For three weeks now the Sunday lections have centered around the Bread of Life discourse found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. This began with the miraculous feeding of the multitude near Bethsaida in Galilee, and continued with the Lord announcing himself as “the bread of life” by the lake of Capernaum. As we have seen, the Johannine description of these events is explicitly Eucharistic; the link between the feeding of the five thousand and Christ’s pronouncement point not simply to one who has come to provide natural, but supernatural sustenance. The timing of these events with the Jewish feast of Passover suggests this all the more keenly: the coming sacrifice of Calvary is to be understood alongside the Lord’s proclamation, “I am the bread of life.” Thus, in the Most Holy Eucharist we find both the action of the cross, re-presented for us on the altar, and the bread of life, who nourishes us and sustains us on our pilgrim way.
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, which we heard in the gospel last Sunday, fundamentally concerns the Most Holy Eucharist. The abundance of food given to those gathered with the Lord and his apostles near Bethsaida is a sign of the super-abundant and super-substantial gift of the Lord himself, his very own body and blood, given to us in Holy Communion. By this miracle—as by those which preceded it under the old testament—the Lord softens the heart of man to receive the true food, the bread of angels, the Most Holy Eucharist, which sustains us on our pilgrimage to heaven. By providing for the natural nourishment of those who have sought him out he shows how, by the fruits of his sacrificial love on the cross, he will provide also for the supernatural nourishment; that feeds the soul, and which gives his people the grace to become more and more like him.
Throughout these weeks of Easter we begin our celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with an act of penitence, recalling the baptism which has united those of us who are called “Christian” with the very person of Christ. By our sprinkling with holy water and the words of the chant of the Vidi aquam, we are reminded of the cleansing from sin which is the fruit of baptism, by which the guilt of original sin is taken from us and the life of Christ implanted. In baptism we have become one in Christ’s mystical body, the Church, and are literally incorporated into his life; caught up in the selfless relationship of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity recalled in the very formula used to administer the sacrament: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
The solemn celebration of this most holy night, in which we commemorate the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist and the ministerial priesthood, affords us the opportunity to recognize once again the great outpouring of love and grace which is the sacrifice of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. By participation in these sacred rites and in those of the coming days the Church invites us, her children, to enter into the mystery of the passion, death, and resurrection, in a more intense and renewed way, uniting ourselves to the perfect oblation of God the Son to God the Father in and through God the Holy Spirit. In the three days on which we have now embarked, the saving acts of the Lord are retold so that we might recognize what our God has done for us, and so strive to respond by lives oriented toward his eternal presence.
This homily was given on Sunday 2 June 2013, the transferred Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street.
O sacrum convivium,
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius,
mens impletur gratia,
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
These are the words of S. Thomas Aquinas, written for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Corpus Christi, which we celebrate today. They are words that summarise what we are here to celebrate, and that give us four helpful indications of what the great gift of the Eucharist is, and how we, as Christians seeking a stronger relationship with the Lord, must respond to the outpouring of God’s grace which the sacrament gives us.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received. In the Most Holy Eucharist, under the simple outward signs of bread and wine, we find none other than Christ himself. Hidden beneath these manmade gifts, is God, who comes to abide with us in the tabernacle, and to feed us with his own self as the viaticum, the food of the wayfarer on his pilgrimage – our pilgrimage – to our rightful home in heaven. In the Eucharist, we gaze on Christ himself who is really and substantially present in our midst; we receive a foretaste of the worship which we hope to offer him in heaven, when we shall see him face-to-face; we see, held up before us, a reflection – not of what we are, but of what we are called to be: united to Christ in his body through our incorporation in Holy Baptism and his saving passion, death, and resurrection. We may see bread and wine, but we know through faith that Christ himself is received in Holy Communion. Again, to quote S. Thomas, What though sense no change discerns / only be the heart in earnest / faith her lesson quickly learns.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed. In the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in the Holy Mass, we keep “the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice” (CCC §1362). In the Sacred Liturgy, we do not simply recall the memory of past events – we do not reenact the Last Supper or even the Sacrifice of Calvary, but we rather proclaim “the mighty works wrought by God for men” (cf. CCC §1363; Ex. 13:3). In the words of consecration spoken by the Priest, we are given the same body which Christ gave up for on Calvary, and the same blood which he shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. CCC §1365). The memory of Christ’s passion is renewed, because the sacrifice of the cross is re-presented for us, and we can say that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. We can say that, “The victim is one and the same: the same now offered through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross” (See CCC §1367; Trent, Doctrina de Ss Missae sacrificio).
