When I was about four or five, my mother announced one day that she was going to the store and intended to buy, among other things, a new toy for me to play with. For some reason—I don’t remember what—I didn’t want it. I wasn’t being polite; I was being stubborn, and so I said, “No, you’re not.” When she answered, “Yes, I am,” I repeated, “No, you’re not,” but she insisted, “Yes, I am”—and, of course, she won the argument. She bought me a toy, even though I didn’t want it; eventually I got used to it and started playing with it. In looking back at this event now, I can’t recall why I was opposed to the idea of receiving another plaything, and I certainly think it was strange or at least unusual behavior to act that way. Fortunately, I did finally begin playing with it—otherwise it would have been wasted.
Gifts which aren’t accepted and used are of little value, and they certainly don’t achieve their purpose. Most of us have had the experience of receiving presents which we don’t need, don’t like, or don’t know what to do with; we usually end up putting them in an attic or closet, give them away as gifts to someone else, or donate them to a rummage sale. It’s all right to treat earthly gifts this way (as long as we don’t hurt the giver’s feelings), but we must never be indifferent about the gifts God gives us. This is most especially true of the Eucharist. Jesus offers Himself to us as the source of true and everlasting life, but this gift has value only if we receive it humbly and gratefully.
In her book The Way of Perfection, the great 16th century mystic St. Teresa of Avila has a quote I’ve always loved. She writes, “The gift Our Lord intends for us may be by far the best [for us], but if it is not what we wanted we are quite capable of flinging it back in His face. That is the kind of people we are; ready cash is the only wealth we understand” (Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. III, p. 431). That very down-to-earth observation points to a sad but undeniable reality: we can be quite obnoxious in our ingratitude, especially when it comes to spiritual gifts offered by our heavenly Father.
In the Gospel of John (Chapter 6), Jesus describes Himself as the Bread of Life, the living bread come down from Heaven. We receive this bread, the Body of Christ, in the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. This Sacrament is a source of everlasting life; it provides spiritual nourishment, so that we can live out and grow in our faith amid the problems and worries we face each day. The grace Jesus offers is indeed the greatest and most valuable gift we can possibly receive, but, like every gift, we must be willing to accept it and use it. To benefit from Christ’s generosity, we have to overcome three obstacles.
The first difficulty or danger is to think that we don’t need Our Lord. The Jews mentioned in the Gospel murmured against Jesus when He called Himself the bread from Heaven. They thought they knew all about His origins, and they refused to follow Him unless He produced more miraculous signs—the loaves and fish He had already multiplied in their presence weren’t enough. Many of them rejected Him and would not take His words seriously; today many people refuse to believe in Christ or practice any kind of faith, choosing instead to place all their hopes in this world. Such persons mistakenly believe they don’t need religion, and so God’s gift to them is wasted.
A second and more common danger or temptation is wanting to give up when we experience failure, and forgetting that God will help us in our need, if only we trust in Him. The prophet Elijah had tried heroically to preserve true worship of God among the people, but he failed, and then had to flee for his life. He no longer wanted to try anymore—but we also see that God continued to care for him. Today we have many reasons to be discouraged—abortion and the culture of death, nuclear weapons and the threat of war, terrorism, crime, poverty, a dismal economy, and our own personal worries and problems—but we also have a reason to take heart. God is with us, and will help us in all our needs, if only we let Him.
Third, the most likely temptation we might face is to act in a way that contradicts our faith in Jesus. St. Paul gives us some examples: showing bitterness or anger, using harsh words toward others, and acting out of malice or ill-will. Certainly there are times when we’re upset with others, but the more energy we use in these instances, the less we have for responding to Christ. For this reason, St. Paul calls us to be kind, compassionate, and mutually forgiving toward one another. This is the way we accept Jesus ourselves and share Him with those around us.
There was once a prisoner serving a life sentence. His case was brought before the governor, who decided to issue a pardon—but to everyone’s shock, the prisoner refused to accept it, no matter how much the warden urged him to do so. The matter was brought before the state supreme court, which eventually ruled in the prisoner’s favor—namely, if a pardon was refused, it would not take effect, and the prisoner could not be released.
We can’t easily understand why someone would turn down a gift, such as an official pardon; it’s more important, however, that we don’t make this same mistake when it comes to the gifts God offers us. While we ourselves would never reject Scripture, Tradition and the teaching authority of the Church, the Sacraments, and all the other riches of our Catholic heritage, these divine gifts can easily be taken for granted or set aside and forgotten—and this is a great and wasteful mistake. Sometimes we’re given physical or material gifts we don’t really need or want; perhaps they’re the wrong size or color, something not in line with our taste, or just plain useless to us. God’s gifts, however, are always exactly what we need—especially the gift of the Eucharist. We mustn’t ignore or waste the graces Jesus offers; rather, we must accept them and allow them to make all the difference in our lives.