June 24-25, 2000 Body and Blood of Christ, Cycle B
We humans have a tendency to isolate and categorize things. And once we have put something in its box, so to speak, we dont like to see it spill out into some other box. And so we are either Democrat or Republican. But what if I am against the death penalty and abortion? No box for me. We are either scientific or religious. But what if I understand evolution to be a perfectly good scientific fact but also believe in Gods ever-present hand in the ongoing creation of the world? No box for me. Separation of church or state says I can be either political or religious but not both at the same time. And this division is not just a secular versus religious one.
Within the boundaries of strictly religious thinking we have examples of this tendency. We want things either to be holy or sinful, divine or human, heavenly or earthly. But the central fact of our catholic faith, the Incarnation, is Gods most powerful statement that we are on the wrong track when we seek to divide things like this. Our faith is a both-and faith, rather than an either-or one. Jesus is both human and divine, at one and the same time. We are both saints and sinners, at one and the same time. The divine is to be found in the ordinary not cordoned off somewhere in a temple.
Despite the unequivocal statement of the Incarnation that God is with us, that the divine is present in every mundane aspect of the world, and that our humanity has been imbued with divinity, we still go back and forth in cycles, first emphasizing the divine, and then the natural.
The danger here is that, in our swings to the extremes, we miss the whole point that is communicated by the middle. And the sacraments are prime candidates for such misunderstanding. The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ we celebrate today, was instituted back in the middle ages to counteract the extremist position that so focused on the presence of the divine in the Eucharist that by contrast humans were unfit to receive communion. Now our faith tells us that the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are transformed into the real body and blood of Christ, who is truly God. Our ritual acknowledges that we are not worthy to receive such divinity. But our ritual also confirms that it is not our worthiness that counts it is Gods word that counts, and his word has made us worthy.
The purpose of the Eucharist is to mold us into a Eucharistic people, that is, a people who are thankful for the gifts that God has given us. So thankful, in fact, that we leave here and by our thanks and praise, we make Gods love real for everyone we encounter this week. In focusing on the divinity of the real presence to the point we dont receive, we miss the point of the sacrament.
Today, I am afraid, we have swung to the other extreme. Judging by how we gather and celebrate the Eucharist, we hardly understand who or what it is that we receive in the Eucharist, and so we give neither thanks nor praise, and so we too miss the point. Since we learn about sacraments most effectively by celebrating them, I would like to touch on a few of the aspects of our celebration of the Eucharist to illustrate what it is all about.
Lets start with what happens before we even get to Mass on Sunday. Our current norm is not to eat or drink for one hour before we receive communion. The church requires this to shape our respect for who it is we are about to receive. If we ignore this norm, how does that shape our respect?
When we enter a Catholic church, we look for the tabernacle, identified by an ever burning lamp. Since the tabernacle is used to reserve consecrated hosts, which are the real presence of Christ, we genuflect to that presence. This reminds us that Christ is Lord of all. But if we focus too much on the reserved sacrament we forget the reason for that real presence.
The reserved sacrament is not the central focus of why we gather at Mass. We gather to celebrate the continuing unfolding of Christs establishment of the new covenant. And like any covenant there are two parties: God and us. Only the us includes Christ. This celebration takes place at the altar of the bread and wine and the altar of Gods word. So when the priest and ministers process in, they reverence the altar by bowing. This reminds us of what takes place here in this covenant, how we are transformed into the body of Christ in order that we might transform the world back into a paradise. Notice that the minister carrying the book does not bow to remind us that God is present in the word as God is present in the bread and wine.
When we receive communion, we approach the plate and the cup with reverence. I have had people say they dont understand why those who are not Catholic are not invited to communion. They say, Jesus welcomed all so why cant all come to receive him in the Eucharist? Again, we have to back to the central meaning of the Eucharist, which is to transform us into the body of Christ so we can transform the world according to Gods plan. When we receive communion, the minister says, Body of Christ or Blood of Christ and we say amen. 4 words but oh what meaning. With that one word, Amen, we assent to the truth that what we receive truly is the Body and the Blood of Christ. But more than that, we assent that through this communion, we are the body and blood of Christ, the church of Christ in communion with the one Christ chose to unite us, the Pope. Non Catholics do not believe this so how can we ask them to perjure themselves?
One last element of our ritual needs attention and Fr. Butler has written a short piece on this in the bulletin. Some people choose not to receive from the cup, even though Christ gives us both bread and cup. But the real presence in the cup calls for our respect so instead of rushing past the cup station, pause for a moment and bow slightly to acknowledge that real presence before returning to your place.
Finally, in all of this, remember the point of the Eucharist. We gather to give thanks and praise to the Father for all the wonderful gifts he has given us. The most awesome gift he gives us is his son who transforms us into his body to bring salvation to the world. We come here to be so transformed so we can go out and transform the world by serving God and one another.