Bottom line: Why do I have to go to Mass? The answer is simple: To worship and to receive Jesus - as Lord and Savior.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi - the Body and Blood of Christ. I want to begin by recommending a book by Dr. Tom Curran: "The Mass: Four Encounters with Jesus That Will Change Your Life."
This book will help parents whose children ask, "Why do I have to go to Mass?" Using understandable language and appropriate comparisons, Dr. Curran describes four "presences" of Jesus: in the community, the Word, the priest and the Eucharist. Each presence of Jesus is vital, but this Sunday I will focus on that fourth presence: Jesus in the Eucharist.
To illustrate how Jesus' presence in the Eucharist differs from the first three, let me tell you about a conversation between two priests. The first priest was arguing that - since Vatican II - we now have to emphasize the presence of Jesus in the community. "Jesus," he said, "is not only present in the Eucharist, but in every person." The second priest said, "yes, we have to reverence each person, but can I ask a couple of question?"
The first priest nodded and the second priest asked, "Would you worship the Eucharist?" The first said, "Yes, of course."
The second priest then asked, "Would you worship me?"
Jesus is present in the priest - but I hope no one is foolish enough to worship me.* And Jesus is truly present in community, but do not genuflect to each other. We do, however, worship Jesus in the Eucharist and when we approach a tabernacle, we do bend the knee. There is a difference between Jesus' presence in other human beings and his presence in the Eucharist. In the Mass - the Holy Spirit transforms the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. The bread and wine become Jesus. For that reason we worship the Blessed Sacrament.
From earliest times Christians have recognized Jesus' real, substantial presence in the Eucharist. Perhaps you have heard about St. Tarcisius. A twleve-year-old boy, he was an altar server. Being a time of persecution, they could not celebrate Mass openly as we do, so they went underground – in the Catacombs of Rome. After Mass, they chose Tarcisius to take Communion to someone who could not attend. The priest placed the consecrated Host in a special container, that Tarcisius held under his robe, near his heart. On the way some boys were playing ball. Needing an extra player, they called Tarcisius to join them. When he said he could not, they asked him what he was holding. The priest had told Tarcisius that could not show the "Sacred Mysteries" to unbelievers. The boys gathered around him and began to taunt him. As he held the Host tightly, the boys became furious, hitting and kicking Tarcisius. Eventually a man came who shouted and chased the boys away. Tarcisius was beaten so badly the man had to pick him up. He died on the way and was buried in the Cemetery of St. Callixtus.
Like Tarcisius, many Christians have given their lives for the Eucharist – not just in the early centuries, but in modern times. In Nazi concentration camps, priests celebrated secret Masses so they and other prisoners could receieve Communion.** A priest in a Vietnamese prison celebrated Mass by holding a tiny particle of bread and single drop of wine in the palm of his hand.***
If the Eucharist meant so much to these Christians, what about us? Here at St. Mary of the Valley, we are doing our best to have a well-kept church and beautiful music. We have a welcoming community - and I hope the homilies are not too big of a penance. But suppose we fell short on all that, would it not be worthwhile to come to Mass just to worship and receive the Blessed Sacrament - Jesus himself?
In my eleven months here at St. Mary, I have tried to emphasize worship. On my first Sunday, I asked you not to applaud during Mass. That has been hard for some, I know, and I don't want to make it an absolute. I have asked people to refrain from applause because we are not here to celebrate ourselves, but to worship God.**** The primary purpose of music is to worship God. Similarly, an effective homily should lead to worship. In fact, the homily itself should be an act of worship. Yes, I want to teach and to uplift, but above all, I want exalt God. Our very gathering is an act of worship. We should, of course, be friendly and courteous, but we always keep in mind that we are here for a sacred purpose: to worship our Maker, our Savior, the One who gives us his very self under the form of bread and wine.
St. Augustine said, "No one eats this flesh unless he first adores it." I encourage you to worship Jesus when I lift up the bread and repeat Jesus' words, "This is my body."
So, to return to our original question: Why do I have to go to Mass? The answer is simple: To worship and to receive Jesus - as Lord and Savior. Remember your purpose in this life. Not to earn a million dollars or to make a name for yourself. Those things are fine, but they will vanish like smoke. Your purpose and mine is this - to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with him forever in heaven. That means worship. Here on earth the object of our worship is the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus himself. Many centuries ago, St. Thomas Aquinas expressed it in a beautiful poem. We heard it before the Gospel. I would like to conclude with two of its stanzas:
What at Supper Christ completed
He ordained to be repeated,
in His memory Divine.
Wherefore now, with adoration,
we, the Host of our salvation,
consecrate from bread and wine.
Here beneath these signs are hidden
priceless things, to sense forbidden;
signs, not things, are all we see.
Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
yet is Christ in either sign,
all entire confessed to be.
*To worship another human being is the sin of idolatry. I admit I have sometimes been tempted to worship someone for their accomplishments, their beauty, their wit. But I recognize it as a temptation. The goodness, beauty or wisdom that I see in others should awaken me to the Source of those qualities. But to worship a fellow human will damage that person, will damage me and could bring great damage to our world - as when the German people made an idol of their nation as its leader. While we reverence and honor other people and we see Jesus' presence even in the most debased human being, we worship Jesus alone.
**Hitler not only wanted to murder all the Jews of Europe, but to destroy the Catholic Church. Thousands of Catholics, including priests, were sent to concentration camps for openly promoting the faith. Pope John Paul recently beatified one of them. His name was Karl Leisner. As a theology student he organized Catholic Youth Groups. The Nazis would not tolerate any competition for the minds of young people, so they arrested Karl and sent him to the Dachau concentration camps. There, on December 17, 1944, a French bishop (smuggled into the camp) ordained him a priest. Fr. Leisner was so ill with tuberculosis that he could not celebrate his first Mass until a week later – Christmas. He did so at great risk and sacrifice for himself and fellow prisoners. He survived until the Allies liberated Dachau, but died some months later, August of 1945.
***For the story of Francois-Xavier Nguyen van Thuan, see my 2002 Christmas homily
****In his days as a cardinal, Pope Benedict wrote, "Whenever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment." For a discussion of this issue, see: Hold the Applause: Confessions of a Conflicted Clapper.
From Archives (Corpus Christi):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
My bulletin column
St. Mary of the Valley Album
Succint ecclesiology from Archbishop Chaput: Pope Is Not CEO And Bishops Are Not His Employees
Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)
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Parish Picture Album
MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru
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