True Food and True Drink

The Church has taught, and Catholics have believed, since the very beginning that the Eucharist is something different. At Mass, ordinary bread and wine and changed into something beyond our imagination: the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Church had established this teaching well before Justin Martyr wrote, around 150 A.D., that only those who believe that the bread and wine are truly the Body and Blood are permitted to partake of the Eucharist. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, around the year 180 A.D., fought heresies, such as some forms of Gnosticism which denied the God became man, on the grounds that this would deny that the Eucharist was Christ’s body and blood. In response, St. Irenaeus asks them: who other than God could do such a thing? Through the centuries and millennia, the Church has never wavered in this teaching. Similarly, through the centuries and millennia, many struggle to believe this teaching. Jesus Christ himself had to confront this unbelief:

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.”
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.

John 6:52-55

It has not changed. Last year, a Pew Research survey said that among Catholics who go to Mass every week only 63% believe in the Real Presence. If you include all of the people who don’t go to Mass, that number drops to 28%. Shockingly, 22% of people who identified themselves as Catholic expressly reject the teaching if the Real Presence of the Eucharist. Many have fallen prey to the idea that the Eucharist is some sort of symbol; however, in John’s Gospel we read that God himself refutes this understanding. What’s more is that in the Greek text it is abundantly clear that Jesus is not speaking about taking a meal with him or, in some symbolic way, consuming his Flesh and Blood. He is demanding not just that we eat his flesh, but that we gnaw and munch and chew on it, as an animal chews on its food. 1 The Eucharist is different than all of the other sacraments, in that it is not simply the power of Christ that becomes present and operates within us. Christ himself becomes present and operates within us. The only way this happens is if the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of Christ. A symbol would not work this way. Flannery O’Connor, in reference to the Eucharist said, “Well, it it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.”2 She was absolutely right. If the Eucharist were a symbol, the Protestants would be right, and the only prudent thing to do would be to leave and to cut our losses now.

The Eucharist is one of those teachings that seem simple, but, in reality, defies all our understanding. Like the mystery of the Holy Trinity, which we celebrated last week, this teaching must be taken on faith. In the verses leading up to today’s passage from John, Jesus speaks of faith. Jesus tells us that belief in Him is essential to eternal life. If we believe in Jesus Christ, that means we must trust him, and if we trust him, then we must trust what he says. We must trust Jesus when he tells us that bread and wine become his Body and Blood. We must trust him when he tells us that we must eat it and gnaw it and munch it to have eternal life.

In the context of right now, I’m sure some might be thinking, “wait a second, if I have to literally eat Jesus, what is the point of this Spiritual Communion everyone keeps going on about?” This is an excellent question. Between a Sacramental Communion and a Spiritual Communion, much is the same. For both, we must prepare ourselves, especially through prayer. We should be in a state of grace, i.e., we should not be conscious of any unconfessed mortal sin. To receive Sacramental Communion, we must also fast from all food and drink—except water and medicine—for one hour, but this would also be praiseworthy for a Spiritual Communion. For both, we should participate to the extent that we are able in the Mass, uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Christ and asking God for his grace to fill our hearts. We should, as Jesus taught his followers in the parts leading up to today’s Gospel, strive to believe in Jesus and ask him to give us the Bread of Life, that is, himself.

The key difference between the two is in the reception itself. In a Sacramental Communion, we are assured that we are receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. We are fulfilling his Gospel command to eat his Flesh and drink his Blood. We receive actual graces due to God being present within us, and to the extent that we have prepared ourselves we are open to many more spiritual benefits. With a Spiritual Communion, the situation is a little different. Primarily, we are not physically receiving our Lord and fulfilling what he says in the Gospel. That does not make Spiritual Communion something unworthy, it simply means that it is different. We still receive many spiritual graces from Spiritual Communion, and God still inflames our hearts with love for him. We cannot allow ourselves to think, however, that Spiritual Communion is a fitting or good “replacement” for Sacramental Communion, because Sacramental Communion is essential for eternal life.

As we celebrate the Mass and approach the Eucharist, the True Presence of God in the Blessed Sacrament, let us strive to spiritually prepare ourselves so that in this Sacrament Most Holy, we may experience a taste of the Living Bread from Heaven, the Food of Angels, and the Sacrament of our Salvation.

