Let’s imagine you are taking a course in school, that I am your teacher, and that I have assigned you to write an essay on the Church, asking you to set forth in your essay the true nature of the Church along with describing it to me.
If you devoted your essay to describing your parish and wrote of its nature, structure, and purpose I would not give you a passing grade. If instead you wrote about the diocese, the diocesan offices, departments and commissions, and further wrote about the bishop and his responsibilities, I would not give you a passing grade. If you wrote about the pope, the cardinals, and the offices of the Vatican, I would likewise not give you a passing grade.
The structure of the Church with all of its offices, functions, and presence within the social order of our world, while important and very necessary, is not the Church in its essential reality. The core and essence of the Church is found in what the New Testament calls “The Mystical Body of Christ.” In the Church’s Sacraments we encounter the located presence of the risen, Spirit-filled Christ. And so where do we find the Church? Within us!
Theologians in medieval times used to speak of the Eucharist as the Mystical Body of Christ. Today the phrase is applied to the Church. The duality of that phrase points to an essential teaching, namely that the Church is found in the Eucharist and the Eucharist grounds and locates the Church.
Often preachers and teachers speak of what it means to have a soul. Today we ought to ask ourselves “What does it mean to have a body?”
Well, a body locates us. Because we are created by God to be human beings, we are composites of what is spiritual and what is physical. Both are essential to being human. Angels are not human because they exist in the spiritual mode of being. Animals are not human because they do not have immortal souls. They exist in the physical or material mode of being. We exist in both modes, being in our flesh and blood realities made by God in His image and likeness. In the created world as we presently know it, there exist no other creations of God like us. In all that exists in this world, we are unique, both collectively and individually.
But there is more, something that is astonishingly greater… and that is found in God’s becoming one with us in the Eucharist.
The Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus the Son of God, brings to us God’s very Presence. And not only that, it joins God’s very own life into ours. The Eucharist is not only a symbol; it is more than a symbol. Receiving the Eucharist is receiving within us God’s very own life.
Christ Jesus taught us that truth in a number of instances recorded in Sacred scripture.
In the sixth chapter of St. John’s gospel we find Jesus telling us, “I am the bread of life.” In that same teaching He goes on to declare:
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.” Jesus said to them, “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 within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.
During the Last Supper Jesus, in responding to the question put to Him by one of His disciples, declared:
Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling within him. (John 14:23)
When we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass the priest during the offertory prayers will take a cruet of water and mingle a few drops of water into the wine. As he does so he will pray, “By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” Moments later during the Eucharistic Prayer the priest calls down the Holy Spirit, asking God to consecrate the mingled water and wine into the Blood of Christ. It is in our mingled humanity with Christ’s divinity that the life of God the Son comes to us in the Eucharist, in His Mystical Body. The Church is never more Church than in that moment. In the Eucharist, God’s life and our human life are, by His power, fused together.
We could go on here for hours plumbing into the depth of this wondrous mystery, this inexpressible gift given to us by God. And it is truly a gift; there is nothing we could have done or nothing we could yet do to deserve or merit this gift. It is all pure gift, the gift of the God who loves us beyond anything we could imagine.
Why would anyone ignore or even refuse this gift? And yet, as we all know so very well, many do. You and I have heard any number of excuses made by others, even members of our own families, for not coming to Mass. It’s boring, we are told. Priests don’t preach good homilies, we are told. Those who go to Mass are hypocrites, we are told… and so on, and so on. Excuses, excuses… we’ve heard them all. They all ignore what God is doing here.
What, then, are the reasons we have for being here? What are the reasons we give to others as to why they should be here along with us? Fear of damnation? Fear of going to hell? Why not appeal to them on the basis of love and grateful acceptance of the loving gift of God who wants to belong to us and who wants us to belong to Him in a close, intimate union of love with Him? Why not, instead of turning our backs on it, gratefully and lovingly accept the gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ who suffered so much for us, and even died for us, in order that we might live God’s very life within us both in this life and forever in the next?
The Mass is our celebration of the most beautiful and precious gift that God has given us. May we always receive the Body and Blood of Christ, now and forever, with our deepest respect and love.