Shortly before being executed by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace."* According to Bonhoeffer cheap grace is "the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner." Such false grace abounds today. It appears attractive, but it ultimately has a high price tag. The child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has its origins in the attempt to justify certain types of behavior.
Cheap grace offers a false intimacy because it requires no submission. Today's readings provide an antidote. St. Paul, though himself a celibate, saw marriage as the highest expression of intimacy between two human beings. However, he begins by pointing out the necessity of submission (subordination). For marriage to succeed, the husband and wife must submit, each in their own proper way.
St. Paul insists that marriage is a sign of a much greater reality. The two becoming one flesh in the marital act is a "mystery" (Latin: sacramentum). It refers to Christ and his Church. (Eph 5:32) Here Paul is bringing out the deeper meaning of the entire Bible - from the creation of first human pair to the nuptials of the Lamb and his bride.
Jesus makes present that nuptial union when he gives us his own flesh. Speaking about her First Communion, St. Therese of Lisieux gave a beautiful description of that union:
That day, it was no longer simply a look, it was a fusion; they were no longer two, Thèrése had vanished as a drop of water is lost in the immensity of the ocean. Jesus alone remained; He was the Master, the King.**
The past four Sundays we have been hearing about that great gift. Today Jesus makes clear that reception of his Body and Blood requires an act of submission. Otherwise, it would be a false intimacy. It would bring not a blessing, but condemnation.
Many of those who first listened to Jesus said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" (Jn 6:60) Although we have become accustomed to Jesus' words, it still requires a great act of faith (submission) to accept that the bread we receive is truly his Body. Pope John Paul described that act of faith in these words:
In a sense, then, we return to the sacramental character of Revelation and especially to the sign of the Eucharist, in which the indissoluble unity between the signifier and signified makes it possible to grasp the depths of the mystery. In the Eucharist, Christ is truly present and alive, working through his Spirit; yet, as Saint Thomas said so well, “what you neither see nor grasp, faith confirms for you, leaving nature far behind; a sign it is that now appears, hiding in mystery realities sublime”.(16) He is echoed by the philosopher Pascal: “Just as Jesus Christ went unrecognized among men, so does his truth appear without external difference among common modes of thought. So too does the Eucharist remain among common bread”.(17) Faith and Reason
*In his Memoir, Bonhoeffer gave this elaboration:
Both modern liberal theology and secular totalitarianism hold pretty much in common that the message of the Bible has to be adapted more or less, to the requirements of a secular world. No wonder, therefore, that the process of debasing Christianity as by liberal theology led, in the long run, to a complete perversion and falsification of the essence of Christianity teaching by National Socialism.
**Therese, of course, is far from being a pantheist. She knew that only by full union with Jesus would she realize her true self. "I wish to spend my heaven doing good on earth... I will help priests, missionaries, the whole Church."
From Archives (Homilies for 21st Sunday, Year B):
This is a hard saying. Who can accept it? (Homily by Fr. Kurt Nagel)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C