06 June 2021
Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
If you follow Catholic news, you are probably aware that some of our bishops are currently having a very public debate about how to handle Catholic politicians who openly support and promote morally evil acts like abortion and euthanasia. The basic question is whether or not these politicians should be given communion when there's no evidence that they've repented of their rebellion against Church teaching. All of the various issues involved – sacramental, canonical, theological, political – are neatly wrapped up in what's being called “Eucharistic coherence.” Now, since God has mercifully spared me the punishment of being a bishop – and I thank Him for that – I will not weigh on the basic question. But I can't imagine a better time to review the Church's teaching on the Eucharist than the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. In fact, many of the bishops embroiled in the debate on Eucharistic coherence have called for a major push in the U.S. to catechize the faithful on this very subject. So, I will fulfill my duties as Pastor of the 6pm Mass by doing just that! “[Jesus] took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to [his disciples], and said, 'Take it; this is my body.'”
We begin with a four-word sentence: this is my body. Not “this is a symbol of my body,” nor “this is a sign of my body” nor “this is a token of a memory of my body.” This IS my body. Just a moment later, taking a cup of wine, he says, “This is my blood of the covenant. . .” Again, not a symbol of his blood nor a sign nor a token of a memory. This IS my blood. That little two-letter word, IS, has been the focus of centuries of controversy, centuries of theological and philosophical debate. What does it mean to say that the bread and wine at the Eucharist becomes (is) the body and blood of Christ. At the 4th Lateran Council (1215), the bishops adopted the term “transubstantiation” to describe what happens to the bread and wine at Mass. The substance of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. At the Council of Trent in 1551, the bishops will affirm this teaching: “Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and his Blood, with his soul and his divinity”(CCC 1413). True, real, substantial. We call the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine the Real Presence.
Christ is truly, really, substantially present on the altar under the appearances of bread and wine. What follows from this? After presenting his Body and Blood to the disciples at Passover, Jesus tells them to eat and drink. Eat my body and drink my blood. So firmly did the early Church believe in the Real Presence that her Roman persecutors often accused Christians of being cannibals! Obviously, we are not cannibals. But we do eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood. Why? First, because Christ commands we do it to remember him. Second, because doing so allows us to participate in the eternal sacrifice of the Cross. Third, because we are One Body, the Church, united by the Holy Spirit and a body needs food and drink. Fourth, because doing so strengthens our familial bond as brothers and sisters in the holy family. And, finally, we eat and drink Christ's Body and Blood because we know that we become what we eat. As sons and daughters of the Most High, brothers and sisters to Christ and one another, our goal, our telos is to become Christ for the salvation of the world while we live and perfect union with the Father in heaven after death. Christ must be made truly, really, substantially present under the appearances of Philip, Cathy, Burt, John, Mary, Eddie, Lesley, Patrice, Dorothy, Shelly. . .Christ must be made present in you.
And we have the sacraments to help us achieve this. Every sacrament of the Church offers us Christ. Every sacrament offers us God's transforming gift of love. To properly receive His gift of transforming love, you and I must be disposed, inclined, ready to receive. If we are not properly disposed (unprepared) we cannot receive. We can take. But we cannot receive. Taking is not receiving. Taking a sacrament occurs when we go through the motions, unprepared. The gift is offered, but rather than being gratefully received, it is snatched like something one is entitled to, like a debt one is owed. The gift is not only ineffective as a gift, it can actually be harmful to the snatcher! When the Church teaches us that we should not present ourselves for Communion if we are in mortal sin, she is not trying to punish us for being bad little boys and girls. She is warning us that we risk spiritual damage, maybe even spiritual death, if we attempt to receive unprepared. She is a mother warning her children not to play with fire. To the sinner, God's infinite Love feels like a searing inferno. To the one properly prepared, His Love is a transfiguring breeze. Being properly disposed to receive Divine Love in the sacraments is the primary means we have of becoming Christ for the salvation of the world.
During this Mass this evening, I urge you to open your hearts and minds to the reality of Christ's Real Presence. Yes, it's a mystery. Yes, it's complicated. And yes, it's easily misunderstood. BUT. . .it is nonetheless real. Christ is here in his priest. He's here in you, the baptized. His presence is symbolized by this altar. During the Easter season, he's symbolized by the great Easter candle. Christ is with us always. But he is present to us most immediately and especially in his Body and Blood of this sacrifice. We are offered the chance to touch eternity in this sacrament. To reach up to God as He reaches down to us. To meet Him outside our history and experience a glimpse of the banquet He has waiting for us. He gives us everything we need to become Christ for the salvation of the world. He gives us the strength to persevere. The courage to bear witness. He gives us His Spirit of Love to forgive and to endure. And He gives us an abiding desire to grow in holiness, to grow – perfectly human – out of this world and into His kingdom.