysterious gift. It is truly a question of faith.
The Eucharist is what makes the Catholic Church unique and challenging. Jesus in the Eucharist is uniquely intimate. Jesus in the Eucharist, because deeply present, giving Himself, is also painfully quiet, and thus challenging to our sensibility. Such is the big difference between the Mass and a service in a mega-church. For us, all roads lead to the Eucharist, to this silent presence of the God-man on the altar. There can and ought to be exultation (there is no reason for boring sermons or music!). But, at one point, all becomes silent in the Eucharistic presence of the King.
In the Catholic perspective, power is relative to love. And love eventually brings about silence. But this is challenging for us. “Jesus do something, say something!” Jesus is more than doing and saying. He is loving, silently, the best way it is done, and He offers Himself to be taken: “O sacred banquet at which Christ is consumed” (Thomas Aquinas, “Ad Sacrosanctum Sacramentum”)
The same Thomas Aquinas notes, quite amazingly: “Material food changes into the one who eats it. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the conversion of a person into Christ, so that Christ lives in him.” (Commentary on Book IV of the Sentences, d.12, q.2, a.11) The love that Jesus pours forth in this gift of Himself also joins us to one another.
After you receive Communion, you can look around the church (discreetly, of course!), and tell yourself that you are now closer to every single person there. The Eucharist makes us Church, because it communicates the love which binds us to one another as Brothers and Sisters. This divine love sends us to one another, enabling us to welcome any and all, even enemies. This divine love sends us into the world to love it unto God. Hence, the importance of the commissioning at the “end” of Mass “Go in the peace of Christ”.
I personally find it misleading to say “the Mass has ended”. In a sense, the Mass begins in us, and spills into the world. What we receive we do not receive just for ourselves. The Eucharist is eminently personal, but not private. We are sent forth in the power of the Holy Spirit, Who is freshly poured upon us when we receive the Eucharist.
To “eat and run” shows that we have not understood
• what we receive
• who we are in Christ
• that we have Brothers and Sisters
• that the world awaits the love we have received.
If all of this seems too far-fetched, then we owe it to ourselves, and, of course, to Christ,
• to say so to Him
• to come before him with utter simplicity and honesty, asking that He reveal his truth to us.
What is at stake is too precious for us to sit on the sidelines.
We are called to fall in love with Jesus, and He gives a unique gift so that it happen… “Do you realize that Jesus is there in the tabernacle expressly for you—for you alone? He burns with desire to come into your heart… The guest of our soul knows our misery. He comes to find an empty tent within us—that is all He asks…” (Saint Therese of Lisieux)
“We must understand that in order ‘to do’, we must first learn ‘to be’, that is to say, in the sweet company of Jesus in adoration.”
–Pope John Paul II
“Of all devotions, that of adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the greatest after the sacraments, the one dearest to God and the one most helpful to us.”
–St. Alphonsus Liguori
“If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion.”
–St. Maximilian Kolbe
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.