Sermon for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (My First Mass of Thanksgiving)
6 June 2015
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church, Fort Wayne
A priest of our diocese tells a story about a trip he made to China. He was visiting Beijing and he and some others had hired a local man to show them around. They wanted to see the Catholic cathedral of the city, so their guide took them there as well. The guide had never been in a Catholic church, and everything about it was completely foreign to him. So in an ironic turn of events, this priest began explaining everything about the cathedral, in its architecture and symbolism, to his guide. And before long he arrived at the most important part of the church: the tabernacle. After he explained in a simple way that it contains the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, sacramentally present under the appearance of bread, his guide replied, “You mean to tell me that your god is in that box?” “Yes, that’s right.” “If I believed that, I would never move from this spot.”
We know, of course, that Christ is present not only in this tabernacle, and not only in all the other tabernacles of the world, but in every soul possessed of sanctifying grace because of Baptism, and in God’s good creation, and so many other ways, but the reply of that Chinese man ought to pierce us to the heart, “If I believed my god were in that box, I would never move from this spot.”
The core, the essential part of that man’s insight is this: The truth of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is a truth that, for the believer, changes everything. That God has given power to His priests so that, by the virtue of the words of their lips, bread and wine become the body and blood of his Son, that He has deigned to dwell with us until the end of the age hidden in mystery, is an extraordinary truth. It is a truth that to the modern mind seems absurd and impossible, a fairy tale for children or the ignorant. But we also know that when people believe something crazy, truly and passionately believe in what others tell them is impossible, it changes them. And it should change us.
So when confronted with the truth of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist, we have two principal challenges: growing in our faith in the Eucharist, and allowing that faith to transform our lives.
The first is difficult because it requires us to think in ways completely foreign to our modern minds. The systems that we have for verifying information, for ascertaining the truth of a matter, here cannot be applied. This is hardly a new problem, though, and is addressed in the sequence of today’s feast, written by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century. It says, “Sight has fail’d nor thought conceives, / But a dauntless faith believes, / Resting on a pow’r divine. // Here beneath these things are hidden / Priceless things to sense forbidden; / Signs, not things are all we see.” Signs, we see signs. Many of us probably remember the definition of a sacrament we memorized as children, an outward sign of an inward grace. But signs, brothers and sisters, are frequently all that we can see.
The reality is that the most important things in life cannot be seen. You cannot see love; but you can only see its signs. We say that we see the love of a mother and father for their children in their self-sacrifice for them, but what we see is a sign of their love. Not a symbol, because a symbol does not have the power to bring about the reality it represents. So often all we have are signs.
And so it is with the Eucharist. St. Thomas writes in another Eucharist hymn, “Sight, touch, and taste fail in You.” Even the priest himself who holds the host in his hands and pronounces the words of consecration over it cannot see the host becoming the body of Christ.
If, then, we cannot know the truth of the Eucharist through sight, how can we affirm this truth? What gives us the right to believe in something so, as we have said, crazy and absurd? It is only through testimony, the reliable testimony of another. St. Paul tells us, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you.’” We can only believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist because it is a teaching that we have received from the Church, who is Herself a reliable witness, instituted by Christ to fulfill His promise, “Behold, I am with you always, even until the end of the age.” Without this testimony of the Church, first recorded in the Scriptures and then in Her authoritative teaching, there is no true reason to believe. Otherwise faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist would be a passing wish. And passing wishes do not have the power to transform, to make our lives different.
If we do, then, have this faith, the question still remains to us, “What difference does it make? How is my life different because of what I believe about the Eucharist?” The first and most fundamental difference must be this: that we are willing to put aside anything that would keep us from receiving Christ in the Eucharist. As we know, to receive the Eucharist we must be in a state of grace, having confessed any and all grave sins that we have committed since our Baptism. So the first answer to the question, “how is my life changed by the truth of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?” is this: that I repent of all my sins in the sacrament of penance and avoid anything that would lead me into these sins. This can often require great sacrifice and put us at odds with our culture, ourselves (in our own pleasures and desires), and even our friends and loved ones. But it is a sacrifice that is deeply worth it. Christ has continually offered Himself to us, first in His complete outpouring on the Cross, and now continually in the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which that great sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present for us, and He even goes so far as to offer His own Body and Blood to us in the Eucharist, to become our food and drink. So if Christ has done so much, has endured so much suffering in order to draw close to us, what are you and I willing to sacrifice to draw close to Him? What is there in our lives that could keep us from receiving His immense gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist?
If the first change in our lives caused by Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is that we turn away from sin in order to receive Him, the second is that we receive the gift of His presence with loving friendship. Christ has given us the immense privilege of his abiding, sacramental presence, reserved in the tabernacle of this and so many other churches. How, then, do we respond to this gift? Christ desires to enter into a friendship with each of us, and as we know, friendships are nourished by time spent together among friends. How often do we spend time with Christ in the Eucharist? What is the degree to which our participation at Holy Mass on Sundays is informed by receiving Holy Communion at Mass? We should look forward to receiving Holy Communion, desiring to come to Mass so that we can receive Christ in the Eucharist, not merely seeing church as a social or community occasion. And after we have received Christ in the Eucharist, we should take time to thank Him for this immense gift. We do so after we have returned to our pews after communion, but it is also very helpful to remain even for five minutes or more after Mass to continue thanking the Lord for this great sign of His love for us. Similarly, we can acknowledge our Lord’s presence by making a visit to Him throughout the week. Imagine the joy brought by a surprise visit from a friend who rings the doorbell and tells you she was in the neighborhood and just thought she’d stop by to say hi. In the same way, our Lord rejoices when we stop in just to say, “hi” to Him on our way to and from work, school, or errands. It doesn’t have to be a long visit: just come into the church, genuflect before the tabernacle, and say, “Jesus, I believe that you are really, truly, and substantially present here and in all the tabernacles of the world, and I love and adore you. Help me to avoid whatever could keep me from you, and give me whatever graces I need this day in order to follow your will.” Even if as you’re driving by a Catholic church you make the sign of the cross in honor of the presence of Christ in the tabernacle of that church, this gives glory to God and builds our faith in the real presence.
Before Holy Communion, the priest holds the host aloft and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” The supper of the Lamb, while referring to the Mass as the banquet of the Lamb of God, Christ Himself, is also the heavenly banquet that we will share for all eternity if we are faithful to the Lord in this life. The reality is that these are not two banquets, but the same. In the Holy Mass, the veil that separates heaven and earth grows thin, even translucent. We are given the immense privilege of beholding and participating in the work of our salvation through signs. Our desire for the Eucharist, because of which we avoid anything that could separate us from God and we go out of our way to spend time with Him in the real presence, is really desire for heaven. The eternal life we will enjoy in heaven is present here and now in the Eucharist, because, in the words of St. Paul, “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” And we must die to ourselves, over and over again, sacrificing our own wills and desires, in order to gain this supreme gift of eternal life with God forever in Heaven, of which the Eucharist is already a foretaste.
The task before us is indeed difficult. It is not easy to believe, and it is not easy to turn away from sin. But the reward is so much greater than any sacrifice we will make. It is eternal bliss with God in heaven, the fulfillment of all our desires and hopes and dreams. And it is reachable even here and now, for all those who would partake worthily of it, in the inestimable gift of the Most Holy Eucharist.