First of all, a disclaimer. For those who care about these things, the following is not a homily – that is, a faith reflection on the Scriptural readings – so much as a catechetical sermon. So adjust the dials on your mental receptors from homily to sermon. Now to begin.
While I am confident that HERE at St. Austin’s there is no confusion or doubt about the Catholic teaching that in Mass the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, in some places, I understand, that there is.
The teaching itself is actually fairly clear: The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: #1374 "In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ, is truly, really, and substantially contained.’ This presence is called ‘real’".
Yet according to some surveys in the past two decades, 60 - 65 % of Catholics in the U.S. say they don’t believe that. We will not take a show of hands.
That is a problem. So, on this third week of hearing passages from Jesus on the Bread of Life, I want to talk about our belief in the Real Presence.
The bread and the wine are obviously not physically the Body and Blood of Christ. Simple observation proves that. The consecrated bread and wine don’t smell, taste, weigh, or look like flesh and blood. Yet we state that the bread and wine really and truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. How can the bread and wine be not physically the Body and Blood of Christ, and yet be really and truly the Body and Blood of Christ?
Is there more to reality than just the physical?
Part of the problem is that, in our technological and scientific world view, we identify the physical with the real. But "is that all there is?"
I contend, (and I am in pretty good company with the rest of the Christian Community, at least traditionally,) that such an approach is a much too narrow and cramped concept of reality. There are dimensions of reality beyond the physical.
Love, commitment, beauty, the spiritual, are all real, even if not physical. Their manifestations are physical, and hence capable of being studied, measured, analyzed and explained by science. But the realities themselves exist outside of, or beyond the physical. Who can explain why a person falls in love with one person but not with another? “What does she see in that guy?” we ask.
Beauty is real, and we experience it, even if we cannot explain how it captivates and enthralls us, and we cannot give a complete description of its power to move us.
The same is true with the reality of Presence, specifically the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Consider Presence: Have you ever observed someone be physically present, but not really and truly present? Happens all the time. Especially in hot, stuffy churches during sermons. If any of you are teachers, and it doesn’t make any difference if you teach little children, or high school kids, or college students or post-doc fellows, you most certainly have had the experience of speaking to a group that is physically present but not really all there. If any of you have been a parent to a teen-ager, then certainly you know that someone can be physically present, the atoms of their body are all there, but they most certainly are not.
Now the reverse is also possible: that someone may not be physically present, yet their legacy is so strong in an organization or family, their personality so dominant, the memory of them still so very alive, that the absent person continues to have the same effect on the thoughts and feelings and behaviors of those who remain as when the person was physically there. In effect, that is to say in reality, the person is still present even though physically absent.
Perhaps you have been part of a family gathering where some deceased family member was so remembered and loved and spoken of that, in effect, they were still present. And the effect that the loved one’s presence had in the past still has the same effect even long after she or he is gone. Fr. Bob Scott’s presence was with us at his Memorial on Thursday as we recalled and remembered him.
When Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and the roads of Palestine, His presence made a difference. He had a lasting and profound effect on people. He gave them hope, He healed them, He liberated them from burdens of guilt and sin, He reconciled them to God, to each other, to their deepest self. The earliest disciples experienced this wonderful gift of Jesus’ presence, and knew the kind of effect that Jesus’ presence had on them.
But on Ascension Thursday Jesus passed from this physical world of matter to a higher realm of reality. He was no longer physically present with us.
But He was not gone! For when those same disciples gathered to remember Jesus, and do what He had commanded them to do, they sensed that Jesus was still very much with them. As St. Luke tells us, "they came to know him in the breaking of the bread." (Luke 24:35)
They came to understand that in the Eucharist Jesus was really and truly present to them. The same effect that His physical presence had when He walked among them they now experienced in the Eucharist. Jesus was really and truly present, but not physically present, rather sacramentally present in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine.
This sacramental presence is a real and true presence. Not just a symbolic reminder of Jesus, but His actual presence with the power to effect deep and profound changes in us: to heal, to console, to forgive, to encourage. Indeed, this Real Presence in the Eucharist has the power to change us into the Body and Blood of Christ; so that we might have Christ’s life in us, and live - not our lives - but His.
The question is not so much Jesus’ Real Presence - for that is guaranteed by Jesus’ own word: "This is my Body" and "This is my Blood". The Risen Christ will always be present to us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Rather the question is our presence. How present are we to the reality of Christ in this Sacrament and in this gathering of disciples?
Are we all here? Do we pay attention? Do we participate? Do we join in the singing and responses? Do we open ourselves to being touched and transformed by The Lord? Or do we bring just a piece of ourselves to Mass, hanging back, keep our distance, afraid of connecting with other believers, afraid of the intimacy of deep union with Christ, a union so deep that we truly eat His flesh and drink His blood, take His life into us, and become one with Him? That is pretty intimate. And so our presence is the real question. So Jesus says to us today:
"Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,
and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.
Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” AMEN.