Being Shaped by the Eucharist
Cardinal Francis Xavier Van Thuan was a Vietnamese bishop who was imprisoned by the Communist regime there for thirteen years and eventually exiled from his homeland. He was a man of deep humility and love for the Lord. I got to meet him when I was a seminarian, and he was a kind man of deep faith and joy – despite his difficult life. He tells a story about how he maintained his connection to the Lord and the Mass, even when in solitary confinement for nine years:
The faithful sent a little bottle of wine for Mass, which they labelled "stomach medicine," as well as some hosts sealed in a flashlight…. I will never be able to express my immense joy: every day, with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of my hand, I celebrated my Mass… . At 9:30 pm the lights were turned off and everyone had to sleep. I curled up on the bed to celebrate Mass, from memory…. We made small containers…to reserve the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus in the Eucharist was always with me….
Every time I offer Mass I have the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus, to drink with him the bitter cup. Every day, praying and hearing the words of the consecration, I confirm with all my heart and with all my soul a new covenant, an eternal covenant between me and Jesus, through his Blood mixed with mine.
Today we observe the Solemnity of Corpus Christi: our annual recognition of the sublime Gift of the Eucharist in the Church. Typically, we take advantage of this day to remind ourselves and all the faithful of the True Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, the importance of receiving Communion, and of the reality of the miracle of this re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice for us. All true; I cannot day enough about the power and beauty of the Blessed Sacrament. Like Thomas Aquinas, all I can say is “The Blessed Sacrament is the perfect Sacrament of the Lord’s Passion, since it contains Christ Himself and His Passion.”
However, that does not mean that the homily is over!
For all our tradition and teaching about transubstantiation and True Presence, I want to shift focus from the “thing” of the Eucharist to the effect of Holy Communion. Because, what good is it that the bread and wine change if we do not? Shouldn’t we be able to say with Cardinal Van Thuan, “Every time I offer Mass I have the opportunity to extend my hands and nail myself to the cross with Jesus”? What does it mean to be “nailed to the Cross with Jesus” in our world, in my life?
The miracle of the Eucharist is so much more than transubstantiation. Precisely because it is
Jesus, the Blessed Sacrament must have a real effect in our lives. No one ever walked away from Jesus worse than that came; no one ever encountered Him and remained the same. The Eucharist forms us as it feeds us. Pope St. John Paul the Second taught that “The Apostles, by accepting in the Upper Room Jesus' invitation: ‘Take, eat’, ‘Drink of it, all of you’, entered for the first time into sacramental communion with him. From that time forward, until the end of the age, the Church is built up through sacramental communion with the Son of God who was sacrificed for our sake: ‘Do this is remembrance of me... Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me’.”
Therefore, you and I should seek to be shaped by the mystery of the Eucharist – every time we gather to celebrate it. I want to suggest three ways in which we are shaped by the Eucharist – provided we pay attention to what we are doing!
First, we are formed in Unity. The One Bread and One Cup that feed us are more that just Blessed Species. When we gather in this context, the context of a meal shared and given, we are united as a community. When we eat of Jesus’ Body and Blood, we are confirmed in our unity as the Body of Christ. As John Paul II said, “our union with Christ, which is a gift and grace for each of us, makes it possible for us, in him, to share in the unity of his body which is the Church. The Eucharist reinforces the incorporation into Christ which took place in Baptism though the gift of the Spirit.” Receive Jesus and be united.
Second, we grow in Humility. It is no accident that Jesus chose simple bread and wine to consecrate. In the simple species, we are reminded of the humility of God, who offers Himself to us: vulnerable, weak, open, and also powerful. This is true God-like humility; and it is what we need to learn more than ever. I recall Cardinal Van Thuan, often, as he celebrated Mass in prison with a crumb of bread and two drops of wine. In that simple “handful,” he held the Lord of the Universe, and he was fed and changed. Receive Jesus and be humble.
Lastly, the Eucharist forms us in Charity. The self-giving love with which Christ died for us is the same love that we are taught to share when we are offered the Body and Blood of Christ; because that Body and Blood were always given – offered for others. You who receive the Eucharist: your life is not about you! Receive Jesus and love others.
The Eucharist is the way to Eternal Life. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, Jesus says, has eternal life. But that is not the same life as the world presents it; it cannot be the same life with which we walked in here. It is a life rooted in the depths of God’s love, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and that love will change the world if we allow it. Cardinal Van Thuan, finally, offers us one last Eucharistic encouragement: “Jesus began a revolution from the cross. Your revolution must begin from the Eucharistic table and has to be carried forward from there. In this way you will be able to renew humanity.”