“This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.”
So often we can just gloss over our Lord’s words because we have become accustomed to hearing them. We lose sight of the incredibly surprising nature of our Lord’s promises. He tells us today that if we eat the bread that has come down from Heaven – His very flesh – we will not die.
That is utterly incredible! Can you imagine what would happen if a doctor went on TV and offered a medicine that would guarantee that her patients, no matter how sick, would be guaranteed not to die? There would be a mob of people outside her office just waiting to get in! Actually, something similar happened about seven years ago when a man in Vietnam claimed that he was cured of cancer by drinking powdered rhinoceros horn, and now rhinoceroses all over the world are in danger of extinction because of a craze for a new wonder drug.
This incredible promise is made to us today not by a quack doctor on TV or a superstitious person in a faraway country. It is made by God Himself in the person of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ – the most credible person in the world. But yet where are the lines of people desperate to receive this medicine of immortality? When we look at the difference between these two situations, we are confronted with an uncomfortable truth: Most people care more about their mortal bodies than about the destiny of their eternal souls.
We know, of course, that Christ is not promising that if we eat His flesh – which we know is present for us in the Eucharist – we will not get sick and suffer bodily death. That much is obvious. He is talking not about the death of the body, but the death of the soul. The Eucharist guarantees that we will never die – that we will love for eternity – because it already is eternity here on Earth. It is not just the closest we can get to Heaven on earth – it actually is experiencing Heaven on earth because the Christ that we receive in Holy Communion is the very same Christ who is waiting for us in Heaven. It is not a symbol – it is reality.
So okay, that’s incredible – but what does it matter? How does it affect my life outside of church on Sundays? The Eucharist offers us a choice, the choice between Heaven and this world. If we believe in what is being offered to us – a medicine for immortality – we would never choose anything else. Yet, unfortunately, we know that many people do frequently choose something else. They choose sins that preclude them from receiving the Eucharist worthily. Or they simply choose not to come when this great gift is offered.
Because of the importance of what happens here – Heaven breaking into our worldly reality – the Church directs that we are to attend Holy Mass each and every Sunday and holy day of obligation (like this coming Wednesday, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Not to do so would be a mortal sin.
I can imagine the objections – “Are you really telling me, Father, that I will go to Hell if I miss Mass just once? I mean, really?” First, we are not talking about legitimate reasons that might exist (health care professionals, illness of oneself or one’s child, etc.). Second, we are also not talking about an angry God who is taking attendance on His clipboard. (Here, here, not here … *angry glare.*) Rather, we are talking about the choices that each one of us make.
Going to Heaven is not a right, it’s a gift. But that doesn’t make it automatic. We know that we should never presume that someone is going to give us a gift. To do would be ungrateful. Heaven is not a right for anyone because what we deserve thanks to sin – either the original sin that we inherited from Adam and Eve or the personal sins that each one of us has committed – is something else entirely. It’s eternal punishment – the just reward for sin. But Christ paid the debt for that punishment when God Himself experienced death in His human body so that we do not have to experience the eternal death of our souls that we deserve. But we can choose to accept the gift or not. And if the Eucharist is Heaven on earth, right here, the medicine for immortality, and you choose something else over the Eucharist, then you have made your choice for something other than Heaven as well.
Summer seems always to be a time of particular temptation in this regard. The delights of the world are so alluring in comparison with a reward that seems far away and remote. Whether it is the beach, travel sports, or just the comfort of one’s bed on Sunday morning, many succumb to the temptation to reject the Lord’s invitation to come to His banquet.
The good news, though, is that if you have made that choice of something other than the food that will make you live forever, our Lord is here to forgive you. Ask Him for the gift of humility to seek His forgiveness in Confession before approaching His banquet to receive Holy Communion.
When I was in college I spent a semester living in Argentina in order to improve my Spanish. The family I lived with – like many Argentines – were Italian. Over the years, Italian people have kept Sunday as a special day devoted to God and family. The couple I lived with had adult children, and everyone was expected to come back together for Sunday dinner. They would go over to Grandma’s house and she would slave over homemade pastas and sauces. One Sunday, one of the kids simply didn’t show up. It was all anyone talked about all dinner.
Fast forward to next Sunday. My host brother showed up, but this time it was even more awkward. Why? Because he hadn’t apologized. Eventually my host father broke the silence: “Don’t even think about sitting down for dinner,” he told him, “until you go back to that kitchen and apologize to your grandmother for what you did to her last week!”
I think that all of us can relate to the justice of this situation. How could we regard such a young man as anything but petulant, immature, and presumptive if he were to skip such an important family function and then show up a week later like nothing had happened, expecting to be fed? And why would we not think similarly of someone who skips this much greater feast, and then presumes to be fed with the bread of eternal life without asking the Lord’s forgiveness for what he or she has done by going to Confession?
In the Gospel today, Christ tells us that “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” That flesh for the life of the world is here before us in the Eucharist. It is not a symbol; He is really, truly, and substantially present. The Jesus we desire to spend eternity with in Heaven is present right here, right now.
If you want to choose Christ in Heaven, choose Him now by coming each and every Sunday and holy day of obligation to be present as His sacrifice on the Cross is renewed on the altar, so that you might eat this bread – His flesh for the life of the world – and never die.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist
XIX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVIII