Sunday, June 22, 2014

Eating to Live

June 22, 2014 –– Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Deuteronomy 8:2–3, 14b–16a / 1 Corinthians 10:16–17 / John 6: 51–58
Eating to Live

One of the many historical fiction novels by James Michener is the saga, Poland. Late in the unfolding drama he tells of a particular torture used by Nazis on their prisoners. After discerning the amount of nutrition a man needed to do manual labor and yet slowly starve to death, there was a desire to get more skilled labor from the better trained prisoners. This required more calories to keep their minds sharp, yet there was a problem: extra nutrition for skilled labor was also adequate to turn their blunted and docile minds to a level of awareness that made control more difficult. So the Nazis developed the “Control of Calories”, alternating five month cycles in which the prisoners were rotated back and forth between manual labor on a slow starvation diet and giving the extra nutrition to make them more productive for specialized tasks. This pattern was maintained until the physical body was so broken that death was inevitable, but it extended their length of productivity.

We live in a diabolical world that would do the same thing to us spiritually. The devil doesn’t care if we get a tiny bit of spiritual nourishment on occasion; this can deceive us into thinking we are spiritually healthy. But one thing is sure: the powers of hell do not want people feeding regularly on the kind of nourishment that was unleashed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One way to look at the history of the Eucharist is the ages-long battle that has been raged against this mystical gift of our Lord. As Jesus laid the foundation through his teaching for what was to come––and today’s Gospel is at the heart of it––there was immediate disgruntlement and rejection. In the early years of the Church there was gossip in the Roman Empire that Christians were cannibals, a misunderstanding of the Eucharist that provided one more reason for persecution. Once the Church was established, the devil attacked from the other direction, trying to spread the idea that few people were worthy to partake of such a holy gift. Still later, in the aftermath of the Reformation, the consensus of the Eucharist as the physical presence of Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ was splintered so that today many Christians consider Communion only symbolic and even optional. Many sincere Christians argue that we are to get our nourishment mainly from personal prayer and “feeding” on Scripture. To use the words of our Lord responding to another issue, You ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone (Matt 23:23). The devil does not want people to have a healthy spiritual diet.

The Eucharist continues to be a stumbling block. Many misunderstand why non-Catholic Christians are not invited to partake. We need to understand that what the Church teaches today about the Eucharist has been handed down since the earliest days of Christianity. This is what Justin Martyr wrote in the mid-second century (within fifty years of the Apostle John’s death):

This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus. For the apostles in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, thus handed down what was commanded them: that Jesus, taking bread and having given thanks, said, "Do this for my memorial, this is my body"; and likewise taking the cup and giving thanks he said, "This is my blood"; and gave it to them alone.... (italics added)

With this Feast Day the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It is also known as Corpus Christi (which translates from Latin to "Body of Christ"). This feast originated in France in the mid-thirteenth century and was then extended through the whole Church to its current prominence. On this day the Church calls us to focus on two manifestations of the Body of Christ: the Holy Eucharist and the Church. Of course, every Mass directs our attention to the Eucharist and the Real Presence of Christ in it. Today we want to be explicit and embracing of what this means.

When we respond to a “Catholic altar call” ––that’s a great way to think of coming forward to receive Jesus––we are participating in something that goes back to the very beginning of the Church. This is such a core truth that the Eucharist is called, explicitly, a sign of our unity in faith (which is why those who do not share this belief with us are not invited). As St Paul writes to the Corinthians, Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

This became a catalyst for my decision to leave my former faith community––a decision that was hard and meant many losses that were dear to my wife and me––and embrace that which was from the beginning. I had many good things in my former tradition, but the One Thing it could never offer me was the One Thing that Jesus had given his Church from the beginning as a sign of unity and a source of divine power––the Eucharist. To feed on the True Bread of Heaven I had to come to Mother Church. And yet even with that understanding and the major step of new commitment that we made, I confess that I do not always feel caught up to heaven at every Mass. Even attending the altar, I sometimes have to fight a wandering mind. We are all in a spiritual war. As we struggle, Satan does not want us to get full nourishment.

If we only look at the physical setting, our faith can falter. How often do we not “feel” like coming to church? How often do we come and then leave complaining about something we did not not like? St. Francis said that with the eyes of the flesh we can only see bread and wine, but with the eyes of the Spirit and faith we can look further and see the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That should be our prayer in every Mass. In spite of the devil’s intention to starve us spiritually, we are being offered the very banquet of heaven. This is my body..... This is my blood. We need to eat to live.

