Sunday, August 19, 2012

In the Eucharist, God Comes to Us in a Meal—Which is Exactly What We Should Expect Him to Do!

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 19, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 6: 51-58.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2012]

Let me begin my homily by reading to you a short paragraph which was written by Fr. Robert Barron.  (He’s the priest who produced the highly acclaimed, 10-part series entitled, “Catholicism,” which aired on PBS earlier this year.)  Fr. Barron wrote:

In today’s Gospel from the sixth chapter of John, the Lord refers to himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven.”  His hearers react vigorously against this claim: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  We shouldn’t judge Jesus’ audience too harshly, for it would be hard to imagine a saying more theologically objectionable and frankly more disgusting for a first-century Jew.  Throughout the Old Testament, Israelites were warned against the eating of an animal’s flesh with his blood.  Now this rabbi is telling them to eat his own flesh and blood!  One might have expected Jesus, at this point, to offer a metaphorical, spiritualized interpretation to his words. Instead he intensifies the realism of his language: “Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”  The word used in the Greek here for “eat” is not “phagein,” which designates the way human beings consume their food, but rather “trogein,” which designates the manner in which animals eat, something along the lines of “gnawing.”  Jesus is not simply a teacher whose words we savor.  He is an energy, a life-force in whom we participate.  We are not simply his disciples; we are members of his mystical Body.  Consequently, the Eucharist is not simply a symbol.  It is the means by which Christ’s life becomes our own.

As Catholics we believe some incredible things, but none more incredible than this: that the Creator of this vast and complex universe—the powerful, personal Being who knows every molecule of reality better than we know ourselves—this Being who sees with perfect clarity all that was, all that is and all that will be until the end of time—this omniscient and omnipotent God, comes to us within the context of a meal under the appearances of ordinary food and drink!

No wonder the Jews in today’s Gospel were astonished!  What Jesus said to them in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel was astonishing!  It was overwhelming.  It was also true, of course (we know that by faith); but it was definitely not what these men and women expected to hear.

And yet, from another perspective, I would maintain that they SHOULD have expected it!  If there is a God (and there is!), and if this God loves us human beings with a perfect love (and he does!), then we should expect him to come to us in a way that we can receive him.  We should expect him to come to us in a way that respects our human nature—because he created it.

And what is more human—more fundamentally human—than eating?  What is more basic to human life as God designed it than sitting down and sharing a meal with family and friends?

Think of what a meal is when it’s entered into with the right disposition of mind and heart:

First of all, it’s a time of nourishment.  That’s its primary purpose, of course; without food and drink, we die!

But that’s actually just the beginning.  Yes, a meal is an occasion for satisfying a bodily need—but it’s also much more.

A meal is a time of conversation; that is to say, it’s a time for speaking and a time for listening.  (If all we do is speak during a meal, the experience will not be very pleasant, will it?  At least it won’t be very pleasant for everyone else at the table!  Listening is crucial.)

A meal is also a time for reflection and for planning.  How often during a meal do we talk about the past and make plans for the future?  It happens all the time!  It’s a normal part of the experience.

A meal can also be a time for reconciliation and healing.  When people want to renew a friendship after there’s been a conflict between them, they often “break bread together,” do they not?

A meal is also a time to get to know others.  (That’s why when couples are dating they often go out to restaurants to eat.) 

A meal can be a time of teaching and a time of learning.

And for many people it’s when they are most themselves: they sit down, perhaps after a long day, relax, and are able to be attentive and present to those around them at the table.

Think, now, about how all these points relate to the Eucharist:

  • The purpose of the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist is to nourish us spiritually.  As Jesus said in this Gospel, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
  • The Eucharist is also an occasion for conversation—not with your neighbor in the pew (that comes after Mass!)—but, rather, with the Lord!  And it’s a time to speak to him and to LISTEN to him!  How many of us make the effort to listen to the Lord after we receive him in the Blessed Sacrament and go back to our pew to pray?  We all should.
  • After we receive the Eucharist we should also reflect and plan (like we do at other meals): we should reflect on what’s been going on in our life and we should try to discern God’s will for the future.
  • Many people don’t realize it, but venial sins can actually be forgiven by a worthy reception of Holy Communion—if a person has true sorrow for those sins in his or her heart.  Mortal sins, of course, need to be brought to the sacrament of Confession, but venial sins can be forgiven through the Blessed Sacrament.  So this meal, like other meals, provides us with an opportunity for reconciliation—in this case, reconciliation with God.
  • The Eucharistic meal also provides us with an opportunity to get to know the Lord in a deeper way, as we open our heart to the graces of the sacrament, and as we reflect after Communion on the word that we heard at Mass.  Hence, like other meals, it’s a time for teaching and learning.
  • And, finally, when we receive the Eucharist we can be ourselves before the Lord.  We don’t have to hide our struggles and concerns and imperfections and fears and burdens.  We can—and should—bring all these things to our God in our post-Communion prayer, in order to receive the help we need to deal with them.

It’s certainly understandable that the Jews in today’s Gospel “went crazy,” so to speak, when Jesus told them that he would give them his Body and Blood for their spiritual nourishment.  Pardon the pun, but that was a very tough one for them to swallow.

But if they knew back then what you all know now after listening to this homily, perhaps at least some of them would have come to see things differently, understanding that this is exactly the way we should expect our God to touch our lives: in a human way; in a way that we can (literally) receive him as finite creatures.

Let me conclude today with one final point that I feel compelled to mention.  To those of you who doubt God’s love for you, remember the powerful message of the Eucharist (which I hopefully have brought out in this homily):  God loves you so much that he’s not only willing to share a meal with you; he loves you so much that he’s willing to make himself the meal!

Think about that the next time you receive him.