10 August 2015

Homily - 9 August 2015

The Nineteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Great River Teens Encounter Christ Picnic

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Why did the angel of the Lord say to the prophet Elijah, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you” (I Kings 19:7)? Why did Elijah go “a day’s journey into the desert” (I Kings 19:4)? Because the Israelites wobbled back and forth in infidelity, Elijah proved Ba’al to be a false god and slew 450 of his priests. Being displeased at the loss of so many of her priests, Queen Jezebel wanted Elijah dead. This is why he went into the desert, but where was he going?

He was going to Mount Horeb, a mountain in Egypt also known as Mount Sinai, to the very mountain where the Lord God had so often revealed himself in driving winds, earthquakes, and fires. But Elijah did not find the Lord in any of these powerful demonstrations of force, but rather in “a still small voice,” or, as the Hebrew puts it, in “a sound that was no sound” (I Kings 19:12). Before that stillness, before the very presence of God, the prophet “wrapped his face in his mantle” and presented himself before God in humble fear (I Kings 19:13).

Elijah, then, was actively seeking the presence of God to beg his assistance; he was, we might say, on a pilgrimage, a journey of “forty days and forty nights” (I Kings 19:8). However, to make this pilgrimage, he needed to “get up and eat, else the journey [would] be too long for [him].”

Having found the presence of God, Elijah could rightly sing with the Psalmist, “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears” (Psalm 34:5). But without the proper nourishment, Elijah could not have arrived at the end of his pilgrimage, he could not have arrived in the presence of God; without the proper nourishment, he could only say, “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life” (I Kings 19:4)! Is it any different for us?

Each of us is on a pilgrimage to the house of the Father, a pilgrimage that began the moment we were baptized into Christ Jesus and that will conclude – successfully or not – the moment we die (see John 14:2). Our pilgrimage is also one of a symbolic forty days and forty nights, that is, of continual repentance and conversion. We, too, must have the proper nourishment on our pilgrimage, else the journey will be too long for us and we will be unable to root out “all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling … and malice” from our lives. Without the proper nourishment we will be unable to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven us; we will be unable to gaze upon the beauty of his face (Ephesians 4:31; see also Ephesians 4:32).

On this pilgrimage to the house of the Father, we have many helps and guides. We have the Ten Commandments to mark out the narrow way before us (cf. Matthew 7:13). We have the witness of the saints who shine as great lights upon the path pointing out the way we should walk. We have the Sacred Scriptures through which the Lord continues to speak to his people. We have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which lays out for us a detailed and inspiring understanding of the faith we profess and how the faith should be lived and expressed. Each of these serve as nourishment on our journey, but none is as satisfying as the Bread of Life Himself.

We also have Great River Teens Encounter Christ, which makes use, in one way or another, of all of these various helps. The TEC movement has been in the Quincy area now for nearly 44 years with the express purpose of providing young men and women “a space to reflect upon one’s own ideals, hopes, dreams, and problems; to discover a God that you can believe in … a Christ you can encounter as risen and alive in your midst.” What better space is there to do such reflecting than before the Blessed Sacrament?

This Christ whom we seek to help others encounter is he who says of himself today, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Just a few verses later, he will declare with great authority, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in you” (John 6:53). We must strive to help others encounter, to know, to love, and to serve Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar because Christ is counting on us.

This is a daunting mission, but it is one to which each of us is called, not only through our participation in the Teens Encounter Christ movement, but also – and more fundamentally - by virtue of our baptism. Tonight we give special thanks to God for those men and women who, through their roles as Lay Directors, have helped lead others to Christ and, in a particular way, we pray for those who will serve as Lay Directors this coming year. At the same time, we honor those recipients of the Spirit of TEC award and await a “big announcement” of some sort (that remains a secret even to me).

Because we have gathered here at the altar of the Lord for all of this - and to rejoice in the communion that binds us together in Christ – it is only right that we reflect for a moment on the One we seek to encounter on our retreats: Christ Jesus, the Bread of Life, who has promised, “I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

As if in anticipation of the plea of the two disciples to “stay with us,” the Lord Jesus commanded at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 24:29; Luke 22:19). It is through the Eucharist that the Lord Jesus remains in his Church, present in every tabernacle throughout the world. Christ is counting on us to help others encounter him in the Eucharist, to help them hear what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the never-ceasing silent appeal of [the] Tabernacle,” and to help them satisfy “the sense of starving hunger” in their souls.[1]

Even more than raising funds to defray the cost of our retreats, the primary goal of the members of Great River TEC must be to help others encounter the Eucharistic Lord. This is why the Eucharist is always at the heart of every TEC retreat, reserved in the Wheat Chapel where the Wheaties spend so much of their time praying before him.

