03 August 2019

Homily - The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - 28 July 2019

The Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

In a few moments, we will ask the Lord that “these sacred mysteries may sanctify our present way of life and lead us to eternal gladness.”[1] What is it about these sacred mysteries, what is it about the Holy Mass, that has the power to fulfill our request? It is within these sacred mysteries, “in the presence of the angels,” that we sing God’s praise and “give thanks to [his] name” (Psalm 138:1 and 2). Here at the Lord’s altar, he “is exalted, yet the lowly he sees, and the proud he knows from afar” (Psalm 138:6). It is within these sacred mysteries that we receive “our daily bread,” the Most Holy Eucharist (Luke 11:3).

This past week, the Pew Research Center published findings from a survey titled, “What Americans Know About Religion.” The results were, to be honest, disheartening - but not surprising. This particular survey asked “32 fact-based, multiple-choice questions about topics related to religion.”[2] Just over half of those taking the survey answered all of the questions correctly.

 If the findings truly represent the American people, 87% of us know the definition of an atheist; 81% of us know what Easter is about; and only 58% of us know the “Golden Rule” is not one of the Ten Commandments.

Naturally, all of this is rather concerning, but what is most troubling about the survey concerns Catholics. One of the multiple-choice questions read as follows:

Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? The bread and wine…

·       Actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ
·       Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ
·       Not sure

Distressingly, only 50% of Catholics in the U.S. answered this question correctly; 45% answered it incorrectly; and 4% were not sure. What happened to the other 1%, I do not know.

There is no reason to raise your hand or to vocalize your answer, but I must ask: How do you answer this question? Is the Communion we receive in the Holy Eucharist the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, or is it just a symbol? Catholic faith, of course, knows it to be the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ, who is seated at the right hand of the Father and yet gives us himself as our nourishment and salvation; it is not a mere symbol. Those who say the Eucharist is only a symbol have not seriously read the Gospels or honestly studied the history of the Church. If we come to the Holy Mass without understanding what and, more importantly, Who the Eucharist is, it will be difficult for these sacred mysteries to sanctify our present way of life and to lead us to eternal gladness.

In 1963, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a letter to his son Michael in which the professor wrote with a father’s love about matters of faith. He addressed, among other things, scandals in the Church and, within that context, the Eucharist:

I have suffered grievously in my life from stupid, tired, dimmed, and even bad priests; but I now know enough about myself to be aware that I should not leave the Church (which for me would mean leaving the allegiance of Our Lord) for any such reasons: I should leave because I did not believe, and should not believe any more, even if I had never met any one in [holy] orders who was not both wise and saintly. I should deny the Blessed Sacrament, that is: call Our Lord a fraud to His face.”[3]

How could he use such blunt and forceful language? He could write in this way because he knew the reality of the Eucharistic Lord.

In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Saint John, after the feeding of the five thousand, the Lord Jesus says to the crowd, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Desiring this bread, the crowd says to him, “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34). Whereas before Jesus spoke in somewhat veiled language, now he speaks in very clear and unmistakable terms. He says to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger; and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35-36).

Not liking his words, the crowd “then murmured at him” because, so they said, they knew where he came from (John 6:41). In response, Jesus strengthens his words and says, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Here, we must pause this Gospel passage and remember what Jesus did and said at the Last Supper: “And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). Remember, too, that Jesus, the Living Bread, was born in Bethlehem, a name which means “House of Bread,” and was placed in a manger, that is, in a feeding trough.

Now, when the crowd heard him say, “I am the living bread which comes down from heaven,” they thought he was either a blasphemer or a mad man, and so Jesus asked them, “Do you take offense at this” (John 6:61)? If we did not realize it before, here we can see clearly that Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, for at these words “many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). As they abandon him, we do not find Jesus calling them back; he does not tell them they misunderstood him; he does not weaken his language to make it merely symbolic; no, he holds fast to what he has said and turns to the Twelve and asks, “Will you also go away” (John 6:67)? This leads Saint Peter to give his famous response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Yes, indeed; to whom else can we go? It is precisely through the Holy Eucharist, made present at every celebration of the Holy Mass, that the Lord Jesus gives us his Body and Blood to eat and drink; it is through the Eucharist that he keeps his promise: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Tolkien knew that, taking the Lord Jesus, at his word, he must believe in the Eucharist, not as some want it to be (just a symbol), but as it truly is (Jesus’ Body and Blood). He later went on to write to his son, Michael, saying,

We must therefore either believe in Him and in what he said and take the consequences; or reject him and take the consequences. I find it for myself difficult to believe that anyone who has ever been to Communion, even once, with at least right intention, can ever again reject Him without grave blame. (However, He alone knows each unique soul and its circumstances).[4]

He could say these words, just as blunt and forceful as his earlier words, because he knew that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus is made present to us in the Blessed Sacrament “with love beyond all telling.”[5] Because of this, Tolkien told his son, “But I fell in love with the Blessed Sacrament from the beginning – and by the mercy of God have never fallen out again: but alas! I indeed did not live up it.”[6]

Because it is the Sacrament of the Lord’s own love for us, it is very difficult to live up to the Eucharist. To receive the Lord’s love in so intimate a way requires of us that we freely share the Lord’s love with others. This is why Pope Benedict XVI cautioned us that “a Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented;” if our reception of the Eucharist does not help us grow in holiness, we have not rightly received it.[7] Let us, then, beg the Lord to strengthen our faith in the power of his love and that, through our reception of the Eucharist, we might love and serve both God and neighbor, and so be brought to eternal gladness. May we, too, fall in love with the Blessed Sacrament and, by the mercy of God, never fall out of it. Amen.

[1] Roman Missal, Prayer over the Offerings, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[2] Pew Research Center, “What Americans Know About Religion,” 23 July 2019. Accessed 27 July 2019. Available at https://www.pewforum.org/2019/07/23/what-americans-know-about-religion/.
[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 250, To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Roman Missal, Prayer after Communion, Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 250, To Michael Tolkien, 1 November 1963.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 14.

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