Really Present — 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C

The Pew Research Center, which conducts surveys on religious belief in America, published a poll this week which asked self-identifying, Catholic adults this question:

Regardless of the official teaching of the Catholic Church, what do you personally believe about the bread and wine used for Communion? During Catholic Mass, the bread and wine…
  1. Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or
  2. Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

65% of respondents said that the bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus while only 30% said the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus. This is discouraging, but I’m inclined to think that many people are misunderstanding the question.

As you know, when the priest says the words of Consecration at Mass (“This is my body… This is the chalice of my blood”) what we see with our eyes appears unchanged. What the priest holds still looks like bread. What the chalice holds still looks like wine. On well-documented occasions throughout the centuries, Eucharistic miracles have occurred in which Hosts have turned into visible human flesh and the chalice contents have become visible blood. I encourage you to read about and investigate these ancient and modern miracles for yourself. But outside these extraordinary cases, if you looked at the Eucharist under a microscope, or ran a chemical analyses before and after Consecration, the Eucharist would appear unchanged. Catholics who have made their First Communion know the Host doesn’t taste like meat and drinking from the chalice doesn’t taste like blood. So, strictly in this outward sense, when people say “The bread and wine do not actually become the body and blood of Jesus” they are correct. But after the priest’s words of consecration at Mass, are the gifts on the altar just symbols of Jesus’ body and blood? No! Something very real and wonderful occurs.

Now Jesus does give his Eucharistic meal intrinsic symbolic meanings. For example, breaking the bread which is his body and pouring out his blood for us are symbols of his Passion. Separating his body and blood is a symbol of his death. And sharing his meal with us symbolizes our intimate communion with him. Yet, the Eucharist is no a mere symbol, any more than baptism can be called just a washing with water. After the water and words of baptism, a newly baptized person appears unchanged (they have the same height, same weight, same hair and eye color as before) but they have been radically transformed within; the baptized person’s soul is cleansed, they have become a child of the Father, a temple of the Holy Spirit, a new person in Jesus Christ. Likewise, at the Consecration, though appearances remain unchanged, the gifts on the altar undergo a radical transformation; in fact, apart from outward appearances they can no longer truly be called bread and wine at all; for they become the body and blood, soul and divinity, of the living person Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, Jesus’ real presence is really present, and it is no blasphemy to gaze upon the Host and say, “My Lord and my God!

Our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is not something the Church just invented. This teaching goes back to Jesus himself. St. John writes about the Real Presence in his Gospel, St. Paul writes about it to the Corinthians, and the Church Fathers write about it throughout the first centuries AD. God has confirmed this mystery with Eucharistic miracles, as I mentioned before (miracles which occur in no Protestant denomination.) The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist her been our Catholic Church’s teaching from her beginnings to this day.

I am somewhat encouraged that when other polls ask Catholics adults about their belief in the Real Presence in a different way, using different words than in the recent Pew poll, their responses are different as well. When given a choice between saying: “Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist,” or “The bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but Jesus is not really present,” about 60% of Catholics give the first and correct answer. However, we should be only somewhat encouraged by this. Four out of ten Catholics not believing in the Real Presence of Jesus is a tragic and terrible thing.

This week, I visited an old college roommate friend and his wife and children in Oregon. He is a very faithful Evangelical Christian; following Jesus is the most important thing in his life. But he and his family haven’t attended a church on Sundays for some time. It’s partly because he has two very young children, but he also confided over dinner that it’s because he has difficulty seeing the point of going just for a message and some songs. My friend studied in a Protestant seminary and could probably give a better sermon than most preachers. He plays guitar and has a great voice; why can’t he just sing and worship with his family at home? Discussing the recent Pew poll and my plans for this homily with him, he asked me — not to challenge me, but to better understand — “What difference does it make whether Catholics believe in the Real Presence or not? What is the harm in them receiving Communion without holding this belief?” I answered that, without the Real Presence, the Holy Mass becomes optional. And when we skip the Mass we miss out on the source and summit of the Christian life, the most intimate sacramental encounter we can have with Jesus on earth, the Holy Eucharist. And if we do go to Mass and receive Communion without believing it’s really Jesus, we do not receive the fullness of graces he wants to give us, and perhaps — by receiving him unworthily — we are offending him and doing ourselves actual harm.

In a chapter of Luke’s Gospel different from the one we heard today, Jesus asks, “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’?” This is the attitude of a very earthly master. Yet notice what the master does in one of today’s parables. Jesus tells us, “Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, [the master] will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.” This is a parable about the coming of our Lord. We are to be diligent, vigilant, and ready for his Second Coming, or for the unknown day and unknown hour of our death. But Jesus, our Lord and Master, wishes to come to us more than just once at the end of our lives. He would come to us at every Mass. Blessed are those servants whom our master finds vigilant on his arrival on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. They open the doors of their lips and hearts to him receive him. He has returned from the wedding of Heaven and earth and desires to feast with us. Amen, I say to you, he girds himself, gathers us at his table, and proceed to wait on us. And he does not serve us mere things, dead foods, but the greatest gift and nourishment conceivable, his very living self.

Jesus says, “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” What greater thing could be entrusted to us than Jesus in the Holy Eucharist? Let us not spurn but cherish this precious gift of Jesus Christ; let us nor hesitate but dare to share with others this good news of Jesus’ Real Presence here. “Blessed is that servant whom his master on arrival finds doing so.”

One Response to “Really Present — 19th Sunday of Ordinary Time—Year C”

  1. pussywillowpress Says:

    Preach it, Father :)!

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