10 June 2012

Sacramentum caritatis (with pork gravy!)

[NB.  This homily has a history.  I preached the first version on Corpus Christi 2005--my first Mass--at Holy Rosary Church in Houston, TX.  As always, feedback is much appreciated!]

Solemnity of Corpus Christi
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Audio file of this homily

These are a few of my favorite things: Buttermilk dripped and deep-fried chicken. Butter beans with bacon and onions. Garlic mashed potatoes with chicken gravy. Greens with fatback and vinegar. Squash casserole, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole with a pecan and brown sugar crust. Deviled eggs. Warm biscuits. Homemade, cast-iron skillet cornbread with real butter. Fresh yeast rolls. Pecan pie. Chocolate pie. Mississippi Mud Cake. Bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Can you tell I’m a true blood Southerner?! Each of these and all of them together do more than just expand my waistline and threaten the structural integrity of my belt—each and all of them together make up for me a palette of memories, a buffet (if you will!) of powerful reminders of who I am, where I came from, who I love, who loves me, and where I am going. Second perhaps only to sex, eating is one of the most intimate things we do. Think about it for just a second: when you eat, you take into your body stuff from the world—meat, vegetables, water—you put this stuff in your mouth, you chew, you taste and feel, you smell and swallow, and all of it, every bite, becomes your body. This is extraordinarily intimate! We are made up of, literally, built out of what we eat. If we eat and drink Christ this morning, whom do we become?

What does it mean then for you, for all of us to eat the Body of Christ and to drink his Blood? Thomas Aquinas answers: “Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods.” God became man so that we all might become god. In Christ Jesus, we are made more than holy, more than just, more than righteous; we are made perfect as the Father is perfect. Wholly joined to Holy Other, divinized as God promised at the moment of creation, we are brought to the divine by the Divine and given to participate in the life of God by God. We are brought and given. Brought to Him by Christ and given to Him by Christ. We do not go to God uninvited, and we do not receive from Him what is not first given. Therefore, “take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my body, which will be given up for you…” And when you take the gift of his body and eat, and when you take the gift of his blood and drink, you become what you eat and drink. You become Christ. And all together we are Christ for one another—his Body, the church. In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict, writes, “Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself. I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. Communion draws me out of myself towards him, and thus also towards unity with all Christians. We become 'one body', completely joined in a single existence. Love of God and love of neighbour are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself. We can thus understand how agape [divine love] also became a term for the Eucharist: there God's own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us”(14). 

Thomas calls the Eucharist the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love. The Eucharist is not a family picnic or Sunday dinner. We’re not talking about a community meal or a neighborhood buffet. All of these can and do express genuine love for God, self, and neighbor. But Thomas is teaching us something far more radical about the Eucharist here than the pedestrian notion that eating together makes us better people and a stronger community! The sacramentum caritatis is an efficacious sign of God’s gift of Himself to us for our perfection. In other words, the Eucharist we celebrate this morning is not just a memorial, just a symbol, just a community prayer service, just a familial gathering, just a ritual. In Christ, with him and through him, we effect—make real and produce—the redeeming graces of Calvary and the Empty Tomb: Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave. Again, we are not merely being reminded of an important bible story nor are we being taught a lesson about sharing and caring nor are we simply “feeling” Christ’s presence among us. We are doing exactly what Christ tells us to do: we are eating his body and drinking his blood for our perfection, for our eternal lives. And while we wait for his coming again, we walk this earth as Christs! Imperfect now, to be perfected eventually; but right now, radically loved by Love Himself and loved so that we may be changed, converted from our disobedience, brought to repentance and forgiveness, and absolved of all violence against God’s will for us. 

Thomas teaches us that God gave us the Eucharist in order “to impress the vastness of [His] love more firmly upon the hearts of the faithful…” How vast is His love for us? He gifted us with His Son. He gave His only child up to death so that we might live. And He gave us the means of our most intimate communion with Him. We take his body into our bodies. His blood into ours. We are made co-heirs, brothers and sisters, prophets and priests; we are made holy, just, and clean; we are made Christ, and having been made Christs, we are given his ministries, his holy tasks: teaching, preaching, healing, feeding. This Eucharist tells you who you are, where you came from, where you are going. It tells you why you are here and what you must do. And most importantly, this celebration of thanksgiving, tells you and me who it is that loves us and what being loved by Love Himself means for our sin, our repentance, our conversion, our ministries, our progress in holiness. . .

Do not fail to hand on what you yourself have received: the gift of the Christ. Our Holy Father, Benedict, writes, “Faith, worship and [ethics] are interwoven as a single reality which takes shape in our encounter with God's [divine love]. Here the usual [distinction] between worship and ethics simply falls apart. 'Worship' itself, Eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is [essentially broken]”(14). Therefore, walk out those doors this morning and present yourself to the world as a sacramentum caritatis. Walk out of here a sacrament of love—a sign, a witness, a tabernacle, an icon—walk out of here branded by the Holy Spirit to preach, teach, bless, feed, eat, drink, pray, to love, and to spread the infectious joy that comes naturally to a child of God! 

A Southern blessing: as your waist expands to fill the limits of your belt, so may your spirit grow to hold the limitless love of Him Who loves you always.

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  1. :-)...I'll comment on the homily later, but too bad you aren't here: I'm making a Mississippi Mud Cake for the reception after Mass today (these Pacific NorthWesterners won't know what hit 'em!).
    Take care. SP

    1. So? Dis you dazzle them?

    2. By the time I made it outside, more than half of it was already gone. It was fun - lots of requests for the recipe (until I told them, then nobody wanted to know!). My husband was upset that not much of it came home - oh well, maybe he should have come to Mass :-).

  2. Thank you for the homily and the attention you draw to the intimacy of eating and the Eucharist. I have always taken for granted that we eat to survive, but truely it is a most intimate act. Thanks for opening my eyes to what should have been most obvious! And of course, when the Eucharist is added there can be nothing more intimate than this union with my Lord.

    I'm in Washington DC for the month and i'm looking forward to getting back to Ponchatoula and telling BJ that if the above mentioned food is OK for Father's homily then I can start eating "deep fried" again...man-up belt, i'm back in the game! Clay

    1. Clayton, thou shalt not use my words to defy thine wife's loving attempt to keep thee healthy!

  3. A wonderful homily! Thanks!

    I had a question: over the weekend I heard a priest say that our understanding of the word "substance" is different from how St. Thomas and other theologians meant it. He said we wrongly think of "substantial" as meaning "physical". Is it wrong then, to say that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist? I'm a little confused...

    By the way, I'm currently praying the Novena to the Sacred Heart out of your "Treasures Old and New"--it has much food for thought.

    God bless you,
    Stephanie :)

    1. Stephanie, "substantial" does not mean "physical" when used to talk about the Real Presence in of Christ in the Eucharist. In traditional Catholic philosophy/theology (Thomism), substance refers to "what stands under" something; or, "what that something really is."

      I posted on this very topic three ago: http://hancaquam.blogspot.com/2009/12/transubstantiation-and-real-presence.html

      Check it out!