"But it's so repetitive," critics say. "It is so mechanical. It gets so boring just doing the same thing..." In that context I think of my marriage: The one woman that I have lived with and looked at for 42 years only becomes more beautiful in spite of passing decades. The same woman, the rather repetitive "mechanics" of living and loving.... why doesn't it become boring? 

Love is what keeps "repetitive" and "mechanical" from displacing beauty and wonder. And like little children who cannot get enough of a father's playful attention, we go into the mystery of Communion with the need to say to our heavenly Father, "Do it again, Daddy, do it again."

This is not boredom with the "same old thing." This is entering the Mystery that cannot be exhausted.  This is the miracle of partaking of the very Presence of our Lord, the One who in his divinity took on our humanity so that we, in our humanity, can be nourished into his divinity. Until he comes, we need to do it again and again––to feed on our Lord again and again. Our spiritual nourishment is at stake.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Glory of the Son of God

June 1, 2014 –– 7th Sunday in Easter
Acts 1:12–14 / 1 Peter 4:13–16 / John 17:1–11a
The Glory of the Son of God

Most of my life has been directed at understanding and proclaiming Scripture. The Bible is a deep mine of treasures that a lifetime cannot exhaust. There is good reason that the Church gives prominence to the “Liturgy of the Word.” When we listen to Scripture, we hear the voice of God.

A thoughtful homilist could find enough material in this priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 to preach weekly for a whole year. I wish I had my “evangelical forty minutes” for this homily! There is a theme of the glory of God that extends from Genesis to Revelation, and it is centered in what Jesus is saying in this prayer.

Jesus, talking to the Father, is aware of the glory that I had with you before the world began....  St Paul says that Jesus lay that glory aside in his Incarnation (in the form of God.... but emptied himself––Phil 2), and yet here Jesus is anticipating not only the restoration of that glory, but the “joy” he had in going to the cross (Heb 12:2 ) was his knowledge that he was opening the door to that glory for us.

It’s my assumption that most of us think of Jesus as we picture him during his earthly ministry with his disciples or maybe on the cross in his passion. Almost never, I would think, do we actually try to imagine Jesus as John describes him––glorified––in the book of Revelation:

I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw.... one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden girdle round his breast; his head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters; in his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth issued a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.  (And then this disciple who was so close to Jesus says) When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead (1:13ff).

Having a fuller, more complete vision of Jesus in our minds does a couple of things. First, being aware of Jesus in his glory affects our worship.There is a reason we join with the host of heaven in saying holy, holy holy. When we acclaim our faith and devotion through the Agnus Dei as the Eucharist is elevated, we need to be able to “hear” the assembled multitude around the throne of God saying, Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! (Rev 5:12).

This is only augmented by a second amazing facet of Jesus and his glory. When the Word took on human flesh in the Incarnation, there was a fusion of the glory of God with humanity. The Incarnation is forever––Jesus retains his humanity in heaven. And because the glorified Jesus has ascended to heaven, he goes ahead of us and takes us who are in him––in his Body (the Church) ––there with him!

We know––or we should––that as we follow Jesus in this broken world, we share in the sufferings of Christ (as Peter expresses it in his letter). Christians are even encouraged to rejoice in those sufferings because, as we follow Jesus, we are heading to the same place where he has gone. Jesus suffered and was then glorified. We who suffer with Jesus have the promise of being glorified. Remember, we are all called to be saints!

And so Jesus prays in today’s Gospel: I am praying for.... those whom thou hast given me, for they are yours (Father); and everything of mine is yours, and everything of yours is mine, and I am glorified in them. We are destined for glory!

St Paul tells the Romans that Christians are predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son (8:29). That is why our life even now is to be “distinctive”––holy. Because Jesus has gone ahead of us into glory.... because even now the Spirit of Christ is changing those who belong to him into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2Cor 3:18).... because of the hope we have as Christians––Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:27), we are called to live every day with the glory of Jesus as our highest focus.

Hear the Spirit of God speak to this through St Paul: If then you have been raised with Christ, (this is what Jesus is praying about in today’s Gospel) seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (this is the reality of the Ascension and the setting of the book of Revelation). Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (this is what it means to live distinctively for Jesus). Why?! For you have died (this is what baptism means), and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Col 3:1–4). I say it again: as we follow Jesus we are destined for glory.

This is our hope. The glory of the Son of God is a “big deal.” This is our Faith!

Site Meter