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,John 6:52-55
“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.
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.
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