Homilies for May 2016

The Pentecost, by a follower of Bernard van Orely, circa 1530.

The Pentecost, by a follower of Bernard van Orely, circa 1530.

Sixth Sunday of Easter – May 1, 2016
“C” Readings: Acts 15:1-2, 22-29 ● Rev 21:10-14, 22-23 ●  Jn 14:23-29

Living out the New Covenant
The readings that the Church sets before us for this final Sunday of the Easter Season give us good reason to reflect on the relation between the Old Covenant and the New one that Jesus instituted by his suffering, death, and resurrection.

As today’s passage from the Acts of the Apostles explains, the immediate issue in the days of Paul and Barnabas was whether one needed to be circumcised in order to be a Christian. In due time, other issues arose, such as how one was to keep holy the Sabbath, and whether one needed to keep food kosher. In our own day, one hears questions from just the opposite perspective, such as whether Christians really need to read the Old Testament, and whether the Old Covenant still applies, or is simply a vestigial remnant of our history.

Today’s reading from the book of Revelation also bears on the question. In that reading, we find a description of the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Not only does it gleam with the splendor of God, but on its twelve gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of Israel, and on the foundation stones of its massive walls are inscribed the names of the twelve Apostles. The rich symbolism of the Scriptures, here and elsewhere, reflects the Church’s understanding that the New Covenant perfects and completes the series of Covenants that God had made, first with all humanity (the Covenants with Adam and Eve and with Noah), and then with his chosen people (those with Abraham, Moses, and David).

Most Christians are familiar with the words of Jesus when he affirmed that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, and that not even a jot or tittle of the Law would pass away until he brought it all to completion. The early Church showed its comprehension of the meaning of his words in the answer that they gave to Paul and Barnabas in today’s first reading: “It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. If you keep free of these, you will be doing what is right. Farewell.’”

There is no requirement here that Christians be circumcised, or that they keep kosher. Interestingly, what the Apostles chose to communicate concerned certain practices important for keeping the commandments in the New Covenant. Lest there be any hint of the worship of false gods, gentile Christians are to abstain from foods associated with idol worship. Lest there be any doubt that they needed to live out the New Covenant in their daily lives, the Commandment that is emphasized here is the Sixth: out of love for Christ, they are to keep away from unlawful marriages. In short, the items selected have special bearing on what Christians need to know about worship in spirit and in truth. They are only to worship the true God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, in union with the Holy Spirit, and they are to live out the truth by marriages that reflect the union between Christ and the Church.

In the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, it is not surprising to find much reflection on what Jesus says and does in instituting the sacrament of marriage (§64, §216). We might also want to call to mind the way in which Saint John Paul II chose to include the Cana story within the new set of Luminous mysteries that he added to the rosary.  As a miracle story of Christ’s power to change one substance into another, it has long fascinated artists and preachers.  What fascinated John Paul II was surely the presence of Christ and his disciples at a wedding.  So much of John Paul II’s life— long before he became Pope as well as during his papacy—was given to the theme of love and marriage.  His great book, Love and Responsibility, addresses the topic from the standpoint of morality.  The Wednesday audiences from the first four years of his papacy constitute one of his highly original contributions on the subject, the “theology of the body.”

Presumably, John Paul II selected the Gospel story about the wedding at Cana for the Luminous Mysteries so as to encourage us to pray and reflect on the Christian understanding of marriage in the New Covenant, especially in contrast with the understanding of marriage prevalent in contemporary society. Marriage has a special place of honor in God’s plan that it often fails to receive in modern culture.  So much does God esteem marriage that Christ made it a sacrament for the special communication of grace. Where popular understanding is ready to see it as an association that one or both parties can freely terminate by a divorce that would allow them to remarry at will, God considers marriage so sacred and unbreakable that it can serve as a symbol for his own indissoluble Covenant with Israel, and for Christ’s union with the Church. No matter how many times the people of Israel broke the Covenant, God, again and again, called them back to himself.

