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.

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