Bottom line: We can increase our hunger, our longing for the Eucharist by 1) fasting from some distractions and devoting more time to prayer, 2) recovering a sense of Eucharistic realism and 3) paying attention to how we approach Communion. The Eucharistic Jesus alone can fill our deepest hunger.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi - the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. In the Gospel Jesus says, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." St. Paul reminds us that the bread we break is a "participation in the body of Christ" and the cup we drink is "a participation in the blood of Christ."
If the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Jesus, I would to ask this question: Why do we take the Mass so casually? It seems like for many people the Eucharist is no big deal. Pope Benedict addressed this issue. In the book Light of the World, journalist Peter seewald asked the pope why, at papal Masses, he has people kneel and receive Communon on the tongue. Here is what he said:
“I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself. The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at Saint Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir. In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion — everyone else is going up, so I will, too—I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear: Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention! This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to."
Now, I am not going to tell you to kneel and receive Communion on the tongue. In the United States the norm is to receive Communion standing and each person has the option of receiving on the tongue or in the hand. There are, however, other things we can do to deepen our reverence for the Eucharist.
The first thing we can do is increase our longing. In the Old Testament reading we hear that the Israelites were "afflicted with hunger" before God fed them with manna. Manna is a simple substance, but because of their hunger it had a delicious taste. On the other hand, if a person stuffs himself with junk food, even the finest banquet will hold little attraction.
Something similar applies to the Eucharist. If someone stuffs himself with spiritual junk food (television, Internet and other distractions), the Mass will seem unattractive. We need to fast from some of those things, spend time in quiet reflection if we want to savor the Eucharist.
There is a second way we can increase our reverence for the Eucharist. We can recover a sense of Eucharistic realism. We heard Jesus tell us that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood. And St. Paul speaks about participating in the Body and Blood of the Lord. The early Christian writers underscored this Eucharistic “realism.” For example, in the year 110 A.D. St. Ignatius of Antioch warned about those who “do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Those people, he said, “deny the gift of God,” and “are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]).
I could give you a long list of quotes from early Christian writers regarding the Eucharist, but it is not necessary. The Church historian J. N. D. Kelly (himself a Protestant) sums it up: “Eucharistic teaching,” he wrote, “at the outset, was...unquestioningly realist, that is, the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood” (Early Christian Doctrines, 440). We need to recover that realism if we are to increase our reverence for the Eucharist.*
Besides some fasting from distractions and recovery of Eucharist realism, there is a third thing we can do: pay greater attention to how we approach Communion:
When you come forward for Communion, make a reverent bow when the person before you is receiving. When the priest or Eucharistic minister holds up the Host saying, “The Body of Christ,” you will respond, “Amen,” which means: Yes, I believe, it is so.
Before receiving the Eucharist, we have a little rite called the Sign of Peace. It can be a beautiful preparation for Communion. We Americans, unfortunately, have taken this ancient gesture and turned it into a social event. Instead of saying “Peace be with you,” people begin striking up a conversation: “How you doing. Good to see you.” No, the Sign of Peace is meant to express our desire for pardon and reconciliation before receiving Christ.
From time to time I will notice some guy acting like a candidate for governor. He wants to shake twenty or thirty hands. “Vote for me.” Again, that is not the point. An early Christian writer said, “Each of us gives the kiss of peace to the person next to him, and so in effect gives it to the whole assembly.”** Give the Sign of Peace to your neighbor, the person next to you or behind you – and thus you give it to all.
We need sensitivity in giving the Sign of Peace to others. People in our parishes come from many different cultures. For those brought up in the United States, a handshake is probably the most common gesture. Others prefer to join their hands together and make respectful bow, while others will exchange a ritual embrace (like the Holy Father does at a papal Mass.) If your wife or sister is next to you, you may give her a kiss – but I would not recommend it indiscriminately. You could get into trouble!
Whatever gesture you use, do it with deep respect for the person next to you. When done correctly the Sign of Peace can bond us deeply with each other and prepare us to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. St. Cyril of Jerusalem expressed it this way:
“Do not assume that this is the customary kiss exchanged by friends in public. No, this kiss joins souls together in search of complete forgiveness from one another. So the kiss marks the fusion of souls, and the expulsion of all resentment from wrongs.” (Mystagogical Catecheses 5.3)
When the choir begins the Lamb of God, we should focus our attention on Jesus, truly present in the Chalice and in the Bread, now broken on the altar. He alone can form us into a community. Sure, we must do our part, but ultimately it is Jesus who unites us. As he said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53)
To sum up: The Eucharist is true Body and Blood of Jesus. We can increase our hunger, our longing for the Eucharist by 1) fasting from some distractions and devoting more time to prayer, 2) recovering a sense of Eucharistic realism and 3) paying attention to how we approach Communion. The Eucharistic Jesus alone can fill our deepest hunger. Amen.
*We need to face that one of our catechetical tropes has undermined this Eucharistic realism. Reverence for the Eucharist is often counter-pointed with “finding Christ in other people” or “in the assembly.” The problem is that in practice it results in a kind of vague pantheism - or disappointed cynicism. It is better to say (with St. Augustine) that, yes, the image of God exists in every person, but that image has been distorted and clouded over by sin. Thus each of us has an absolute need of God's grace to restore the broken image. So we turn to the only thing here on earth that we can worship - the Blessed Sacrament.
**Here is a more complete quote:
"This kiss that all exchange constitutes a kind of profession of unity and charity that exists among them. Each of us gives the kiss of peace to the person next to him, and so in effect gives it to the whole assembly, because this act is an acknowledgment that we have all become the single Body of Christ the Lord and so must preserve with one another that harmony... loving one another equally, supporting and helping one another, regarding the individual’s needs as the concerns of the community, sympathizing with one another’s sorrows and sharing one another’s joys." (Theodore of Mopsuestia, Baptismal Homily 4.39)
From Archives (Corpus Christi, Year A):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Audio Files of Homilies (Simple Catholicism Blog)
Take the Plunge Bible Study (audio resources)
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