Year A Corpus Christi
Today, on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi during which we celebrate the Eucharistic miracle, we encounter a difficult Gospel passage. In it, Our Lord claims to literally, substantially be the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, and even more difficult to digest (pun intended!) is the further claim that those who follow him must consume him. Having heard this, his disciples quarreled, and many ended up abandoning him.
The quarrel continues to this very day, and the spiritual atmosphere we find ourselves in is one in which the sacraments in general are misunderstood. By many they are considered a mere symbol, denying the plain meaning of Our Lord’s words –The Eucharist is truly his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is not a mere symbol. The catechism teaches that the Blessed Sacrament is an efficacious sign, meaning that it participates in the reality beyond the symbol and creates a spiritual grace. Otherwise why would St. Paul tell us in the Scriptures that those who receive communion in a state of mortal sin are falling more spiritually ill than before? A symbol cannot have such an effect.
In the past, I was on the other side of this debate. I would have claimed that sacraments make no sense, that faith is only a matter of the heart, a spiritual reality and not a bodily one. But of course (not for the first time in my life), I was wrong and have since learned that it is quite natural and fitting for Our Lord to use physical means to remain present to us. Humans are not spirits trapped in bodies, and we are not looking to be freed of our bodies but rather we anticipate that our bodies will be perfected through the resurrection. We are embodied souls, and along with the harmonious perfection of the human form that shows how beautiful the human soul is, God also declares the created world around us is beautiful and good. This is why we care for the environment, see God in a sunset, find our devotion stirred by physically hearing music, and pray with our whole selves not just our minds. The world is God-shaped. And all of it points to one, supreme physical reality – the Eucharistic miracle.
We see it all the way back in the Old Testament. God gives the Israelites the Ark of the Covenant, within which is a jar of manna, Bread from Heaven. The Ark goes before the people as they approach the Promised Land. As they approach the Jordan river, the water flowing downstream stops in its tracks and creates dry land. We shouldn’t be amazed at this miracle, because the Eucharist itself is more powerful yet. It brings us to Heaven, and all of creation serves it and bows down before the Body and Blood of Christ. It isn’t hyperbole to point out that the very reason wheat and wine were created were so that they might become the Eucharist. From the foundation of the world, this has been their inner purpose.
Belief in the Eucharist can be challenging, but once we accept it through faith, we see how all of creation is fitted to it. Each of us has probably experienced a sense of yearning, a moment of beauty so intense you felt it would rip your heart in two, a love of such devotion that you cannot imagine your existence without it. Perhaps you’ve forgotten about those moments as their intensity has faded. This is natural because, when we’ve torn the veil and are peering into eternity, it isn’t a place we can remain and eventually we return to everyday life. Consider, for example, how St. Peter is not allowed to remain in the presence of the transfigured Christ but they must move on.
Evelyn Waugh writes, “Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are…snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”
God is just around the corner, sometimes we catch a glimpse sometimes not. He is just around the corner in all instances except one – in the Eucharist he is right here right now. Spiritual sustenance is promised to us, without fail, every time we assist at Mass. In Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee has an interesting experience of the Eucharist, which he calls lembas bread. JRR Tolkien writes, “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It…had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”
It isn’t surprising that Tolkien would write the Eucharist into Lord of the Rings, because elsewhere he says, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”
What a beautiful way of putting it! All our loves, all our desires, all our experiences of beauty are gathered up into the Eucharist, which is the one, centralizing act of love at the foundation of the universe. Our Lord is the culmination of creation, the heart at the center of history, the font of all that makes life worth living.
I wonder if this radical, life-altering openness to God is why it’s so tempting to dismiss the Eucharist as a mere symbol. It’s a frightening thing to realize that the God of the universe is re-creating the world and drawing it into the Church, that he is overwhelming our souls and placing the full benefit and demand of love within us. The early Christians understood the danger, they were eaten by lions and burned alive because of their commitment to the Eucharist, but they were happy to do so because they also understood the implications, that if wheat and wine find their true purpose only in becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, we humans only find our true purpose in consuming it and becoming one with Christ in both his death and resurrection. The implications are far-reaching, and some of us may prefer to empty the Mass of its sacrificial power and abandon him rather than follow his difficult path.
Pope Benedict XVI asks, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives…are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?” He answers his own question, “. . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing… of what makes life free, beautiful and great…Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.”
The Eucharist is proof – He gives us everything.