“Do not work for food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life.” In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. [Amen.]
Work for the food that endures for eternal life. The food that endures for eternal life, the bread of life promised by our Lord, which He tells us is His very self, we know is the Eucharist. But what does it mean to work for the Eucharist? Our Lord contrasts this working for the Eucharist to our working for food that perishes. When we work every day to earn the wages that support our families or enable us to have the money we need, we must act in such a way that we merit to receive these wages. When you show up on time to your job and do your work diligently, then you have a right to the wages you earn from your employer.
By contrast, though, no one has a right to the Eucharist, no one by his or her own merits could be found worthy to receive this great gift. However, our Savior, by His Passion, Death, and Resurrection, has merited for us to live in the state of grace through our Baptism and the Sacrament of Penance – He (pause) has already worked for the food that endures for eternal life on our behalf.
If our Lord, then, has already done the heavy lifting for us, if he has worked for the food that endures for eternal life on our behalf, what is left to us? What must we do to fulfill our Lord’s command in the Gospel today to work for the food that endures for eternal life? St. Paul gives us the answer in today’s epistle: put on the new man; put on Christ. “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds; you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.” My brothers and sisters, if we are to work for the food that endures for eternal life, if we are to work to be able to receive our Lord in Holy Communion, St. Paul makes it clear that the solution, at least conceptually, is simple: we must be holy. We must be like Christ whom we desire to receive.
This is obviously a great challenge, but once again we find that the greatest work of all has already been done by our Lord, and in this we take great consolation. In our Baptism, we first put on Christ, receiving His grace in our souls and becoming beloved sons and daughters of God. And even if at any time we have lost that grace through mortal sin, hopefully through making a good confession we have been restored to that same grace, that same baptismal innocence. And so we have the beginnings of an answer to the question, “what does it mean to work for the Eucharist”: it means to repent of our sins.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “To respond to [the Lord’s] invitation [to eat His Body and drink His blood] we must prepare ourselves for so great and so holy a moment. St. Paul urges us to examine our conscience: ‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.’ Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of [Penance] before coming to communion.” [end quote]
The Catechism also assures us, though, that we are not alone in this fight against sin, we are not left without strength or relief. “Indeed,” it says, “it is the Eucharist itself that preserves in the fight for holiness. By the same charity that it enkindles in us, the Eucharist preserves us from future mortal sins. the more we share the life of Christ and progress in his friendship, the more difficult it is to break away from him by mortal sin.”
Sometimes we can fall into habits or patterns of sin, struggling to overcome addictions or strong temptations to commit certain sins, or simply flaws or failings that have become engrained in us and are hard to escape. If you find yourself in such a situation, there could be the subtle temptation that you need to get everything cleaned up and all the problems solved before you can come to our Lord and ask for His grace to heal this area of your life. The Devil likes to use this strategy with those souls who love our Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist and know that they should not commit a sacrilege against Him by receiving Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin. He doesn’t want us to receive the graces we need to strengthen us against sinning in the future.
Of course, if we commit a mortal sin (that is, a grave sin that separates us from God that we know to be such and commit freely) we should always go to confession before receiving Holy Communion. However, we should do so quickly and willingly so that we might be able to receive Holy Communion as soon as possible in order to receive the graces that our Lord wants to give us to help us resist the temptations to sins that could separate us from Him. It is so sad when a soul that so desperately needs the grace of Holy Communion stays away because of fear of the confessional. None of us are capable of resisting strong temptations for long on our own, but with the grace of Holy Communion, we will be able to work for eternal life.
To work for the Eucharist, to be able to receive our Lord every Sunday in Holy Communion, we should not only repent of our sins, but we should work to avoid any sin that would keep us from receiving Holy Communion, and we should do it precisely for this reason: to be able to receive our Lord. For the soul that loves the Lord, who desires to be close to Him by receiving Holy Communion, this can be a powerful motivation to remain in the state of grace. If we really believe that the Eucharist is Christ, would we not do everything within our power to be able to receive Holy Communion as often as possible? Would we not regard any fleeting pleasure that sin might bring us as insignificant compared to the great joy of being able to receive Holy Communion?
