Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Eucharist and the Examined Life (Sunday 20.B)

Every Sunday this month we listen to Jesus teach about his Body and Blood. These four passages from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel almost make summertime preaching a breeze, because it’s easy to talk about how wonderful it is to receive the Bread of Life.

But Christian truth and Catholic faith are never quite that simple. On the first Sunday of August, we heard the people listening to Jesus respond “Sir, give us that bread always.” For the rest of the month, we hear them complain. After their initial enthusiasm, the full impact of what Jesus says about the Bread of Heaven becomes too hard to swallow. When this cycle of readings ends next Sunday, you’ll see that many are driven away by what Jesus taught.

It is not easy to look beyond the appearance of bread and wine to see the Real Presence of Jesus. It’s the teaching that most sets Catholics apart from other Christians: on this subject, we’re the true “fundamentalists,” taking Jesus literally in all he says about his flesh and blood.

The great preacher Father Raniero Cantalamessa asks a great question in connection with today’s readings: why not bread and water? That would certainly have pointed to suffering, an important aspect of the Eucharist, which is united with Christ’s sufferings and with ours.

But Jesus did something a bit less obvious.  Wine does indicate suffering—the grapes are pressed, crushed as He was. But wine also represents joy and celebration—as Father Cantalamessa says, we toast with wine, not water.  Yes, there’s pain in the Eucharist—all the pain in the world.  But it is pain redeemed by Christ, something to rejoice over.

And by choosing wine in his infinite wisdom, Jesus took a risk.  Wine can be abused.  So can the Eucharist.  There is no membership card required to enter the Church, as the Mormons have.  Only the most public of sinners can be turned away by the priest. For the rest: it is between the communicant and God. The responsibility is chiefly ours.

But what a grave responsibility! In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul warns that those who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner eat and drink judgment on themselves. This is a very serious matter.

Wine is a wonderful thing; but if we abuse it, we suffer mentally and physically.  The Body and Blood of Christ is infinitely more wonderful; but if we receive it thoughtlessly or unworthily, the consequences can be worse still.

This doesn’t mean we receive Communion with fear.  St. Paul simply says “Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

I suspect we have started to forget this important truth.  In the days when people did not routinely receive every Sunday, or when they confessed every Saturday, an examination of conscience came naturally.  Now, perhaps we’ve all but forgotten the need to make a mental check before receiving Communion.  Is there a grave sin that I have not confessed?  If there is, I should not receive.

Now this teaching must be understood properly: if we have a genuine doubt that a certain sin was grave—perhaps there was something to lessen our freedom or responsibility—we may still approach the Lord’s Table.  But the doubt should be real, not just an excuse.

And I’m not suggesting that the middle of Mass is the ideal time to judge whether we should be receiving the Eucharist. Christian maturity requires regularly examining ourselves. “Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight,” our first reading says, offering a simple formula for growth in the Christian life.

The way of insight requires self-examination—not only as a preparation for Confession and Communion, but to make wise decisions in daily life. As the great Socrates told the ancient Greeks, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Receiving the Eucharist worthily requires knowing ourselves. But even more, it requires knowing Jesus and accepting all He has taught us about this great Sacrament. We must never take it for granted, which is why the Church offers us this intense refresher course every three years.

“This teaching is difficult,” some disciples say to Jesus in next week’s Gospel. “Who can accept it?”

The answer, of course, is “we can.” We can accept it if we live wisely and well, if we know ourselves and our calling, and if we hear and accept exactly what Jesus teaches and promises in this fundamental discourse on the Bread of Life. 

But you haven’t been able to listen carefully to Him on these warm August Sundays, open your Bible at the sixth chapter of John and read it through—someplace with air-conditioning!

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