Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Real Presence of Christ: Why do we receive communion?

Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 3.13-15, 17-19 Psalm 4 1 John 2.1-5a Luke 24.35-48

It’s such a simple thing, what we do each time we gather around this table. We take some bread and some wine – not a lot, just enough for a small piece of food and a sip of drink for everyone here. The priest says a prayer, recalling the words and actions of Jesus on the night before he died. Then we eat. Again, not enough to sustain us, only a taste – but enough of a taste to fulfill all our spiritual hungers. So simple – and yet there’s so much more. As we continue our exploration of the Mass, today we ask: What happens at the moment of consecration? What do we as Catholics mean when we say that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ? And why do we call this the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Our goal as Christians is to spend our lives becoming more and more Christ-like. We develop the faith that God has given us especially through the way we love, loving both God and our fellow human beings. But, most of the time, we’re not very good at loving. We’re not very good at being like Christ. The more we think of ourselves – which is part of our human nature – the harder it is to be Christ-like. That’s why we need the sacraments. God wants us to be like him, and so he gives us the grace of the sacraments to help us along the way. The Eucharist is the heart of the sacraments and is our most regular encounter with Christ. It is our weekly nourishment in the spiritual life – just as we need food and drink to sustain our bodies, to help us live and grow and be healthy, we also need a spiritual food to help us live and grow and be healthy spiritually. Christ loves us so much that he gives himself to us each time we gather for the Eucharist. On the night before he died, Jesus left himself to us in a unique way – even though his human, earthly life was almost over, through a miracle that only God could do, Jesus gave his Body and Blood to the disciples so that he would always be with them. By eating his Body and drinking his Blood, we receive spiritual nourishment from Christ himself; Christ dwells in us. When we receive the Eucharist, we are given whatever it is we need to become Christ-like in our daily lives.

The great gift of the Eucharist is that it is not merely a symbol – the bread and wine that we see, touch, and taste, are no longer bread and wine – they are the very Body and Blood of Christ. How can this happen? And why does it need to happen, why can’t it just be a symbol? For the answers, we have to go back to Christ himself. At the Last Supper, it is very clear in Scripture that Jesus does not say, “This bread is my body,” but “This is my body” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III q. 78, a. 5). He does not say, “This wine is my blood,” but “This is my blood.” To the senses, nothing changes after the prayer of consecration – the bread and wine still look, smell, and taste like ordinary bread and wine. But through the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe that God is able to change the substance, the inner quality, of what appears to be bread and wine. Think of a person, who grows from infancy to childhood to adulthood. The exterior qualities – how the person looks, their voice, the color of their hair – changes; but inside, it is the same person. The exact opposite thing happens with the Eucharist. The appearances, the exterior qualities, the things we can perceive with our senses, stay the same; but the deeper reality changes into the real presence of Christ.

It doesn’t make sense to our rational minds. But to deny that it is possible would be to limit the power of God. Jesus wanted to remain with us always – not just as a memory or a story, but as a real presence. He wanted to give us what we need to be like him. And who could help us be like Christ more than Christ himself? A symbol can help us remember someone or something. But only the real presence of Christ can help us become better Christians. And each time we gather for the Eucharist, we are given the greatest gift in the world: the ability to recognize Christ himself in the breaking of the bread, and not just to see or hear Christ, but to become one with him as we eat his Body and drink his Blood.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Sunday Assembly: Why do we go to Church on Sundays?

Homily for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B
Acts 4.32-35 Psalm 118 1 John 5.1-6 John 20.19-31

Last Sunday, on Easter, I announced that I would be devoting my homilies during this Easter season to the Mass, helping us all come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of how we as Catholics celebrate the Eucharist. This week, we formally begin the series by asking a very simple question – why are we here? Why do we put everything else in our busy lives aside on Saturday evening or Sunday morning, and come to a church to pray together as a community? What is so important about the sixty or so minutes that we spend each week at Mass? And, at the root of all these questions, is a related one – why can’t I just pray on my own; why do we pray together as a community? We’ll get to that question later; first of all, why are we here?

The great Archbishop Fulton Sheen was often asked to explain why we go to Mass. People said that Mass was boring, or that they didn’t get anything out of it, or that it was just a waste of time. Archbishop Sheen’s response: “If you don’t get anything out of Mass, it’s because you don’t bring the right expectations to it.” The Mass is not supposed to be entertainment. It’s not supposed to be a play or movie that we watch and observe, it’s not supposed to be all about us and our problems and our agendas and our likes and dislikes. The Mass is about God, it is about hearing words written by human hands but inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is about Jesus Christ himself becoming flesh for us, giving his body and his blood for us in the Eucharist; it is about seeing God in one another. If you come here expecting to be entertained, you’ll surely be disappointed. If you come here expecting to feel good about yourself, that might happen, but not every Mass will be an emotionally-uplifting, joy-filled celebration of what’s going right in your life right now. But if you come here expecting to glimpse the presence of God, well, then you should expect to be able to do just that. A Mass well celebrated helps us to see, and hear, and taste, and touch, the very presence of God. And our faith tells us that it is easier to glimpse God here, in this sacred place, than in the busy-ness of our daily lives. That is why we are here.

