Early in the 20th century, a poor family in Eastern Europe decided to emigrate to the United States. They used the little bit of money they had saved to purchase tickets on an Italian ship. A week before they left, their relatives and friends gave them a farewell party, and presented them with several gifts, including loaves of bread and blocks of cheese. When the family boarded the ship a week later, they found the experience overwhelming. They had never been out of their small village, and few people on board spoke their language, so they went directly to their third-class cabin and stayed there for the entire journey, carefully rationing their bread and cheese so as to make their food last.
By the final day of the voyage their teenage son had become restless, and asked his parents for permission to go explore the ship. When he didn’t return within an hour, the father went looking for him—and to his horror found him in the dining room, eating a big plate of food. The father was afraid he’d be sent to jail, for he had no way of paying for the meal his son had ordered. Seeing his dad’s frightened expression, the boy said, “Don’t worry, Father; it’s free. While we’ve been fasting on bread and cheese, everyone else has been feasting on banquets like this. They’re included in the price of the ticket” (Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, Series II, p. 93).
This is how many people live when it comes to Our Lord’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist: they fail to take advantage of the great banquet Jesus provides. If we take our faith seriously, there’s no excuse for us making this same mistake. We must not ignore the Lord’s invitation to come to His table, and we must not receive Holy Communion irreverently or indifferently. The Eucharist is offered to us as an unparalleled source of spiritual nourishment on our journey—and we must accept it with gratitude.
God in His great love for us invites us to share in His life—and the readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time remind us that, because He respects our free will, this invitation can be accepted or rejected. The Letter to the Ephesians (5:15-20) tells us to live “not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of [this] opportunity. . . .” Proverbs (9:1-6) describes this opportunity in terms of becoming wise, which means valuing the same things God Himself values. Wisdom is described as a beautiful and caring woman; she has prepared a banquet, and invites everyone who seeks truth and understanding to attend. As the Gospel of John (6:51-58) shows, however, not everyone accepts this invitation. After feeding 5000 people by miraculously multiplying loaves and fish, Jesus offered Himself as heavenly bread, capable of giving eternal life. However, many people misunderstood His words, or would not take them seriously. Our Lord spoke the truth, but He could not compel His hearers to believe—and the same thing is true today, almost 2000 years later. Jesus continues to offer us His Body and Blood today, but He does not force anyone to accept.
When it comes to divine blessings and grace, many people journey through life on a starvation diet, when instead they could be receiving a spiritual banquet. This is especially true in three major ways. First of all, quite a few Catholics have left the Church for another religion; in fact, some evangelical pastors say the biggest part of their congregation is comprised of ex-Catholics. There are many reasons people may do this, and some of these reasons may have a certain degree of validity—but this doesn’t change the fact that those who do so are depriving themselves of the greatest spiritual gift God has ever given. Far too many men and women try to make it through life on spiritual slivers or crumbs of bread and cheese, while ignoring the lavish banquet available in the Church. We must do our part to prevent this from happening any further—by helping to eliminate reasons or excuses people give for leaving the Church. We must be friendly, welcoming, and concerned; we must work together to create a community truly alive with faith. When we take the Gospel seriously and try to put it into practice, it’s easier for others to recognize the treasures the Church possesses.
Secondly, there are millions of inactive Catholics, or those who at best come to Mass only once or twice a year. The largest single religious group in the United States consists of practicing Roman Catholics; the second largest group consists of non-practicing Roman Catholics. Like ex-Catholics, members of this second group deprive themselves of the Eucharist. We must pray for them, set a good example for them, and—if the opportunity arises—invite and encourage them to return. Many of them may simply be waiting for an invitation or an expression of interest in their well-being.
A third way in which people fail to receive the fullness of the Eucharist involves persons—perhaps some of us—who approach the Sacrament with insufficient reverence or awareness or gratitude. Because we are offered the very Body and Blood of Christ Himself, the True Bread from Heaven, we must make sure we never take Holy Communion for granted. There’ve been millions of persecuted Catholics throughout history who would have made any sacrifice to receive what’s so readily available to us. We must honor their memory, and also honor Jesus Himself, by participating as fully as we can in the Mass, and by always receiving the Eucharist in a prayerful and loving spirit. The more our hearts are open to Our Lord’s presence in Holy Communion, the more we allow this Sacrament to strengthen us and make a difference in our lives, and the more we become capable of bringing Christ to the world around us.
It’s not only an unnecessary waste, but in some cases, an actual spiritual danger, to go through life without fully accepting and using the graces God offers. As Catholics, the Lord has given more to us than to any other people; He also expects more from us. Rather than being proud, we must be humble and grateful—and above all, we must receive the Eucharist so as to benefit ourselves and others. Each one of us is on a journey, and Jesus truly hopes and desires that we make good use of the spiritual nourishment which only He can provide.