Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Real Presence: A Hard Saying

Here is a homily by Fr. Eric M. Andersen, Sacred Heart in Gervais, for August 26th, 2012    

Dominica XXI Per Annum, Anno B

Our Blessed Lord has just finished telling his disciples that unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood, they have no life in them. His flesh is true meat, and His Blood is true drink. This is too much for some of them. In our Gospel today, they say, “this saying is hard; who can accept it?” As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him (John 6:66). They looked directly into the face of God and rejected Him, turning their backs on Him and walking away. The verse of this scripture is John six, verse sixty six. That is: John six, six six. This is the number of the antichrist, and it is at John six, six six that many of Jesus’ disciples turned away and went back to their former way of life.
It is understandable that they turned away. It seemed unbelievable that He was asking them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. But Jesus did not shy away from telling his disciples this truth, even when He knew that many of them would misunderstand Him and would even turn away from Him. That is authentic love. Isn’t that the way God loves us? He gives us everything, provides for us, and teaches us what He wants from us and how He wants us to live our lives. Then He allows us to freely choose for Him or against Him. But He does not abandon us. Neither does He shy away from the hard truths because the Truth sets us free. No, He allows us to struggle. He allows us to question. He allows us to even reject Him. But He does not reject us. We have the choice to make each and every day until our last dying breath. But when we die and the choice has been made, either for Him or against Him, He will grant us our choice.

So our Lord in the Gospel allowed many of His disciples to go back to their former ways of live and no longer accompany Him. Some people leave the Catholic Church because it holds firm to the hard sayings of Jesus. But if we really explore these hard sayings of Jesus, and we surrender to them, we find that they are actually not hard. We find that these hard sayings are the ones that are truly life giving. We find that it becomes harder not to follow the so-called “hard sayings.” But if we reject the hard sayings and leave, then we miss the opportunity for God to fill our lives with true and abundant joy in living out the faith.
One of these hard sayings is about the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Many Christians do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Even among Catholics it is surprising how many do not believe in the Real Presence. According to the CARA research group out of Georgetown University, as of 2010, 52% of American Catholics believe that the Catholic Church teaches that the Bread and Wine are symbols of Christ’s Body and Blood. Isn’t that strange that so many Catholics would think that? The Church does not teach that. The bread and wine are not symbols of Christ’s body and blood. After the words of consecration, the bread is no longer bread. It looks like bread but it is no longer bread. It is not a symbol of Christ’s body. It is Christ’s Body. After the words of consecration, the wine is no longer wine. It looks like wine, smells like wine, and tastes like wine. But it is no longer wine. It is Christ’s Blood.

When we first encounter the Eucharist, that is all we know. All we know in the beginning is that “this is Jesus.” That is the most important thing. But when we begin to ask how this is Jesus, then our minds want to understand how it can look and taste and feel like bread, but not be bread. How can this look and taste and smell like wine but not be wine? The answer is that God changes it from bread into His Body.

That should not be so hard for us to understand. After all, how is it that a human soul is created? We know that when a child is conceived, a human soul is created from that instant, and that baby’s soul will live forever from that moment forward. It is always an act of creation on the part of God. But then God changes that soul at the moment of baptism. Can we see that change? A person looks exactly the same after baptism as before, but there is quite a change! That person is completely different after baptism because the Holy Spirit is dwelling within him. On the outside, we cannot see that merely by looking at him. God has changed that soul at the words of baptism and the pouring of water.

It is a similar thing when the bread and wine are consecrated and they change from one thing to another thing. We cannot see the change, because externally what was once bread still looks like bread, but it has changed. It is no longer bread. It has changed from one thing to another thing. To understand this more fully, we need to look at what bread is and what Christ is.

First the bread: What is bread? Bread is made of wheat which is ground into some sort of flour, mixed into a dough, and then baked. That is the substance of what it is to be bread. But bread can have many various qualities and still be bread. For instance, it can either be a wafer or a loaf. It can be leavened or unleavened. It can be heavy or light, dark or brown or white. But regardless of those changing accidental qualities, it is still bread.

Now what is Christ? Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity. He is the eternal Son of the Father, equal to the Father, consubstantial to the Father. That means that He is of the same substance as the Father. We know that God is pure Spirit. That is His substance. But God is not limited to being a pure spirit. God can take on any kind of body. So what kind of body would God take on? Before Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and became man it was blasphemy to even think that one could picture God. He could not be represented in artwork because to do so would be idolatry. Imagine that someone might point to a baby in his mother’s arms and say: “look! That baby is God.” But God manifested Himself in that way to us. He descended from heaven by the power of the Holy Spirit was made incarnate in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That was an act of God. The substance of God took on the qualities of his creature man. That did not decrease Jesus’ being as God. His substance as God is unchanged whether He takes on the accidental qualities of a man or a piece of bread.

We also understand in this that God is omnipresent. In other words, He did not come down from heaven, leaving heaven, in order to be conceived in the womb of Mary. He came down, yes, but He never left heaven. He is not limited by space and time. That is why God can be here on this altar and in this tabernacle, and on all the altars and tabernacles around the world and still be in heaven all the while. We do not say that God leaves heaven or comes down from heaven to come into the Eucharistic species. No, we merely say that at the words of consecration: “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” Jesus Christ is fully there and that the bread and wine are no longer. That is an act of God. It is a change of substance that the Church calls transubstantiation.

At first this seemed like a hard saying and many of His disciples left Him to go back to their former ways of life. But those who stayed discovered this hard saying to be a true source of abundance and joy in life. Those who know Jesus in the Eucharist would never leave Him for anything. 

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