Today’s Readings:
June 14, 2020
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (Corpus Christi), Year A
Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a; Psalm 147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Lauda Sion (sequence); John 6:51-58

Sharing the Trinitarian Life

On the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, we ponder how God shares his Divine Life with us.

Homily for Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, 2020.

Text of homily: https://mattsiegman.com/2020/06/sharing-the-trinitarian-life

Sharing the Trinitarian Life

Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” So, I’ve got to ask: is Moses talking about the Israelites fleeing from Egypt, or us, right now? Because, it could be both. Someone recently said to me, “We just need some Jesus!” And it’s so true. We can look around the world today and see stubborn, stiff-necked people who refuse to listen to each other. We see wickedness and sin. It is very easy to think, “where has God gone? Is he even living with us right now? Has he abandoned us while we suffer through a plague and racism and rioting all at once?” Right now, some are reading the Book of Revelation, looking at the world around them, and asking, “is this the end times?”

The answer is, of course, yes. Don’t hear me the wrong way: I am not saying that the world is ending tomorrow, although I also can’t guarantee that it won’t. The truth is this: we have been in the end times since the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is good news, though, because it means that the Kingdom of God is present in the world right now. It means that God is with us, and he has not abandoned us. In fact, he will never abandon us, because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. God was not willing to let the sin of Adam and Eve, the sins of Israel, and our own sins remain. He came to this world and saved us. He extended an offer of kinship to us: through our baptism we entered not just into the Church of God, not just the family of God, but also the Body of Christ himself. We have been initiated into the life of the Most Holy Trinity, but what in the world does that mean? What is the Trinity, and what does it mean to participate in the life of the Trinity?

We can spend the rest of our lives trying to answer this question. Theologians have. Ultimately, we must recognize that sharing in the life of God is a mystery we will never fully comprehend. Even in Heaven, we will never fully comprehend God, because he is so much more infinite in glory and magnificence than our souls, even they are infinite too, can handle. In engineering school, we talked about “levels of infinity.” (According to the internet, we have some 19th century German mathematician named Georg Cantor to thank for this revelation.) This is an area where science can help us understand our faith: some things are more infinite than others. It is, therefore, highly reasonable to say that even though our souls are infinite, they cannot fully comprehend the much more infinite glory and majesty and beauty of God. Perhaps the most profound of these mysteries we could spend eternity ponder is that of the Trinity: the fact that our One God is Three Divine Persons who share One Substance.

Even though we will never fully comprehend the Trinity, we can grasp at it, as a baby grasps toward the light or anything else they don’t understand. St. Paul does this marvelously at the end of his Second Letter to the Corinthians, writing, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In this Trinitarian greeting, which we often use at the beginning of Mass, Paul shines a light on some characteristics of the Trinity. Love is associated with the Father; grace, with the Son; fellowship, with the Holy Spirit. How are these things associated with the persons of the Trinity? St. Thomas tells us that the person causes each of these things within us.1  By loving us, God the Father has caused us to love. Having been sent out of love by the Father into the world to save us, the Son is the source of grace, which is a way of saying that Jesus Christ, by becoming human and conquering sin, made it possible for the Divine Life to reside inside each of us. Having been sent by the Father, through the Son, the Holy Spirit communicates these gifts to each of us and causes our fellowship and communion as brothers and sisters in Christ.

When talking about things so lofty, it is not good to try and fully explain it, so I will not. Instead, let us ponder for a few moments the Trinity, and ask God to share his Divine Life with us. Let us ask him to lift the veil just a little bit, so that we can begin to comprehend the glory of God, the love of the Father, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit in our lives today.

Today’s Readings:
June 7, 2020
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year A
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Daniel 3:52, 53, 54, 55, 56; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18

Podcast link: https://mattsiegman.com/podcast/sharing-the-trinitarian-life/

The Lord God, Merciful and Compassionate

Truly, Jesus is Risen! Alleluia!

Today we celebrate the Octave Day of Easter. While this is the eighth solar day since Easter Sunday (Romans always included the current day, in case you’re wondering), the Church has considered this simply one long day. We also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday today. This insight, of God’s steadfast mercy, can assist us as we continue to reflect on the meaning of the Resurrection in our lives, because the Resurrection—and God Himself—has the concept of mercy at its core. For Easter to truly make sense, we need to know why God did what he did. To know why God did what he did, we need to know more about God, namely: who is this God that we worship? To really answer that question, we need to go even further back in time. We need to understand what makes our understanding of God different than the pagan understanding of the gods. To do that, we need to go back to the time of the Exodus, when God revealed himself to the Israelite people. We must go back to this time, because it is when God Himself tells us what differentiates him from the false gods of the pagans.