The only way to help others encounter Jesus in the Eucharist is if we – each of one of us, young or old, Catholic or Protestant - first hear the never-ceasing silent appeal of the tabernacle ourselves and recognize the sense of starving hunger in our hearts that can only be satisfied by him who is the Bread of Life. This is why Pope Francis said this past Friday, “To see young people like you who believe in Jesus present in the Eucharist … gives me great hope.”[2]

Everyone who believes in Jesus present in the Eucharist gives great hope not only to the Pope but also to the entire world because he or she becomes a reflection of Jesus’ love. They spend so much time in his presence, enjoying a foretaste of the glory and wonder of heaven as they “look to him that [they] might be radiant with joy [and their] face[s] not blush with shame” (Psalm 34:6). As they adore the Eucharist inside or outside of the tabernacle, they look at Jesus and Jesus looks at them. They learn to look upon others with his gaze of love. They learn to “be imitators of God” and to make of their lives “a sacrificial offering to God” which they express whenever they genuflect before him remembering that the Lord himself said, “To me every knee shall bow” (Ephesians5:1, 2; Isaiah 45:23).

It is a lamentable reality that in a recent survey of active Catholics in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois less than 10% of the respondents cited the Eucharist as one of the principle reasons they go to Mass.[3] This demonstrates a lack of understand, appreciation, and love of one of the central tenants of the faith. The Eucharist is not just a mere symbol, but the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus himself; if it were just a symbol, our genuflection would be an act of idolatry toward a piece of bread. To deny the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is to, as Tolkien put it, “call Our Lord a fraud to his face.”[4] This we cannot do; we must instead approach him with faith, saying to him in all humility, “I do believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)!

If the Lord gently beckons to us from his tabernacles, how do we learn to detect his still, small voice? Like Elijah, we, too, must actively seek his presence. We must strive to make the words of the Psalmist our own: “I sought the Lord and he answered me” (Psalm 34:5). Like Isaiah, we must “seek the Lord while he may be found” and “call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:4). If we call upon the Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament, where he is nearer to us than anywhere else, he will answer us and we will slowly learn to recognize his presence, but, like Elijah, only in stillness, as if the eye of a hurricane.

If we quiet ourselves in the presence of the Eucharistic King, approaching him with humble confidence, we will begin to discern a stillness unlike any other, one that can only be found in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. If we remain quiet and still, we will begin to feel a peace that the world cannot give, we will recognize his majesty, and will begin to take refuge in him (see John 14:27; Psalm 34:9). The more time we spend in his presence, the more like him we will become and our efforts to help young men and women encounter Christ will bear ever-greater fruit because they will see him in us – and not ourselves.

The sub-creator of the elven way bread, lembas, called the Blessed Sacrament “the one great thing to love on earth.” There, he said,

you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste - or foretaste - of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.[5]

The Blessed Sacrament is the bread for our pilgrimage through this life, the bread without which the journey will be too long for us. This is why we must always seek to live in such a way that we will be able to receive him without eating or drinking judgment on ourselves and why we should seek to bring others into the full communion of the Catholic Church (see I Corinthians 11:29).

What do we do, then, if we find our faith in the Blessed Sacrament is somewhat weak? What if all of this seems too much to believe? Tolkien gives us the answer:

The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.[6]

We must learn to listen to the never-ceasing silent appeal of the Tabernacle and place ourselves often in his presence.

In just a few moments we will look upon the one great thing to love on earth and will receive him into our hearts. May he increase our hunger for him; may he strengthen our love for him; and may he fill us with zeal to help others encounter him. Amen.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 250, To Michael Tolkien,” 1 November 1963. In The Letters of Tolkien: A Selection Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the Assistance of Christopher Tolkien. (New York, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 340.

[2] Pope Francis, Audience to the Eucharistic Prayer Movement, August 7, 2015. In “Pope: ‘In a world at war, you are a sign of hope.’ A meeting with the Eucharistic Youth Movement.” Asia News, August 7, 2015. Accessed August 8, 2015. Available at http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pope:-In-a-world-at-war,-you-are-a-sign-of-hope.-A-meeting-with-the-Eucharistic-Youth-Movement-34987.html

[3] Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese: Results from Online Surveys of Active and Inactive Catholics in Central Illinois (Lisle, Illinois: Benedictine University, September 10, 2014). See also Thomas John Paprocki, Press Release: “Reflections on ‘Joy and Grievance in an American Diocese,’” November 24, 2014.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Letter 250, To Michael Tolkien,” 338.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter to Michael Tolkien, March 6-8, 1941, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 54.

[6] Ibid.

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