This attitude towards the reception of Holy Communion is one that we must cultivate in our hearts. It is not something that necessarily comes to us automatically (though I would point out that it is frequently found in children, which teaches us another important lesson in becoming, as our Lord teaches us, like little children). We cultivate this attitude of desiring to receive Holy Communion when we foster a sense of reverent and prayerful preparation for Holy Mass by dressing in accord with the solemnity of what we celebrate (that is, the presence on this altar of the very events of Calvary), keeping the one hour fast, arriving early to prepare our hearts for Holy Mass, and remaining afterward in prayer to give thanks to the Lord for the immense gift of receiving His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. When our reception of Holy Communion is something we look forward to throughout the day or the week, the focal point of our entire lives, not merely an afterthought towards the end of Mass, this communion with our Lord becomes a powerful motivation to live in accord with God’s law and to persevere in the state of grace. In this way too, in our remote and immediate preparation for Holy Mass and our thanksgiving after Mass, we work for the food that endures for eternal life.
It is not easy, though, to believe what we believe about the Eucharist, that it is truly Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. We see the accidents, the forms of bread and wine; we see an all-too-human man who claims to be another Christ and dares to speak His words; we see examples of irreverence, inattention, and distraction. St. Thomas Aquinas’s hymn “Adoro te Devote” speaks to these difficulties in a very eloquent way: “Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived; How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed; What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do; Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.” If we believe what the Church teaches regarding the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it is because of Christ’s own words: “This is my body.”
Another great medieval commentator has written: “When, through the hand of the priest, you receive the Body of Christ, think not of the priest which you see, but of the Priest you do not see. The priest is the dispenser of this food, not the author. The Son of man gives Himself to us, that we may abide in Him, and He in us.” Ultimately, it is Christ Himself who feeds us in the Eucharist. It is He who says to us today in the Gospel, “I am the bread of life.” Just as He fed the crowds with earthly bread, so too He wants to feed us with the Most Holy Eucharist.
It must be Jesus Himself we seek in the Eucharist. St. Augustine tells us, “How many there are who seek Jesus, only to gain some temporary benefit. One man has a matter of business, in which he wants the assistance of the clergy; another is oppressed by a more powerful neighbor, and flies to the Church for refuge: Jesus is scarcely ever sought for Jesus’s sake.” In our practice of religion it must be Christ Himself that we seek. Christ must be at the center of everything. That is why, as Catholics, the Eucharist is the center of our worship and of our life as a Church. If we regard the Mass as a social occasion or community activity, we will miss the point. I would even go so far to say that if we come to Mass to have a need in our lives met we are coming for the wrong reason. We come here in order to encounter Christ, and we do it for His sake even more than for our own: to fulfill His desire to be close to His beloved sons and daughters. He is present in His Word, in the assembly gathered, in the priest who represents Him as head of the body of Christ, but the Church has always, repeatedly, and emphatically taught that Christ’s presence among us is greatest in the Eucharist. It is in the Eucharist first and foremost that we must seek after Him, that we must work for the food that endures for eternal life.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, being able to receive Holy Communion is worth more than anything else in the world, precisely because the sacred host that we receive is Our Lord and Savior Himself, and He is worth more than anything else in the world. Absolutely nothing that would stand in our way of being able to receive Holy Communion is worth the sacrifice of depriving ourselves of our greatest treasure as Catholics. What could there possibly be that would be worth more to us than the immense gift of receiving Christ in the Holy Eucharist? What sin, when we see clearly and with the light of grace, could possibly be worth more than the Eucharist? What distraction or convenience could possibly be worth more than participating fully at the Lord’s sacrificial banquet?
Today, our Lord gives us an invitation and a promise. He has said in the Gospel, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” If we come to Him with hearts made clean and prepared to receive the Eucharist, the true bread of life which is Christ Himself, we will indeed never hunger for the worldly delights that lead us away from Him. If we believe in Him we will never thirst for the vain promises of the world, but only for eternal life with Him in Heaven, of which the Eucharist is already a foretaste.
Rev. Royce V. Gregerson, Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, New Haven, Sunday XVIII Per Annum A.D. MMXV