We come to Mass because we are a hungry people, hungry for meaning in our lives; we’re longing for direction, for guidance, for the strength to persevere and the wisdom to know how to make right decisions. We come to Mass because we need some silence in our lives, we need to be able to listen for God’s voice, and not do all the talking ourselves. We come to Mass because we’re not perfect, and we need to hear Christ’s words of forgiveness – we need to remember that God loves us, no matter what. We come to Mass to turn our attention toward God, to spend some time not thinking about ourselves, to glimpse the divine.

Now that’s all well and good – we are here to find the sacred, to hear what God has to say to us. But why can’t we just do that on our own; why do we come together as a community to pray? Several years ago, I heard someone describe communion in a very individualistic way. He said that, for him, receiving communion was a very personal thing, a personal encounter between him and God. No one else in the room mattered at that moment, this was about each person as an individual and their God. From that perspective, it would make sense to pray on your own. But how different is our Catholic understanding of Eucharist! Of course, the Eucharist does make a connection between each of us individually and our loving God, and we need that connection, we need that strength and nourishment that only God can give to each of us, as individuals. But we don’t receive communion in isolation. As we come forward in procession to the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, or as we come forward asking for God’s blessing, we can look around and see everyone else doing the same thing. God came to save not just me, but each and every person in this church, indeed each and every person throughout the world. When we come to Mass, we see God’s presence in each member of the Body of Christ, people who are hurting and broken, blessed and loved; we see God’s presence in the people we know and love, but also in the strangers, and even in the people we have a hard time loving. We come together as a community because we need to be reminded that I am not the only Christian in the world. As different as we all are, we are all searching for the same God. The community reminds us of that. And when we come to Mass, we hope and pray that we can glimpse the presence of God here in this place – in the Scriptures, in the Eucharist, and in one another. That is why we are here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Sunday: A Little Easter

Homily for Easter Sunday, Year B

Today is no ordinary day. It is Easter, yes, and that makes it special. It is Sunday, yes, which also makes it special. But before any of those designations, today was simply known as the first day of the week, the first day of creation, the day when “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” (Genesis 1.2). The rhythm of times and seasons, the changing of weeks and months and years, is all founded on that first day, when the universe was all either light or darkness, long before anything else came to be. But that was just the beginning.

Countless days and years passed since the creation of light; the world and the human race moved forward in time, until the days of Abraham and Isaac, the days of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, the days of the prophets and kings. And then there appeared a man unlike any the world had ever seen. This man was different because he was not just man, he was God himself, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This man walked among us for just over thirty years, teaching us about the kingdom of God, curing people of their infirmities. But his life was not as significant as his death. Tortured and scourged, he was led off to be crucified, to suffer for the sake of the many. But then, on the first day of the week, the day light was first created, something happened – and the world has never been the same.

The resurrection of Christ is the fulcrum of history – it is the center point of all creation. What happened on that first day of the week has brought a true light, an inner light, to all of humanity – a light that can never be swallowed by darkness. For us who claim Christ as our savior, the first day of the week takes on a special significance. We gather here on this first day of the week because this is the day of resurrection, this is the day on which history forever changed course. But it’s not just today – the resurrection is so important for us as Christians that we can’t celebrate it only on Easter; we celebrate it each Sunday, on the first day of every week, the day when Christ’s resurrection forever gave “light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1.78-79). If we truly believe that Christ has been raised from the dead, then we will make each Sunday a little Easter, a weekly thanksgiving to the God who has enlightened the world.

Our Sunday celebrations are the most important things we do as a church. But too often, we don’t know or understand why we do those things that we do, especially in the Mass. For the next seven Sundays, throughout this Easter Season, I will be preaching a series of homilies on the Mass. I will talk about questions like, why should we go to church on Sundays? Why do we receive communion? What’s unique about the Catholic Mass? And, what difference does attending Mass make in my daily life? If Sunday is a little Easter, and if Easter is the most important day of the year for us as Christians, then we need to understand what Sunday is all about, and we especially need to understand what the Mass is all about. These next seven Sundays will be just a beginning, but an important beginning, to help us all mark Sunday as the day of resurrection, the first day of the week. Because we know that in a world of darkness and sin, there is only one thing that will always bring us light – Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, body broken and blood shed, for all of us who are made in his image.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A Streetcar, A Priest, and the World's Greatest Gift

Homily for Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord's Supper
Exodus 12.1-8, 11-14 Psalm 116 1 Corinthians 11.23-26 John 13.1-15

