Year B Lent 3
Flannery O’Connor, the Catholic novelist, was once at a dinner party when the conversation turned to a religious topic,as the only Catholic there she was expected to have a comment. They were talking about the Eucharist and how it was a beautiful symbol. She broke in, saying, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”
It seems to me that the impulse to turn the Eucharist into a symbol, meaning it’s still a piece of bread and a cup of wine but they represent some other truth, that’s the same impulse that’s offended by the Crucifixion of Christ. God chose a visceral, punishing, bloody way to redeem humanity. He did this for a number of reasons:
- The Crucifixion reveals the true cost of our sins,
- It allows Jesus to participate fully in the suffering that we experience as we approach our own deaths,
- It respects our self-determination in the sense that his sacrifice is for anyone accepts it, but not all will, and
- It respects the fact that sin affects us physically, and so the death and resurrection of Our Lord are physical, and
- It is a picture of the depths of God’s love for us.
The Crucifixion is central to our faith, without it we are lost, and yet St. Paul is already have problems with some who rejecting the Cross and trying to intellectualize Christianity. The Cross is a stumbling block. It is offensive. This still rejection still happens today when we over-emphasize peace and kindness and sharing and forget that the crucifixion was a very real, very violent event. When we come to Mass, what is presented to us on the altar is not a symbol – It is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. With him, it’s all or nothing.
Looking at our Gospel reading, Our Lord is in Jerusalem standing in the Temple built by Herod the Great. Herod had constructed it on the ruins of the 1st Temple and he had made it bigger and better, some of the blocks of stone in the walls weighing many tons. The Temple, says Our Lord, will be pulled down and rebuilt in 3 days – but he isn’t talking about Herod’s Temple, he’s talking about the Temple that is the Body of Christ. The Temple, this temple, the Church, is for one purpose only – to house the Bread of Life.
The Eucharist is the source of our community and it’s summit. Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, is why we are here. There are benefits to coming to Church: community, friendship, neighborhood solidarity, good music, middling homilies, a place that supports children and families and seniors…but every thing and every activity here is sheltered in the shadow of the Cross. Ultimately, even if there were no other benefits, we would come to Mass because God deserves it and because it is how we are united to him.
I remember back in the days when I was intrigued by the Catholic Church but not yet ready to be received. I would lurk in places like Holy Family Cathedral in Tulsa where I lived at the time and St. Francis de Sales in south city when I was in town visiting family. I knew that there was something precious in a Catholic Church, that the sanctuary lamp burned red with the Passion of Christ. A Catholic Church is alive, even when no one is here, and Our Lord patiently bides his time in the tabernacle. I guessed the power of the sacrament but didn’t understand it, and yet it was obviously more than a symbol.
The Eucharist is Jesus, his very essence. It is the reaching forth of creation into the bones and marrow of existence to be re-created by the power of the Cross. We don’t simply consume the Eucharist as a nice little ritual. We encounter God and are made one with him, his death, his resurrection – through it, he consumes us and we enter into love itself.
The Real Presence, or transubstantiation for you intellectuals, is impossible to explain. St. Thomas Aquinas lived at at time when the Real Presence was being challenged, so here is the smartest man who ever lived defending the dogma of the Church, but he was under a lot of pressure and one day he was in the chapel praying because he was beginning to doubt himself. Christ himself came off the crucifix in a mystical vision and said to Thomas that was teaching correctly. But even so, at the end of his life during his long decline into death he said that everything he had thought and said was like straw. Not wrong, but vanishingly insubstantial compared to seeing the face of God.
In the end, we can say what the Eucharist is not. It is not bread anymore, it is not a mere symbol, but saying what it is will never get to the true reality, and that is because we are being drawn up to a reality that far outweighs our own, and to a love that is so vast that it drowns us in its waters.
How should that affect the way we treat the Blessed Sacrament? How we pray before him? How we receive him? St. Maximilian Kolbe says, “Be a Catholic. When you kneel before an altar, do it in such a way that others may be able to recognize that you know before whom you kneel.” I see that in the reverence I see in parishioners at Adoration, and in the way many of you receive Christ so very humbly on your tongue, how you kneel down before and after Mass to pray before the tabernacle. Cardinal Sarah, who is the prefect for the Office of Worship at the Vatican recently encouraged all of us to renew our reverence for the Eucharist. He tells a story about Pope St. John Paul II, saying, “John Paul II could never sit in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. He forced his broken body to kneel. He needed the help of others to bend his knees, and again to stand. What more profound testimony could he give to the reverence due to the Blessed Sacrament than this, right up until his very last days.” What a beautiful witness!
It only makes sense in a homily on the Eucharist to give the last word to Jesus. In a book of meditations before the Blessed Sacrament, a Benedictine monk records the words of Our Lord spoken to him,
“If you would be with Me in My sufferings, come to Me in the Sacrament of My Love…come to My altar, and abide there with Me.”