There is currently a fierce debate over same-sex marriage. Whatever the stance of American law, it is incomprehensible for a Christian that there could even be a debate about this subject.  Christ does not seek another Lord for himself.  The Church does not seek another bride. Rather, he devotes himself wholly to his one Bride, the Church, and he works to render her holy and spotless for the marriage feast that is Heaven. This image of the Church as the Bride of Christ casts light in two directions— on the relations of Christ and the Church, and on the relations of human spouses.  As the Bride of Christ, the Church is the new Israel, and throughout the Old Testament God used the image of the marital covenant to reveal his choice of this people for himself, and his unceasing efforts to prepare her for the coming of his Son.  His fidelity summons her to a response in kind, a response that the Church must strive in every generation to make.

The image also shines a light on human marriages. The claim is not, by any means, that it is only the husband who sanctifies the wife, as Christ sanctifies the Church.  We know all too well that in many marriages it is just the reverse. Rather, the important point is that in every Christian marriage, both the human spouses, aided by the grace of Christ in the sacrament, have the vocation to help the other in the quest for holiness. (And, as we well know, some spouses seem to give their better halves a lot of opportunity to grow in patience and saintliness!)

We could easily list the many reasons for which people get married—for love and romance, for money and prestige, for kids and family. There are good reasons and bad reasons.  But for Christians, the ultimate reason that marriage is a sacrament is that we need help in the process of holiness—the help of a helpmate, as well as the help of grace.

Now, whatever beautiful things a preacher is inclined to say on this subject, that preacher will do well to remember the story of Mrs. McGillicuty. Standing at the back of the church, the pastor asked his faithful parishioner, Mrs. McGillicuty, what she thought of the young curate’s sermon that day on marriage. Her reply: “Why Monsignor, it was so beautiful—why, if I knew as little about marriage as he does, I would have said the same thing!”

We do well to listen to the wisdom of those who have profited from the sacrament. And the special profit of the sacrament is the grace to maintain the promise the spouses made to one another, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, all their lives long.  On my own parents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary, some years ago, (they celebrated 63 years of marriage before my Dad’s death), Mom told the story of another couple’s golden anniversary. “Weren’t you ever inclined to divorce him?” she was asked. “Divorce, no” came the reply, “but murder plenty of times!”  What gets us through is God’s grace. It is not just what gets us through the tough times, but what makes the union of marriage a participation in the mystery of Christ’s New Covenant.

In a marriage that is truly a sacrament, spouses are given the grace of Christ. Rather like the young couple in the story of Cana, who receive from Christ the gift of a wine so choice that the steward cannot imagine why the groom has kept it until last, and not served it earlier so, too, the very first gift that a Catholic couple will receive at their wedding is a gift that comes long before the reception—it is a gift that comes right while they are at the altar.  It is customary for bride and groom at their wedding Mass to receive communion under both species—the chalice, as well as the host.  And in receiving the precious Blood of our Lord, they may taste of a very choice wine, and the Eucharistic grace that will be available to them throughout their marriage, to sustain them on the path to helping one another to grow in holiness and, together, to come to the marriage feast that is heaven.


Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord – May 8, 2016
“C” Readings: Acts 1:1-11 ● Eph 1:17-23 ● Lk 24:46-53

The Last Words of Jesus
There are many instances of the “last words” spoken by famous people. Normally this phrase refers to the final utterances before an individual died. In this respect, we Christians have the tradition of the Seven Last Words, the words of Jesus from the Cross. In many a Catholic Church, the services of Good Friday include sermons on these words, ending with “It is finished.”

But, of course, our Lord rose from the dead, and spoke many things in the course of appearing to various people over the next forty days. Our feast day today is his Ascension, his return to his Father in Heaven, to prepare for sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. What we hear in the Gospel today are truly his last words.  In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus said to his disciples: “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.  And behold I am sending the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”  Today let us consider these, his last words.

