There is one word that keeps appearing in our readings today – bread. The people of Israel are nourished in the desert, the early bible references to sharing the one loaf situate that ritual in a meal context and Jesus describes himself the bread of life. It is clear from the early Church that this ceremony of bread-breaking was a key part of how they celebrated their identity and their communion with one another through Jesus. Just because they were not able to articulate very clearly why it was important does not mean that they doubted its centrality. But some things are clear to me from the life of the early Church in the scriptures.
Firstly, if we think we have understood the Eucharist, clearly, we haven’t! Jesus speaks of himself as the bread of life. This is not just a statement about receiving Communion. Jesus uses what some of his listeners describe as intolerable language to describe the intimate union which he wants to have with us. If we are not uncomfortable with the words of Jesus, today calls us back to what he said about himself. Holy Communion was never just some sort of holy fuel that we received and that made an instantaneous lodgement in our heavenly bank account. If we are not open to being in intimate communion with Jesus, allowing him to dwell within us, then receiving Communion has lost its roots. Receiving the Lord in the Eucharist is a free gift. But it came at a huge price to Jesus on the Cross. Accepting the Christ who was sacrificed on the Cross means becoming part of his sacrifice. Receiving Christ into our bodies is a very intimate experience. But when Jesus gives himself to us, he asks that we give ourselves to him. Receiving Communion is accepting God’s covenant with us, sealed in the death of Jesus. St Paul, writing about 20 years after Jesus’ death – says that partaking in the Eucharist is a communion with the body and blood of Christ. The reception of the Eucharist is a public statement that we will fulfil our part of the covenant – and allow Christ to be Lord of our bodies and our lives. At the end of this chapter in St John’s Gospel, many walk away and Jesus asks the apostles whether they, too, will leave. Faced with the “intolerable language” that Jesus uses, we are constantly called to decide whether we accept him on his terms – or walk away.
Secondly, the celebration of the Eucharist is an action. We are doing something in memory of Jesus – and not just looking at or sitting in the presence of something or someone. On the road to Emmaus, the two disciples recognise Jesus in the act of breaking the bread. That is why the celebration of Mass is central. Jesus is present when we do what he did as he commanded us to. All the parts of Jesus’ actions are indispensable and sacred. We know the verbs well – take, give thanks, break and give. And that part of the celebration is preceded by what we are doing now. We are allowing the Lord to open the scriptures to us and to let our hearts burn within us – to use the scriptural language of the Emmaus story. Once the Lord has broken the Word for us, then we are better prepared to be in communion with his body through the Bread broken for us. The early Church was aware of this and at an early stage, the Eucharist was reserved for one purpose – so that it could be brought to those sick or absent who were not able to be part of the Sunday action. The reservation of the Blessed Sacrament never was something separate from the celebration of the Eucharist but a continuation of sharing in it. Thus, adoration of the God with us, Emmanuel, before the Blessed Sacrament is not some sanitised honouring of Christ exalted but rather an ongoing participation in what is celebrated in the Eucharist, his sacrificial death. That is why participation in the full action of the Eucharist is central to the life of the Christian community. At present it is a step forward when people can at least gather for private prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. But, from the beginning, the early disciples took part in the complete action which Jesus commanded us to fulfil. Adoration without participation in the Mass, reception of Holy Communion outside Mass, following Mass on the webcam – these are welcome and they can be rich sources of grace. But they are incomplete substitutes for the real thing. Christians long to be able to be gathered as the Body of Christ around the altar and to do each week what has been happening since the earliest years of the Church. That is why every parish has to be actively planning so that we can be God’s people, really and not just virtually. There are no excuses for not doing everything possible to plan so that God’s people can gather safely. Jesus wants to be shared, not hidden. Parishes are not masters of Christ’s presence among us but servants of the Lord who wants to assemble his people so that they can be nourished.
Thirdly, St Paul was very aware that sharing in the one Body of Christ makes us into a single body. We constantly erect barriers between us – barriers of race, class, perceived righteousness. Our Eucharistic sharing proposes a radical equality, not just before God but in how we structure our churches and society. There is no room for the exclusiveness of the Pharisees, boasting of how virtuous they are and looking down their nose at others. A Eucharistic people will never consider how to preserve privilege in Church or outside it. Jesus says that he came to call the sinners, the little ones, the least of his brothers and sisters. Those who dare to receive the Body of Christ are committing themselves to breaking barriers, not to building walls. In Jesus’ own words, those who eat him will draw life from him. But that divine life is in the service of Jesus’ agenda, not ours. Participation in the weekly Eucharist is a counter-cultural statement. In a one-dimensional consumerist world, our weekly gatherings are a statement that we do not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. The challenge for the Church in every generation is not how we ‘get up to date’ and make Jesus less inconvenient. Followers of Jesus have to live with Jesus’ intolerable language. We are called to make him known and loved, not merely to make ourselves popular and palatable.
This time of Eucharistic famine is a unique occasion for us to reflect on the centrality of the Eucharistic Jesus in our lives as Christians. Today’s readings offer huge encouragement to us in that Christ wants to share himself with our scarred and fragile bodies. But Christ’s words are also very challenging. This feast is meant to comfort the afflicted parts of our hearts and to afflict the comfortable parts of our lives. For that grace and challenge, we give God thanks and praise.
- Bishop Donal McKeown is Bishop of Derry. This homily was delivered yesterday on the Feast of Corpus Christi in the Cathedral of Saint Eugene, Derry city.
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