Throughout history the Church has placed great emphasis on the importance of mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Jewish temple, from where many of our liturgical traditions come, we find the origins of this in the Holy of Holies—the hidden inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle into which the High Priest (and he alone) entered on the Day of Atonement. In the first centuries of Christianity it was usual that the altar would be covered by a canopy and surrounded by curtains, closed during the most solemn moments of the Mass. In the medieval period, the sanctuary of the church was divided from the nave by a screen adorned with images of the saints, something which is still found in the Eastern rites, where the great icon screen—the iconostasis—is a reminder of the sacred character of the action that takes place beyond. Even now, the Church instructs that the sanctuary “should be appropriately marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” (GIRM 295). From her earliest days, then, the Church has consistently sought to assert that, in her public worship, there is always a sacred aspect which is unseen.
For modern man this can seem odd; that something good should come from something intentionally hidden strikes us as counterintuitive. Our society thrives on “behind the scenes” coverage, inside scoops, and transparency. Yet it remains a central tenet of our Christian faith that there are some things which cannot be seen, yet are to be believed. Essential elements of what defines our understanding of ourselves, our faith, and our relationship with God, hinge on these unseen realities. And these “hidden” aspects are all the more tantalising because, though we cannot see them, we nevertheless give great weight to them and claim that the reality we cannot prove in natural terms is known to us in supernatural ways.
Perhaps the best known example of this comes from Saint Thomas at the news of the resurrection: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (Jn 20: 25). Yet the Lord’s response to his incredulity (understandable, at least in natural terms) is not to reassure the apostle that more and more will come to see the wounds that have convinced him but, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (Jn 20: 29). We find similarities in today’s gospel of the feeding of the five thousand. The passage does not describe the people seeing the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. What those present saw was the fruit of the miracle, not the miracle itself.
What can we learn from this? Perhaps the key is that the miracle with which we are presented today concerns food. Throughout the old and new testaments the Lord God sustains his people by feeding them, be it with manna from heaven in the desert or this miraculous feeding of the multitude. In all of this the Lord is preparing his people not for an earthly feast, but for the banquet which awaits them in the kingdom of heaven. When we look at this reading in its context, we hear that the very next day the Lord explains this: “Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (Jn 6: 27); “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger.” (Jn 6: 35). The Lord is whetting our appetite, we might say, for the supersubstantial food that is his very self; he is opening our hearts to the gift of faith so that when he offers us his very own body and blood in the Most Holy Eucharist—hidden though it is under forms of bread and wine—we might accept it and acknowledge it for what it is; our hearts enlarged to receive the miracle which, in the Mass, the Lord works. Just as those gathered near Bethsaida do not see the miracle taking place in their midst, yet acknowledge its fruits, so it is with us when we come to Eucharistic altar. Here we find a substantial change that we cannot perceive save with the eyes of faith; we see bread and wine, but know it is Christ’s body and blood. As Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it: “Doth it pass thy comprehending? Faith, the law of sight transcending leaps to things not understood.”
What does this mean for us as Christians? It means that, ultimately, our faith in Christ must be a Eucharistic faith. It means that our acknowledgement of the gift of salvation in Christ—the faith we express by our baptism—finds its highest expression in our reverence for the Most Holy Eucharist; the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Eucharistic adoration, and our reception of Holy Communion. Christ has prepared us for this by softening our hearts to receive him and to accept the hidden miracle of his gift to us. Thus it is for us to respond in the way we live our lives.
This we can do in three ways. First, by participating in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Mass, fully and authentically; preparing through prayer and fasting, and through study of the scriptures and liturgical texts so that we might truly join ourselves to the Father, through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, by adoring the Lord in the Most Holy Eucharist; spending time in silent prayer before the Lord (at least for a short time before and after Mass), and by ensuring a true gesture of reverence, namely a genuflection (not a quick bob or bow), when passing before the tabernacle. Thirdly, by receiving Holy Communion worthily and well; by a regular examination of conscience and sacramental confession, and by physically receiving Holy Communion in a way that acknowledges that we believe that what we receive is Christ himself.
Nourished by the sacrificial offering we now present, may we seek to live lives filled with such devotion for the Most Holy Eucharist. May the Lord who comes to us, hidden under the forms of bread and wine, be our strength and guide, ever more revealing himself to us in the sacrament of his love. And may this gift of his very own body and blood, given for our salvation in his sacrifice on the cross, bring us into a closer and more perfect union with him, that completely conformed to his life, we might remain one with him for all eternity in the kingdom of his beloved Father.
This homily is part of a series on the Bread of Life discourse, delivered in August 2015. You can read the complete set of homilies by clicking here.