Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lord, thank you for my belief, help my unbelief


You’ve probably heard before the story of a man who fell off a cliff. Half-way down, he succeeded in grabbing the branch of a tree. As he hung there, dangling, unable to pull himself up yet knowing that if he let go he would fall to his death, he gets an idea. He looks up to heaven and shouts, “Is anyone up there?” A voice comes from heaven, “Yes, I am here. I am the Lord. Do you believe in me?” The man shouts back, “Yes, Lord, I believe in you. Please help me.” The Lord says, “If you really believe in me, you have nothing to fear. I will save you. Now let go of the branch.” The man thinks about it for a moment and then shouts back, “Is anyone else up there?”

My friends, is the man in the story a believer? Of course, he is. In his moment of distress, he turned to God. But, we see that there is a big difference between believing in God and trusting in God. He could not make the so-called leap of faith (or perhaps fall of faith, in his case). We might laugh as we hear this humorous story because maybe we can recognize ourselves in this man. We too believe in God – after all, here we are gathered in Church for the Holy Mass – but sometimes, particularly when the going gets tough, we take matters into our own hands or look for help elsewhere. We believe, yes; but can sometimes be people of little faith and little trust.

If you followed the news this week, you perhaps saw the Pew Survey of religious knowledge in the United States. This study showed that as Americans, we believe, but too often, we do not understand our faith. And, the religious group that did poorest on the survey? I hate to say it – Catholics. Even on the most explicitly Catholic question – “Which of the following best describes the Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? A) The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ; or B) The bread and wine are only symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ?” Only slightly more than half of the Catholics responded correctly. In other words, nearly half of Catholics in the United States do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; they think His presence is merely a symbol.

To this, we hear the words of the apostles in our Gospel reading today, “Lord, ‘Increase our faith.’” Indeed, Lord, increase our faith, increase our trust, and increase our knowledge of You. It’s ironic that Catholics didn’t do so well on the Eucharist question, because it is precisely through the gift of the Eucharist that the Lord responds to this cry from the apostles and from you and me. Pope John Paul II said about the Eucharist, “The Eucharist is the centre of the Church's life. In it Christ offers himself to the Father for our sake, making us sharers in his own sacrifice, and gives himself to us as the bread of life for our journey on the highways of the world. [May] every community…grow in faith and love for the mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord.”

Part of the problem is that as a community, we’ve lost some of the structures that assured our true knowledge of the faith. Many of us were educated by religious sisters who made sure we knew the essentials of our faith. We had parents and grandparents who reaffirmed those beliefs at home. We had tools like The Baltimore Catechism and its question and answer format. For example, here’s what it said about the Eucharist:

Q238. What is the Holy Eucharist? A. The Holy Eucharist is the Sacrament which contains the body and blood, soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearances of bread and wine.

Q242. What happened when our Lord said, This is My body; this is My blood? A. When our Lord said, This is My body, the substance of the bread was changed into the substance of His body; when He said, This is My blood, the substance of the wine was changed into the substance of His blood. This is called transubstantiation.

How many of you remember those questions and answers? Tools like this used to give us a basic language to understand and discuss the doctrines of the Church, like the Eucharist. Today, we have no such tool and many people can’t say anything more than the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ and if challenged beyond that, we’re left without an answer. I think the Pew Survey shows this. “Lord, increase our Faith.”

One of the ways the Eucharist helps to increase our faith is through the invitation placed before us each time we receive. The great Church father, Saint Augustine, said of the Eucharist, “We become what we receive.” My friends, we receive the Body of Christ so that we might become the Body of Christ for the world. The Eucharist isn’t something we watch from “out there” in the pews, rather it is something we must be drawn into. If the Eucharist is no more personal to you today than it was yesterday, last week, last month or last year, then you are still on the outside looking in. This invitation calls us all to lose ourselves in the Eucharist so that we can discover our truest selves in that same Eucharist. It’s a challenging, even dangerous, invitation: Become what you receive. Trust in who Jesus is in the Eucharist and He will show you who you are in His sight.

Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.” Memory is key to understanding how the Eucharist strengthens us. The first Eucharist took place over 2,000 years ago. And yet, through the gift of memory, we are at that Last Supper each time we celebrate Eucharist; not as mere recitation of historical event, but rather through memory that fills in the gap between then and now; that takes away the dividing line between past and present. Jesus becomes real to us again today here in this Eucharist.

The theological word for this type of memory is anamnesis. It is a Greek word that notes a type of memory so profound, so real that what we remember through the power of the Holy Spirit and the action of the priest becomes present again. The bonds of time slip away and we too are now gathered around the table of the Lord just as the disciples were so long ago. We don’t simply recall the Last Supper; at Mass, we are at the Last Supper; in the Upper Room. Christ becomes present before us again – in His word, in His priest, in His people gathered in His Name – and so powerfully in His body and blood made real in their midst on the altar of sacrifice – this altar of sacrifice. “Lord, increase our faith.”

Because we repeat this ritual so often, we can easily forget what – and who – the Eucharist is. We must remember what takes place on this holy altar, we must remember the great and holy things our Lord does for us today as He is truly and physically present in our midst; not as symbol, but as Christ. Jesus just as eagerly desires to eat this meal with us today as he did with His disciples 2,000 years ago.

Lord, we ask you today to increase our faith in Your true and abiding presence in the Eucharist; increase our trust in Your guidance of our lives; increase our knowledge of You so that we may follow You more perfectly. Draw us ever more deeply into this great mystery. Help us to have the courage to believe in Your presence and to become what we receive – the Body of Christ present in our world.

May the Lord give you peace.

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