In the reading from Acts, we find three themes: (1) His mission was not the political restoration of the kingdom of Israel; (2) God’s mercy shields his people from knowledge about when the end of the world will be; and (3) the Holy Spirit will make his disciples able to be authentic and credible witnesses to what they have seen.  Each one is important.

As Jesus told us, again and again, his kingdom was not of this world. The impulse to political messianism will disrupt many a culture when a sinful form of self-reliance will prevail. Persuasive voices will attempt to harness admiration for Jesus merely as a model for saving ourselves by fixing our economic and political systems. While we certainly do have genuine obligations of justice in the public sphere, we dare not reduce the kingdom of Christ to that dimension. If we would truly imitate him, it will be by doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Secondly, Jesus tells us that it is not within our compass to know the schedule that God has established for the completion of history. One can well imagine the terror that would prevail if we knew that the end was close, or the license that might well be taken if we had reason for confidence that it were far off. Instead, what God has devised for his people is a merciful cloud of unknowing as regards his sense of the proper time. We are to live without fear, and yet to have a healthy fear of the Lord that will keep us alert and watching for his Second Coming.

Third, the Apostles are to play a special role as the witnesses to his resurrection. Were this task entrusted entirely to their natural powers, there might well have been terror-stricken paralysis like that which Peter showed in the courtyard during Jesus’s arrest. But granted the power of the Spirit, the Apostles became witnesses willing to be faithful even to the point of martyrdom in the variety of lands where they preached. And that willingness to die, to give testimony, provides the most powerful sort of witness one can imagine. As St. Paul explains in chapter fifteen of 1 Corinthians, one can imagine why those who stood to gain by holding fast to something they knew to be untrue could be discredited by anyone who would reveal their secret motives. But there is no plausible reason why someone who gains no earthly advantage for insisting, unto death, on something as implausible as the resurrection of someone who died a horrible death on the cross. And further, if it were not true, there would be nothing to gain after their deaths either. It was for the giving of this witness that the Spirit strengthened these men, and all the rest of what is our Christian faith depends on the factuality of the claim to which they testified to the point of accepting martyrdom: He did rise from the dead.

In the account of the Ascension in Luke’s Gospel, we hear two additional themes: (4) the way in which Jesus’s suffering fulfilled what had been foretold in the Scriptures, and (5) the importance of preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins in the course of giving witness to his resurrection from the dead. These are powerful last words.

As every religion in history knows, there is no cleansing of sin without the shedding of blood. Often it was animal blood, as was the case in Israel. The shedding of the blood of birds and goats and oxen was considered inescapable in the daily and annual rituals. And yet, it never sufficed. What Jesus does is to bring an end to that futility by offering, once and for all, a sacrifice of satisfaction. On Holy Thursday, he offers liturgically what he carries out on Good Friday, and at each moment of those awesome days, he fulfills, to the letter, what had been foretold in the Scriptures. Then, among the first of his last words after the resurrection is the lengthy explanation that he gives to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. On that road, he recounted for them the passages in the Scriptures that had foretold his sufferings, his death, and his resurrection. Whatever surprise those disciples experienced in the breaking of the bread, there was no surprise that he spoke of this, yet again, in the last of his last words at the Ascension. They would constitute the basis for the preaching of the Apostles after Pentecost as they showed their countrymen how Jesus truly was the Messiah, and true Son of God, who had suffered on their behalf.

The final theme of these last words is the theme of our participation in his mystery. It is a participation of repentance for our sins, that we might receive the forgiveness of God that he opened for us. As Pope Francis never tires of saying in his homilies, and his interviews, in this the Year of Mercy, that there is plentiful mercy awaiting us, but no mercy without asking for forgiveness, and no authentic asking for forgiveness without repentance of our sins, and earnest intention to change our ways.

His very last words end with a promise—the promise of the Holy Spirit to come upon them. And then he blessed them, and parted from them, returning to his Father.  Then they did him homage, as should we, before they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and praise for God.