The late Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston often told a story about an incident that involved him as a young priest, an incident that changed forever his view of ministry and the sacraments. Walking through the streets of Boston on a cold, icy winter evening, then-Father Cushing heard a commotion up ahead of him. As he got closer, he saw a group of people gathered together, huddled in the winter cold around the body of a man who seemed to be in great pain and agony, lying next to a stopped streetcar. Fr. Cushing rushed over to the crowd and pushed his way past the people, stooping down next to a police officer and doctor who were tending to the injured man. When the doctor saw that a priest had arrived, he told him, “It’s too late for me to do anything Father! You take over.” Fr. Cushing knew exactly what to do, even though he was barely out of seminary. He pulled out his little black book of prayers and the oil of the sick that he always carried with him. He then started to talk to the man lying in the street. “My son,” the priest said, “are you of the Catholic faith?” “Yeah, yeah …” came the response. The priest continued: “Do you know that you are a sinner against God?” “Uhuh, yeah …” It was clear that the end was near, so Fr. Cushing hurried along, confident that he would get through all the words in his prayer book. He asked the dying man, “Do you believe in the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?” And the questions went on.*

Years later, Cardinal Cushing reflected back on that night with the dying man next to the streetcar. The wisdom of age and experience helped him realize that this dying man really didn’t need a quiz on the catechism or a lesson on the Trinity. What he needed was the sacraments; what he needed was God’s grace. What Cardinal Cushing learned over the years was that the sacraments are for dying people. The sacraments are the connection between sinful humanity and our grace-filled God, especially at the most fragile moments of life. And, when it comes down to it, we are all dying – we all need the grace of the Eucharist, the grace of the Anointing of the Sick and Reconciliation, because our own efforts will never be enough.

St. Paul speaks to that on this holy night. After recalling the words of Christ himself on the night he was betrayed, St. Paul says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11.26). What we remember here tonight – the Eucharist, the priesthood, the call to serve one another – all of this has as its purpose proclaiming the death of the Lord. And not just because we are caught up in death, but because we realize that it is only though the death of Christ that our death has any meaning; it is only through the resurrection of Christ that our life has purpose. And when we unite ourselves to the Eucharist, when we unite ourselves to Christ, we become one with him in his dying and rising – we become one with him in the daily struggles of earthly life – we become one with him on our own journeys to death and new life. That’s what the Eucharist is all about, and it’s the greatest gift the world has ever known.

Yes, the catechism is important, the Trinity is important – we need to know the God who made us, the God we worship. But the sacraments are about people – dying people – people who are longing to hear the words of Christ: “This is my body … this is my blood, given up for you.”

* Recorded in The Lord’s Supper, by Martin E. Marty (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997).

Sunday, April 5, 2009

We are Soon Going to Share in the Passover

On this Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion, there was no homily preached - the procession with palms and proclamation of the Passion According to Mark themselves say more than any words could add. As further reflection, posted here is a homily of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (325-390) that accompanies the reading of the Passion of Our Lord.

We are soon going to share in the Passover, and although we still do so only in a symbolic way, the symbolism already has more clarity than it possessed in former times because, under the law, the Passover was, if I may dare to say so, only a symbol of a symbol. Before long, however, when the Word drinks the new wine with us in the kingdom of his Father, we shall be keeping the Passover in a yet more perfect way, and with deeper understanding. He will then reveal to us and make clear what he has so far only partially disclosed. For this wine, so familiar to us now, is eternally new.

It is for us to learn what this drinking is, and for him to teach us. He has to communicate this knowledge to his disciples, because teaching is food, even for the teacher.

So let us take our part in the Passover prescribed by the law, not in a literal way, but according to the teaching of the Gospel; not in an imperfect way, but perfectly; not only for a time, but eternally. Let us regard as our home the heavenly Jerusalem, not the earthly one; the city glorified by angels, not the one laid waste by armies. We are not required to sacrifice young bulls or rams, beasts with horns and hoofs that are more dead than alive and devoid of feeling; but instead, let us join the choirs of angels in offering God upon his heavenly altar a sacrifice of praise. We must now pass through the first veil and approach the second, turning our eyes toward the Holy of Holies. I will say more: we must sacrifice ourselves to God, each day and in everything we do, accepting all that happens to us for the sake of the Word, imitating his passion by our sufferings, and honouring his blood by shedding our own. We must be ready to be crucified.

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up your cross and follow Christ. If you are crucified beside him like one of the thieves, now, like the good thief, acknowledge your God. For your sake, and because of your sin, Christ himself was regarded as a sinner; for his sake, therefore, you must cease to sin. Worship him who was hung on the cross because of you, even if you are hanging there yourself. Derive some benefit from the very shame; purchase salvation with your death. Enter paradise with Jesus, and discover how far you have fallen. Contemplate the glories there, and leave the other scoffing thief to die outside in his blasphemy.

If you are a Joseph of Arimathea, go to the one who ordered his crucifixion, and ask for Christ’s body. Make your own the expiation for the sins of the whole world. If you are a Nicodemus, like the man who worshipped God by night, bring spices and prepare Christ’s body for burial. If you are one of the Marys, or Salome, or Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be the first to see the stone rolled back, and even the angels perhaps, and Jesus himself.