Preparation for the Eucharistic Congress
At this Sunday’s Mass (apart from the 12 noon Mass at St Wilfrid's) we begin six weeks of reading one single chapter of St John’s Gospel. The sixth chapter of St John gives us the most profound teaching in the whole Bible about the Holy Eucharist.
We are also preparing for a National Eucharistic Congress to take place in Liverpool in early September. Fifteen or so of our parishioners are going. So this seems a good opportunity to have a whole series of homilies in these coming weeks devoted to the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist.
It is our intention to post these homilies on the parish website every week and to provide links to other sources – like the teaching of recent Popes – to help each of us deepen our love and understanding of this greatest of God’s gifts to us. Six weeks is nothing like long enough to do it justice.
Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is a well-known Catholic teacher and preacher. He is to be the keynote speaker at Adoremus in Liverpool next month. Here is a short clip of Bishop Barron speaking about the real presence of Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.
There are some kind of events – weddings, significant birthday parties, cup finals – that people will talk about for ages, and everyone remembers some little detail of it and will throw it into any general reminiscences of the event.
The miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was one such occasion. People would have talked about it and their recollections of it for years afterwards. It was such an awesome occurrence; every little detail would have been treasured. Take that rather quaint little observation, that Our Lord ordered all the left-over fragments to be gathered up, so that none were wasted. Why? After all, it was just bread, everyday bread that had been multiplied. But in another sense, it was not so ordinary. The gospel says Our Lord ‘took’ the loaves. Jesus is God, and thus the bread had been touched by the hand of God. You can’t say that about every loaf, so this bread was indeed extraordinary, special, blessed. To emphasise that, Our Lord directed his disciples, not everyone, the disciples – to gather up the remaining fragments; they were not to be left lying around for the birds to eat.
Of course, in the divine plan of Christ, this event was part of his preparation, laying the groundwork for a still greater miracle by which he would feed people spiritually, with himself, under the appearance of bread. But for the moment, let our minds be filled with the image of the disciples carefully gathering the left-over fragments, because this same mentality is behind the care with which the Church handles the Holy Eucharist during Mass and during Holy Communion.
A foldable square linen cloth called a corporal is placed on the altar upon which the wafers and wine will be consecrated by the priest during Mass. A special plate is used by the server when the priest distributes Holy Communion, held under the chin or hands of those receiving. The clergy here join their thumb and forefinger after the consecration of the Mass has taken place. Again, we ask Why? Because anything made of flour and baked has a tendency to fragment, for small bits to break off. So, being aware of that possibility, and so that we are able to account for every particle/fragment of the Holy Eucharist; so that we can manifest our love and reverence towards Jesus Christ, we use and do these things
Those of you who choose to receive Holy Communion in the hand need to exercise the same care. Check your hand, to see if any small fragment of the Sacred Host remains there, and if so consume it at once. Heaven forbid that any part, however small, should fall and end up on the floor.
But again, some may still not understand, and ask Why all the fuss? Go back to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, and see with what care the bread of that miracle was treated. Or go forward from there to Good Friday, and see with what tender love and reverence Mary and the disciples treated the dead body of Jesus. Then return to the here and now, our own time, in which Christ has arranged and made it possible for him to dwell among us, and to receive him as food in Holy Communion. We must treat Holy Communion with even more love and reverence that the miracle loaves and the dead body of Jesus, because Holy Communion is the living Body of Christ.Ah, yes, some say – that wafer symbolises the Body of Christ which we receive. No – it does not symbolise the Body of Christ. It is most literally and unambiguously, the Body of Christ, Jesus himself. When you look at the Sacred Host, you are looking at Jesus. You receive Someone, not something.
That is why we make a fuss. That is why we must make a fuss. How we treat and behave towards Jesus Christ is a big deal for us. Its what our religion is all about, so if we get that wrong, we’re really lost.
In 1526, the holy bishop, and Yorkshireman, St John Fisher said:
“….when someone observes with attention the periods of spiritual flourishing of the Church and the times of degeneration,……he must realise this: the cause of degeneration in the Church is almost always the negligence and the abuse of this Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. On the opposite side he will notice this: the times of genuine reform and the flourishing of the life of the Church were always preceded by a tender devotion to this Most Holy Sacrament.”
Applying St John’s reasoning to our own times, anyone with eyes to perceive can see that we urgently need to promote and foster understanding of and devotion to, the Holy Eucharist; for the very survival of the Church may depend upon just that.
The words that come straight into my mind are from one of Fr Faber’s popular eucharistic hymns:
Jesus, my Lord, my God my all! How can I love thee as I ought? And how revere this wondrous gift, so far surpassing hope or thought?
If there is a problem knowing what to say out of everything that could be said, there is also a problem in knowing where to begin.
I propose to start by following the advice commonly given to preachers. Begin where people are, start with the here and now!
There are three things that people who come to St Wilfrid’s and St Joseph’s often remark on. If they come to Mass they are struck by the fact that it is almost always possible to go to confession beforehand. They note that the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the middle of the church in a very prominent tabernacle – in St Wilfrid’s complete with a baldacchino, an architectural feature which draws attention to the most important presence in the building. And they note – at least at St Wilfrid’s - that when they approach the altar to receive Holy Communion they have the option of kneeling to receive.
