Sunday, February 10, 2013

This changes everything!


I’m currently reading a biography of John Quincy Adams and that got me thinking of one of the major accomplishments in his remarkable career – one that was immortalized in the great Speilberg movie, Amistad which tells the story of a group of slaves who were able to win their freedom with Adams help in the Supreme Court long before slavery was abolished in this country.  There is one poignant scene in the main character is given a copy of the Bible by an Abolitionist.  However, he speaks no English and had never heard of Jesus Christ and so he doesn’t know what the book is.  But, it has pictures in it; and the illustrations fascinated him. At one point, two of them are alone in their jail cell.  One thinks that the other carries the book everywhere simply to impress people and he says to the one looking at the Bible, “No one is watching you here, you can put the book down.”  But the other responds saying, “No, I think I have figured out the story.”  Pointing to the pictures he says, “See, things were very bad for these people, it was a dark time, and they were oppressed.  Worse even than us.”  He flips a page to the scene at the manger in Bethlehem, “But, see here, this boy was born and that changed everything.”  Referring to the drawing which depicts Christ with a halo he said, “You can see that he was very important, even the sun followed him where ever he went.”

Our Scriptures today likewise place before us three people - Isaiah, Paul and Peter.  And they too have an experience of God’s presence that changes everything. Isaiah sees the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne.  God’s presence shakes the door of his house.  His reaction, “Woe is me, I am doomed.”  Paul recounts his own unworthiness at having been called to be an apostle, despite his own persecution of the church.  Paul’s reaction?  “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me has not been ineffective.”  And then Peter, at Jesus’ command catches a miraculous amount of fish.  His reaction? “Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

We see in all three that being in the presence of God changes everything.  And so it should be for us.  God’s presence transforms our perception of the world, our perception of others and most importantly our perception of ourselves.  God makes Himself present to us in the every day events of our lives – through the very act of breathing, the miracle of birth, the wonder of creation, the depth of our loves and our relationships and so powerfully in the Eucharist that we celebrate each and every day; each and every week. 
But, I think our readings are asking each of us today– how do we react to that presence?  We could respond like Isaiah, Paul and Peter who shrink away from God because of a recognition of our sinfulness.  Yet it is precisely because we are sinners that God comes to us; to transform us by His Grace.  Just think of the power of the prayer that we say just before receiving the Eucharist – “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” – the power of that prayer is not in our recognition of our unworthiness, but in the trust that through God’s word – God only needs to utter a simple, Divine word – and we are saved and healed.  Even in the moments when we feel the greatest distance from God; the most lost in our sin or despair; God is always present to us waiting to transform us in His love and Grace.

So, let’s talk a bit about this incredible presence of God in our midst – the Eucharist, and what it means for God to be present there, what it means to say that the bread and wine we offer become the body and blood of Jesus.  We know that we say that the Eucharist is the True Presence of Jesus in His Body and Blood.  But, could we answer the follow up question to that – what does that mean?

First, Jesus established the sacraments as a way of communicating with us.  Through the sacraments, God speaks His love and His grace to His people.  They are a means of real contact with God.  Christ told us that he would be present in his church until the end of time, and He is pre-eminently present in the sacraments.  Of the seven sacraments, the Eucharist stands out above the rest.  The Second Vatican Council reminded us that the Eucharist is the source and summit of what the Church is and does.  In this sacrament we get an insight into what it will be like to be in the presence of God in Heaven.  There is a movement in the Eucharist.  God moves towards us, and in response we move towards God. 

So, what do we mean when we say that Jesus is truly and fully present in the Eucharist?  Someone from the outside might look at what we are doing and say, “It still looks and tastes like bread and wine to me.”  And that wouldn’t be completely wrong.  Our physical senses can confirm that – it doesn’t taste like actual flesh or actual blood – and let’s all thank God for that.  So how do we reconcile these two realities – that it still looks and tastes like bread and wine, and yet we know it is the Body and Blood of Jesus?  What the Church has come to understand over centuries of prayer and reflection is that what God changes is what is most important – its identity.  While the external doesn’t change – the appearance of it is still bread and wine – its identity, the core of its being changes, its identity becomes fully the Body and Blood of Christ.  St. Francis of Assisi named it well when he said of the Eucharist, “Let the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God, is present on the altar in the hands of a priest!  …The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides Himself in an ordinary piece of bread!  Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!”

And there is the key.  So, if the bread and wine are changed most fundamentally in their identity, so what?  If that’s it, we have nothing more than a neat trick.  There has to be more.  And, of course, there is.  But, it absolutely has to be personal.  We have to ask ourselves, am I just here watching this taking place on the altar or, am I entering into it?  Am I being transformed by what I participate in?  Is this a thing being changed – bread and wine – or is this a person – Jesus – entering in.   What is truly amazing and miraculous about the change that takes place in the Eucharist is that it isn’t only the bread and wine that change.  It isn’t only the bread and wine that take on the identity of Christ – it is us too.  We become what we receive.  We receive the Eucharist because we believe that what God has done on the altar, He will do to us.  As God transforms bread and wine into the Body and Blood of His Son, so too through our participation, He transforms us into the Real Presence of His Son in the world.  And now, it begins to make sense.  God can change our identity – He won’t change our physical bodies, those will still be the same – but we know that it is our identity that is really what is important, what is really at the core.  If we fail to believe that our God can make this miraculous change in the bread and wine, how will we ever believe that He can do the same to us?
We receive the Body and Blood of Christ so that we may become the Mystical Body of Christ.  When we respond Amen after receiving, this is both something that identifies us but also calls us, summons us to this great calling to spread the Good News, just as Jesus called Peter in our Gospel today.  So, when we say that we are the Body of Christ, we are also being called to become more and more the Presence of Christ in our world.  We become what we receive.

May the words of God proclaimed to us today reach into our hearts, into our sinfulness and speak to us of the presence of God.  As we encounter the Real Presence of our God in the Eucharist today, may we respond like Isaiah, Paul and Peter with humility, and may we both see Christ appear on our altar and allow that same Christ to enter into our hearts that we today be transformed to become what we receive – the Body of Christ.  “Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He who gives himself totally to you may receive you totally!”

My God, “Only say the word, and we shall be healed.”

May God give you peace.``

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