In the time of the Exodus, there were many, many religions. With these religions, there were many, many false gods. If you look at the patterns amongst all the ancient religions, two deities tend to be the most important. Baal and his consort Asherah, perhaps under other names, tend to be the most worshipped deities in the ancient religions. Baal was the god of power and Asherah was the goddess of fertility. These were the two traits most desired by ancient peoples, because these two traits seemed to lead to earthly prosperity. You needed power to hold on to what you and your people had, and you needed fertility to grow your people.

The Israelites, however, had an entirely different conception of God. Power and fertility were not the defining traits of God: mercy was. If we read the Old Testament with our eyes open to this reality, we see that God constantly reinforced this understanding. This is, perhaps, most obvious in Exodus 34:6-7. In this passage, God passes before Moses and announces himself, saying “The LORD, the LORD, a God gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love and fidelity, continuing his love for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but bringing punishment for their parents’ wickedness on children and children’s children to the third and fourth generation!” (NABRE) Don’t get fixated on the last sentence there. The English translation here makes God seem very dark. God is declaring that while he forgives our sins, the effects of sin last well beyond the person and the event of an individual sin—but that’s another homily. Instead, let’s look at the first words God speaks of himself. If we go back to the Hebrew (יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן) (Adonai, Adonai, El raḥūm weḥannūn) and Greek (Κύριος ὁ Θεὸς οἰκτίρμων καὶ ἐλεήμων), a slightly more literal translation would be “LORD, LORD, God merciful and gracious.” God considers himself to be, above all, a merciful God. To us, this is obvious, but we live in a world where the Israelite understanding of God, which is also our Christian understanding of God, is dominant. In those days, where most of the world followed deities of power and fertility, most people would have considered this God of Mercy, to be weak and powerless. This is, perhaps, one reason that the Bible tells us the Israelite peoples had such trouble staying faithful to God. Through time, though, we have seen that mercy does conquer all, and the culmination of mercy was when Jesus conquered death on the Cross for us.

How, though? How does mercy prevail over all else? How is mercy more powerful than power and more fertile than fertility? Think about what happens when God shows us his mercy, about what happens when we show mercy. To show mercy implies that something evil has been done. Evil is nothingness. It cannot create; it can only destroy. Evil is predatory upon the good. But when mercy is shown in the face of evil, we deny the evil its goal. We prevent the destruction which was intended by the evil and we turn it into something creative, even if it is solely creative within us. When God shows mercy, it is even more powerful, because in those cases God can take an evil which has been done and re-create something good. God created all of the universe out of nothing, and when he re-creates something destroyed by evil, we call it mercy. Even now we see examples of this. We can easily see the pain and destruction wrought by the evil effects of the coronavirus, but if we honestly look around us, we see that God is creating in the wake of this destruction: the solidarity of people who join together to support their brothers and sisters, the awakening of ingenuity and creativity of science and industry, the emphasis on the common good and recognition that individuals have a responsibility to contribute to the common good.

God’s triumph of mercy despite suffering is a cause for joy. St. Peter writes, “rejoice, when you share in some measure the sufferings of Christ; so joy will be yours, and triumph, when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13 Knox) God’s mercy is not obvious, and it is strange, but through His mercy, death and sin are conquered. God’s mercy blesses us, so that despite the blindness of our senses, we who have not seen can believe. God’s “great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for [us].” (1 Peter 1:3-4 NABRE) God’s consistent response to evil is mercy. His greeting to the disciples today is, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I have sent you.” (John 20:21) God sent his Jesus Christ on a mission of Divine Mercy to humanity. Today, Christ sends us on that same mission. As we celebrate God’s mercy upon us today, let us strive to imitate his mercy in our lives. Let us strive to see his mercy coursing through all the world. Most of all, let us surrender ourselves to the love of the Lord, the Lord God, merciful and compassionate, saying, “Jesus, I trust in you.”

Today’s Readings:
April 19, 2020
Divine Mercy Sunday, Year A
Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 118; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Jesus wept

Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. If there were any doubt, this shows us that from the very beginning, God puts himself into solidarity with us.