These things all used to be common practice in all Catholic churches. The Oratory Fathers have brought some them back since coming to York. None of them have ever been outlawed by the Church. We have restored them because they express in symbolic form the importance of this Most Holy Sacrament. Symbols - like the possibility of kneeling to receive, sanctuary lamps, beautiful and impressive sanctuaries - convey truth more powerfully and more deeply than words alone ever can. Words reach our minds. Symbols touch our hearts.
But words are powerful too, especially the words of scripture. In the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel our Lord teaches us in a profound way through the inspired writing of St John. He uses the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand to look back to the traditions of his Jewish past. And he looks forward, too, to the gift of himself to the in the form of bread. He uses symbols but he also says very clearly of this gift that it is more than a symbol. As we will hear in a later verse from the same chapter: My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
These symbols help us to answer the question posed by Fr Faber in the words of his hymn: And how revere this wondrous gift, so far surpassing hope or thought?
First of all if the Eucharist is a gift, what kind of a gift is it? I could say that it is a “free gift” – and that would be true at least for us as recipients. Nothing we could ever do could pay for this gift or deserve it. Yet in another sense it is not free. It was paid for on our behalf by the sacrifice of Our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.
And the danger with anything that we receive as a free gift is that we start to value it as such – which is to say we undervalue it or do not value it at all. If somebody gives us a fiver we might be grateful for a short while but it would not last. If they gave us a thousand pounds we might begin to have a sense of responsibility about what we do with it. But what if somebody gave us their kidney or their bone-marrow? This would be a gift that would give us life at the risk of the donor’s life. Would we not start to think then that we should live our new life, in a better way; use the new chance that we have been given to become better people?
This is precisely the reaction we expect in the Gospel when our Lord, by his miracles, gives people back their health, sometimes their lives; forgives their sins or restores them to their families and their friends. These miracles are precisely the gift of life, the gift of the possibility of conversion and change. That is what our Lord expects of those for whom he performs these great works.
In St Matthew’s Gospel the Lord tells us a parable about a wedding banquet. The invitation to the banquet is an undeserved gift. It is a kind of miracle for the poor outsiders invited to the King’s hall. The Holy Eucharist is a parallel. All are invited to the banquet. Some refuse to come and others, the poor and the outcast ARE invited. But still our Lord has hard words for those who DO come but who refuse to change their garments. We cannot accept our Lord’s gift and then refuse the responsibility of allowing him to change us, to re-form us, to make something of the new health, the new strength, the new life we have been given.
So back to the symbols which give meaning to the gift. If we are coming regularly to Holy Communion we should also be going regularly to confession. If we are receiving this great gift we should begin to see it as the centre of our lives. When we approach the altar we may remember the instruction given in the Roman Missal: individual members of the faithful may choose to receive Communion while kneeling. However, when they communicate standing, it is recommended that the faithful bow in reverence before receiving the Sacrament.We make these symbolic acts of reverence precisely because we believe the Jesus Christ is God and that this bread has now become his flesh, for the life of the world.
It is for this reason that the Catholic Church in England and Wales wants to focus our attention once again on the centrality of the Eucharist to our Catholic lives.
Before we reach the end of the sixth chapter of St John’s Gospel there will be many more things to say. But before we get there I should say a few words about today’s Gospel to help us to see how Jesus himself gets the people of his own time to begin to think seriously and ask some real questions about who he is and the gift he is giving them, his own self in the form of bread.
As Jesus was teaching in Tiberias, a multitude of people began to follow Him, “because they saw the signs which He did on those who were diseased”. After a long day the people were tired and hungry, so Philip approached the Lord and asked how they were supposed to feed so many people. Jesus instructed His disciples to gather the five barley loaves and two fish that were available and have the people sit down. Jesus then gave thanks and distributed the food. All ate and were satisfied.
The first miracle of St John’s Gospel – actually Jesus’ own first miracle – is a miracle of transformation, of water into wine. It is a miracle that anticipates the greater miracle of the Eucharist, wine into blood, bread into flesh.
The miracle of today’s Gospel is a miracle of multiplication. It is the miraculous Feeding of the five thousand. This miracle anticipates the extension of the Eucharist through time and space.
This miraculous event contains many significant elements, but I want to touch on one. Like Moses before Him, Jesus provides food for the people of Israel. But He does so in a greater way. Moses called upon the Lord and the Lord provided the Manna from heaven. Jesus took what was available and miraculously multiplied it under His own power. Jesus is a second Moses, a greater Moses.
People were expecting Moses to return before the coming of the Messiah. At first they thought this miracle was the evidence that this had happened: The people, seeing this sign that he had given, said, ‘This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.’
Over the course of Chapter Six the miracle’s full meaning will begin to become clear. The people who witnessed the multiplication of the bread and fish will follow Jesus to Capernaum and come face to face with one of Our Lord’s hardest teachings. They were faced with some hard questions. Who is this man? What are the claims he is making? Can this man really be giving me his flesh to eat? Do I believe? And if I do how should I respond?