Gen 14:18-20; 1Cor 11:23-26; Luke 9:11-17
Today is the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which we eat and drink during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Jesus offered not just a simple thing but also His own self because of His great love to each one of us. He is present not only during the First mass which he did at the Last Supper but He is even really present today every time we celebrate the Mass. Our belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been on attack by many of our brothers and sisters in other Christian Churches. That his bread (the host) we eat is not the Body of Christ and this wine (grape wine) we drink is not the Blood of Christ. They said that this Catholic belief of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is not biblical but “an invention of the Catholic Church.”
Why do we need a feast of the Eucharist? A feast like this affords us the opportunity to give God collective thanks for Christ’s abiding presence with us which is made visible in the Eucharist. It is also an opportunity for us to seek a better understanding of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ and to order our attitude to it accordingly, since the Eucharist is a sacrament of life which, if misused, could bring about the opposite effect. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “All who eat and drink in an unworthy manner, without discerning the Lord’s body eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason, many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:29-30).
1. WHY DID JESUS GIVE US THIS SACRAMENT?
A closer reading of today’s gospel text or the Eucharistic discourse in John 6 which also contains John’s version of the same miracle (Jn 6:1-14), provides useful answers as to why Jesus gave us the Eucharist. From the gospels of Jesus, we find that there are two main reasons Jesus gave us this sacrament.
a) Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). In the Eucharist he provides a visible sign and an effective means of him being present to us and us being present to him. As Jesus himself said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
b)) Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it to the full (John 20:20). In the Eucharist he provides a visible means of communicating this life to us so that we can be fully alive both in this world and in the next. As Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:53-54).
The Jews that Jesus was addressing in John 6 had gathered to ask him for more bread. Jesus promised to give them the sacramental bread and blood instead. But in their worldly frame of mind they could not understand or appreciate the sacrament. They disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52). Jesus reaffirmed that “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55). They ended up distancing themselves from the Eucharist because the sacramental language makes no sense to people in a materialistic frame of mind.
The same problem that these early would-be followers of Jesus had is still with us today. If we approach the Eucharist with a materialistic mentality, we fail to understand and so lose the benefits of such a wonderful gift of God’s love. The Eucharist is true food and drink but at the same time it is very different from every other food and drink. The great difference lies in these words of Christ which St Augustine heard in prayer, “You will not change me into yourself as you would food of your flesh; but you will be changed into me.” We transform ordinary food into our own bodies but the food of the Eucharist transforms us into the body of Christ. The Eucharist is very important in the life of every believer.
2. IMPORTANCE OF THE EUCHARIST
Today’s Second Reading states clearly the precious gift that Jesus has for us in the Eucharist. The words of Jesus, cited in this passage, are the earliest recorded words of Jesus that we have. Paul begins by telling the people of Corinth that the tradition of celebrating the Lord’s supper is one that goes back to Jesus Christ himself. “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul did not personally receive this tradition from the Lord, since he was not one of the twelve apostles present at the Last Supper. He received the tradition from those who were Christians before him, after his conversion to the Christian faith. Now he is handing on to the Corinthians the same tradition that he himself received. The only difference is that whereas up till the time of Paul the tradition was passed on by word of mouth, Paul was the first to put it down in writing because he could not be there physically with the Corinthians.
What is the tradition that Paul received and is now passing on? It is this: that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) The night he was betrayed was the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples before his passion and death. In olden days, people did not write their wills. They spoke their wills, usually as their last words before death. What do these words of 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 tell us when we read them as the last words, the will and testament of Jesus?
a) The will of Jesus does not say a word about what Jesus taught. Its focus is on what Jesus did. He gave his body to his followers as food and his blood as drink. Remember, this was taking place in the context of the Passover meal. So Jesus was presenting himself as their Passover lamb. The Israelites in Egypt had to eat the flesh of the Passover lamb to identify themselves as God’s own people. They marked their doorposts with its blood as a sign to keep away the angel of death. Every Israelite was supposed to participate in this ritual every year to renew their identity as God’s people who enjoy God’s special blessings and protection. Seen in this light, the Eucharist becomes for us the place where we come to renew ourselves as God’s new people in Christ.
b) The will speaks of a “NEW COVENANT.” In the Old Testament the people of God came into being through a covenant. By speaking of a new covenant Jesus is saying that a new people of God has come into being. In the sacrifice that seals the covenant Jesus is both the officiating priest and the lamb of sacrifice. We are just the beneficiaries of a life-giving grace. That is why the name “Eucharist” (“thanksgiving”) is so appropriate. Jesus did it all for us. All we have to do is receive it and give thanks.
c) The will of Jesus invites us to the banquet. “Do this in remembrance of me … Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:24-25). Here, we see the last thing Jesus asked us to do before he died. He asked us to keep doing it as often as possible until his return in glory (verse 26). Why then is it that many of us take the Eucharist so lightly?