Also, here the homily from Pope Francis that I mention: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/homilies/2020/documents/papa-francesco_20200327_omelia-epidemia.html

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Jesus Wept

Jesus Wept (Jésus pleura) by James Tissot

“And Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Death is not something in God’s original plan for mankind. Death is a consequence of sin, that original sin we hear about in Genesis. We don’t have time to get into all of that, but it is critical that we always remember that suffering and death are consequences of humanity’s turn away from God and towards itself. Even at the beginning, though, God had a plan to redeem us. In Genesis 3:15, we encounter what is called the Proto-Evangelium—the first good news—God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” If there were any doubt that God has put himself into solidarity with us, He sent his Son to become one of us, and this divine Son—God Incarnate—wept at the earthly death of his friend. Death makes God weep. Even though Jesus knew he would soon raise Lazarus, even though Jesus knew that death on this earth was not an end, but a beginning, even though he knew all of this: Jesus wept. He became “perturbed,” the Gospel says, that is, he became stern-faced and resolute, and he commanded Lazarus to come out. He showed his absolute lordship over life and death. Jesus shows today that while we may perish on this earth, death is no match for Him.

Here’s the problem, though: if Jesus, i.e., God,  has absolute sovereignty over life and over death, if he hates sin and suffering and death even more than we do because he understands it more fully, if even a temporary death makes him weep, then why does he permit such things to happen? Jesus brings us the answer today. In John 11:4, we heard Jesus say, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Later—without having been informed by anyone—He informs the apostles in verse 14 that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” To rephrase it slightly, God allows Lazarus to die so that many may come to faith because of the mighty that would be wrought by the hands of Jesus.

This all makes me think of the reflection Pope Francis gave on Friday during the extraordinary moment of prayer and Urbi et Orbi blessing. If you did not see it or have not read it, it is excellent. I would that you go to the Vatican’s website, read it, and reflect on it. The Holy Father, reflecting on the calming of the storm in Mark’s Gospel said, ‘we see how [the apostles] call on [Jesus]: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.’1

But how does Jesus care for us when we feel more like Lazarus: dead? Whether we want to admit it or not, something inside each of us has been killed—and many people have been killed—by this pestilence, this viral plague. The pope continues later, this plague ‘exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.’ This plague, then, has been a call from God for us to wake up and remember our glory as human beings: that God emptied himself and became one of us to save us, to save us even from death itself, to save us from not only physical death, but also from a far more deadly and insidious spiritual death. The pope, showing us how God is calling us to glorify him, later continued, ‘[t]he Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love.’

This is no easy task on our part. It requires faith and trust in God. We must believe and be confident in the knowledge that God has and will continue to save us from sin, suffering, and death. This challenge of faith is what Ezekiel confronts in our first reading today. To set the scene: the Israelites are exiled from their lands into Babylon. They are cut off from their temple and their temple worship of the Most High God. The entire book of Ezekiel is built around the message that God will NEVER abandon his beloved children. If you look at the first chapter of Ezekiel, it is, admittedly, a little trippy, but Ezekiel is struggling to communicate a vision of God that has at its core one truth: the throne of God moves. God goes anywhere and everywhere that He desires to go. That hasn’t changed in the last 2,618 years, and it never will. As we stay at home, separated from our parishes, unable to fully participate in worship, we face the same tragic question as the captives in Babylon all those years ago: How can I offer fitting worship to God? How can I truly celebrate the Lord’s day? How can I do these things separated from my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Ezekiel today tells the Israelites that God will open their graces and rise them up from them. God will continue to lift us up from our sorrow and breathe new life into us even now, during this time of challenging separation. And God does not stop there. He promises to bring Israel home. God never told Israel that their temple was not the most fitting place to offer him worship. It was the most fitting place to glorify him prior to the fulfillment of the old covenant and the establishment of the new covenant during the Easter Event. The most fitting place to offer God worship now is when we are assembled as a community to participate in the Easter Event which is made present during Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. God has never taught us otherwise. But as the Israelites learned all those years ago, and as we are being forced to remember now: God will not allow himself to be sequestered or confined to that hour we spend at Church on Sunday. God lives within our hearts at every moment of every day. He desires to be with us and involved in every aspect of our lives. Through this plague, perhaps God is calling us to glorify him by putting our Easter faith back at the center of our lives. The psalmist today cries, ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!’ and ‘With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.’

Let us ask the Lord to increase our faith, so we glorify him every moment of our lives.

Today’s Readings:
March 29, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45