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed, in which the mind is filled with grace. The Eucharist is often spoken of as the ‘sacrament of unity’. We know that when we welcome non-Catholic Christians to our celebrations of the Mass we cannot offer them Holy Communion, because to receive Holy Communion means to be fully united with Christ in and through his mystical body, the Church. The communion of the Church is the means by which we receive God’s grace in the sacraments of the Church. In the Eucharist, then, we are filled with the grace that flows directly from the saving actions of Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection. If we are open to God’s love, if we are fully united to Him through our baptism and have remained faithful to our baptism – seeking out the Lord’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, in confession, then our minds and hearts are indeed filled with grace, and we continue in that profound relationship with Christ, which will one day (we pray) lead us to him in heaven.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed, in which the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. The Catechism tells us that “If the Eucharist is the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus, if by our communion at the altar we are filled ‘with every heavenly blessing and grace’, then the Eucharist is also an anticipation of the heavenly glory” (CCC §1402). In the Mass we come into contact with the Almighty, who comes to us under the form of bread and wine, and so our minds and our hearts are lifted up to the place where the fullness of union with him will be: the heavenly Jerusalem. We are pointed beyond the things of this world, and toward the things of the world to come – away from the tawdry human food of mere bread and wine, and toward the glories of Christ’s own Body and Blood, which we receive in Holy Communion.
In the Eucharist we are given a pledge of the glories of heaven, because in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy we are shown the very Person who calls us to be with him for all eternity. In the words of S. Ignatius of Antioch, in the Eucharist we “break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live for ever in Jesus Christ” (cf. CCC §1405; Ad Eph. 20, 2: SCht 10, 76). In the Mass we are surrounded, as in heaven, by the whole host of angels and saints, who join with us in offering our sacrifice to God, and we are caught up in the adoration of our God, who bids us home to our heavenly fatherland: Qui vitam sine termino / Nobis donet in patria – O grant us life that shall not end, in our true native land with thee.
May our celebration of the solemnity of Corpus Christi be a reminder of this fourfold truth. May our devotion to the Lord in the Eucharist be ever more profound, and may we draw others – through a tangible love of the Holy Eucharist – to the God who has died and risen again for us, and by whose passion and glory we are given a pledge of eternal life with him in heaven. In this sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, we renew his passion, our minds our filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us, may we be found worthy to receive the fruits of what, in love, he has won for us.
Given on Thursday in the first week of Lent at the Priory of Saint Dominic, Lymington:
During my retreat this week, I have been reflecting on the idea and reality of union with God. How, in the Christian life, can we achieve this, and what do we need in order to do so? I am a long way from really knowing, but the simplicity of today’s gospel provides us with a good place to start.
If we acknowledge God as a reality in our lives, and so truly desire to be forever in union with him, then we must also be aware that we need him above all else; that we are – or should be – utterly reliant on his mercy and his grace. If we realise that, then we should ask the Lord, with humility, for his strength in our weakness and for his mercy in failure.
To think that we can struggle on through life, hoping to avoid sin and temptation by our own strength is a kind of blasphemy, setting up a new Golden Calf (as it were) as a substitute for God. We cannot. If we truly desire union with God and a closer relationship with him, then we must simply acknowledge our need him, we must come into his presence, and we must ask him to give us what we need – what we desire – that is, his grace, in order to bring about that end.
If we do not, if through lukewarmness or hardness of heart we somehow create a narrative where we desire God on our own terms or by our own efforts, then in all honesty we must admit that is not God that we truly desire. ‘Ask and it shall be given unto thee’, says the Lord in the gospel; not because we can, then, but because we must.
I had the great privilege of proclaiming the gospel from a pulpit he used often and hearing confessions in his confessional in St Patrick’s, Soho Square. I’m also adopting him as the patron of my work as Communications Officer for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. Imagine how devastatingly effective he’d have been with YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the like… *shudders*.
On the great Solemnity of Ss Peter & Paul, though, I am particularly rejoicing in the communion that we in the Ordinariate now share with over two billion other Catholic Christians: the full communion of the Catholic Church. I always expected to be bowled over by the astonishing and profound impact of Catholic communion, but it’s the peace of that communion which has really been an unexpected but welcome gift after the turbulence of former years. Thank God.
And, this week, amidst a whole host of stuff going on that’s made it a more-than-usual challenge to keep my eye on the joy and hope and splendour of all that we have achieved together, it is the Venerable Servant of God who brings me back to what communion with St Peter is all about in these few words from his autobiography, Treasure in Clay:
On a train trip from New York to Boston, I sat next to an Episcopalian clergyman. We began a friendly discussion on the validity of Anglican Orders. He contended he was a priest as much as I was, that he could offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and that he could forgive sins. He was well versed in history and in theology and our discussion proved to be so interesting that many passengers gathered around us to listen to the friendly debate. He got off the train at Providence. He advanced several steps, then turned around and, facing the audience which we both enjoyed, thought he would give me the last telling challenge by saying, ‘Remember, Bishop Sheen, I can do anything you can do’. I just had time to answer : ‘No, you can’t. I can kiss your wife, but you can’t kiss mine’.