3. A SOBER WARNING AND SOME WISE ADVICE
A further reading beyond the text of today’s Second reading reveals Paul issuing this warning: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor 11:27). He later adds: “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. 32 When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world” (1 Cor 11:29-32). Paul tells us that those who do not participate in the Lord’s Supper in a respectful and God-honouring fashion will face God’s judgment because they are “sinning against the body and blood of the Lord”. Paul seems to say that some in the church were sick and had died because of their callous approach to the celebration of the Lord.
In receiving Holy Communion, we should, therefore know that our approach to the sacrament is an indicator of our regard for the Lord. When we come to communion in an unworthy manner we show that we lack regard for the Lord who is honored. This is true of every act of worship and service. When we simply go through the motions on Sunday morning we are not honouring God, we are dishonouring Him. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper should always be special. Communion must never be rushed. It is a time of fellowship with the Lord that requires preparation and attention. This is a special meeting with our gracious Lord and we must treat it as such. For this reason, during celebrations in the Catholic Church that include non-Catholic Christians, an announcement is often made reminding every participant at Mass that “Communion is reserved only for Catholics who have prepared themselves well to receive the Lord.”
4. EUCHARISTIC MIRACLES IN THE CHURCH
Many people find it difficult to believe that bread and wine change into the body and blood of Jesus, while keeping the same appearance. But St. Paul says, in the Christian life we go by faith and not by sight (2 Cor 5:7). To help us surrender and believe, from time to time, God has allowed visible miracles of the Eucharist to occur. These are miracles that occurred during Mass when the bread changed into the form of flesh during the consecration and the wine changed into the form of blood during the consecration. Many such Eucharistic Miracles have occurred in various parts of the world and throughout the two millennia of Christian history and have been authenticated by the Church.
In the year 1263 while a priest from Prague was on route to Rome on pilgrimage was celebrating Mass in a small town called Bolsena, 70 miles north of Rome, as he raised the host during the consecration, the bread turned into flesh and began to bleed. The drops of blood fell onto the small white cloth on the altar, called the corporal. The following year, 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus, today’s feast Corpus Christi. The Pope asked St Thomas Aquinas, living at that time, to write hymns for the feast and he wrote two, better known to the older members of our congregation, the Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris. That blood-stained corporal may still be seen in the Basilica of Orvieto north of Rome.
Another famous eucharistic miracle is the oneof Lanciano, also in Italy, which took place many centuries earlier, in the year 700. While a monk was celebrating Mass, during the consecration the host turned into flesh and the wine turned into blood. Despite the fact that that miracle took place almost 1300 years ago you may still see the flesh in a monstrance which is exposed every day and the blood in a glass chalice. The blood has congealed and is now in five clots in the glass chalice. In 1971 and 1981 a hospital laboratory tested the flesh and blood and discovered that the flesh is myocardium, that is heart muscular tissue, so we could say it is the heart of Jesus, the Sacred Heart, and the blood is of the blood group AB positive. In 1978 NASA scientists tested the blood on the Turin Shroud and interestingly also discovered that it is of the blood group AB positive. (The Sudarium, Face Cloth of Christ, mentioned in John 20:6 is also of the blood group AB positive.) Despite the fact that human flesh and blood should not have remained preserved for 1300 years the hospital lab tests found no trace of any preservatives.
All of these authenticated Eucharistic miracles throughout the world are surely an answer to any doubts we may have about Jesus in the Eucharist. Jesus is really with us in the Eucharist. Jesus comes to us in every Mass under the form of bread and wine. The Eucharist is a celebration of the love of Jesus for us, his blood shed for us in love and his body scourged, crowned with thorns and crucified for us. Because the Eucharist is the love of Jesus for us we always approach Jesus in the Eucharist with great respect and asking pardon for our sins. That’s why it is so necessary at the start of every Mass to ask Jesus for mercy because we are so unworthy of his love and again before receiving Jesus we express our unworthiness: ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.’ Think of how precious a moment in our Mass it is when we receive Jesus in Holy Communion. When we receive Jesus, Jesus is in us and we are with Jesus. We are no longer two but one. ‘He who eats my flesh abides in me and I in him’ (John 6:57). Let us come to Jesus, not like scientists trying to analyze but come in trust, surrender, believe and receive his love.