Saturday, May 24, 2008

You will be changed into me

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, May 25, 2008:

In the 13th Century, an Augustinian nun, Sr. Juliana of Liège in Belgium had a vision in which a glistening full moon appeared to her. The moon was perfect except for a dark spot which a voice told her represented the absence of a feast dedicated to the Eucharist. Juliana had tremendous devotion to the Eucharist and so she worked tirelessly for the Church to establish a feast. This led to today's feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for the Body of Christ) first introduced into the church calendar in 1264.

This was a time in history when devotion to the Eucharist and respect for the Body of Christ was very low. All of the rules that we know today about reserving the Eucharist in tabernacles, genuflecting when entering and leaving a church, and treating the Eucharist with respect come from this era. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 had passed several rules on respect for the dignity of the Eucharist. So bad was the situation, St. Francis of Assisi, who also lived at this time, instructed all his friars to go about the world carrying ciboria so that when the found the Eucharist not properly reserved, they could give it a place of reservation and honor.

This continues to be an important feast in our own day because we too live in an era where there is a growing loss of respect for the dignity of the Eucharist among Catholics. We see it every week in simple ways as many people no longer seem to genuflect when they enter the church, the all-too-casual way people come forward to receive the Body and Blood; and perhaps most profoundly in the way that too many Catholics today don't seem to think there's any special reason to go to Mass each week, as though God has somehow eliminated the Commandment to "Keep Holy the Sabbath."

A study that was published just before Pope Benedict's visit last month showed that only 31% of American Catholics attend Mass each week; and only 31% of American Catholics attend Mass each week; and43% of U.S. Catholics think that the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is only a symbol.

We seem to have a lack of understanding regarding the Eucharist today and a feast like this affords us the opportunity to give God collective thanks for Christ's abiding presence with us which is made visible in the Eucharist. It is also an opportunity for us to seek a better understanding of the sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, since the Eucharist is a sacrament of life. It is crucial to understand the Eucharist properly. As St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, "All who eat and drink in an unworthy manner, without discerning the Lord's body eat and drink judgment against themselves."

If we want to understand the Eucharist we need to ask why Jesus gave us this sacrament in the first place. Scripture gives us some answers. Scripture tells us that there are two main reasons Jesus gave us this sacrament. First, Jesus promised to be with us until the end of time. In the Eucharist He provides a visible, tangible means of Him being present to us in a real physical way and of us being present to Him. In the Eucharist, we can literally reach out and touch our God. As Jesus said, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." Secondly, Jesus said that he came that we may have life and have it to the full. In the Eucharist He provides a visible means of communicating this life to us so that we can be fully alive both in this world and in the next. As Jesus said, "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."

The Jews that Jesus addressed gathered to ask Him for more ordinary bread. Jesus promised to give them the sacramental bread and wine instead. But in their worldly frame of mind they could not understand or appreciate the sacrament. They disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus reaffirmed that "My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink." They ended up distancing themselves from the Eucharist because they could not comprehend Jesus' live-giving language in their world of materialism.

The same problem that these early would-be followers of Jesus had is still with us today. If we approach the Eucharist with a materialistic mentality, if we approach the Eucharist scientifically, trying to see flesh or blood under a microscope, we fail to understand and so lose the benefits of such a wonderful gift of God's love. The Eucharist is true food and drink but at the same time it is very different from every other food and drink. The great difference lies in these words of Christ which St. Augustine heard in prayer, "You will not change me into yourself as you would food of your flesh; but you will be changed into me."

When we regularly eat, that food becomes energy for our bodies, but when we eat this bread and drink this cup, the food of the Eucharist transforms us into the body of Christ. We become what we receive. We receive the Body of Christ in the Eucharist so that we may become the Body of Christ in the world. "You will not change me into yourself…you will be changed into me!"

Why then do so many people who receive the Eucharist never experience this radical transformation? Well, there is a story of a team of Russians and Americans who were on an expedition. One of their staple foods was Russian black bread. It was tasty but hard on the teeth. During one meal an American bit into a piece and chipped a tooth. He threw the bread overboard and growled: "Lousy Communist bread." The Russian countered: "Is not lousy communist bread. Is rotten capitalist tooth." My friends, if we do not experience the transforming power of the Eucharist it is probably not on account of a faulty Eucharist but perhaps on account of a closed faith, a closed heart, a perspective that blocks God from changing us.

God does not force transformation on us, He invites us into it. You are today, and at every Eucharist, invited into the transformation. Open the eyes of your heart, open your soul, to let Jesus, really, truly, physically present today in this Eucharist, change you, shape you, mold you to more closely resemble the same Lord we receive. As the words to one of my favorite songs say, "Take my heart and form it, Take my mind transform it, Take my will conform it to Yours."Let us today approach the Eucharist with a convicted faith in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and we shall experience God's saving power and transforming love.

Jesus invites us today, "If you will allow it, you will be changed into me."

May God give you peace!

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