Pentecost – May 15, 2016

“C” Readings: Acts 2:1-11 ● 1 Cor 12: 3-7, 12-13 ● John 20: 19-23

The Holy Spirit in Our Christian Lives
Imagine the situation: ten days had gone by since Our Lord had ascended to heaven. The disciples had only just begun to get used to the idea that he had truly risen from the grave.  That fact alone was nearly incredible.  And then there was the utterly curious way he had of appearing to them in the forty days since the resurrection.  They could not simply go and find him at their leisure—rather, he came to them on his own timetable, and especially on the first day of the work week, on what we call Sundays, the first day after the Sabbath.  He would appear to them even inside rooms where they had locked the doors, and huddled out of fear.   Hardly had they grown used to his strange new ways when, strangest of all, he had ascended into the clouds in order to return to his heavenly Father.

Ten days had passed, and they were huddled together again behind locked doors. It must have seemed bad enough when death had taken him away from them the first time, but to lose him again a second time must have seemed unbearable. Their gathering on this particular day seemed no different until they were inside. Outside the house there began to be a noise like a strong, driving wind. Then, without warning, inside the house there suddenly appeared tongues of flame which parted and came to rest on each of the apostles gathered there.  God had come in flame once before—in the burning bush which Moses encountered near Mount Horeb (Exodus 3).  But now the flames that had taken them by surprise burned atop their heads!  Like that bush, none of their hair was singed. Instead, the Holy Spirit came and filled each of them.

The fullness of faith burned away any doubt that may have remained within them. In fact, the tongues of flame on their heads gave new powers to the tongues with which they spoke.  They felt so full of this holy gift that they poured out of the house and started speaking about the marvels of God to the potpourri of Jewish visitors who were just then in Jerusalem, and they heard the apostles in their own languages, in languages the Apostles had never studied or known.  It was just the reverse of the confusion that had overtaken humanity (see Genesis 11) when God had needed to punish the arrogance of the men who tried to storm heaven by a tower of their own building, the Tower of Babel.  In their humility before God, and their trust in what Jesus had told them about his imminent return to his Father in Heaven, the apostles now received powers of preaching that could overcome any misunderstanding and division.

Yet, this wonderful gift of speaking in foreign tongues was only the immediate manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the early Church, and still at work in the Church today. The readings from the first letter to the Corinthians, and from the ancient poetry of the Sequence, bring out the vast range of gifts of the Holy Spirit.  Traditionally, they are enumerated as seven: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord (see Catechism of the Catholic Church #1830-32).  Although they all come from the same source, the Holy Spirit parcels them out differently according to the different needs of the various ministries and works which a given member of the Church will be undertaking.  We need only think of the gift of special fortitude that someone on a dangerous mission will need; or the gift of counsel that will be indispensable in a person to whom others turn for advice.

Through the Gospel read at today’s Mass, the Church would also have us remember some of the special powers which the Holy Spirit began to confer in the early Church, and continues to confer in the sacrament of holy orders. In the passage from the Gospel of St. John that we read today, we hear of the first of Jesus’s appearances to the apostles after his resurrection.  In fact, when this passage is read on Easter Sunday, we naturally focus on the mere fact of his resurrection, and we take delight in the peace he bestows on them.  But in the excitement of Easter and the resurrection, it is easy to miss the reference in that text to the Holy Spirit that is the reason for reading this passage again on Pentecost.

The mention of the Holy Spirit in the blessing Christ gives them is not just to prepare them for the Holy Spirit’s coming at some later time, but already the actual gift of the Holy Spirit as he breathes on them. In fact, it is specifically for one of the gifts that is unique to the sacrament of holy orders: the power to forgive sins.  It was, after all, to redeem us from our sins that Christ suffered and died.  Now he commissions his apostles (and all his priests in the times to come) so as to give us access to that redemption by empowering them to forgive us our sins. And the work, which the Holy Spirit began to do in the Church on that first Easter night, the same Holy Spirit continues to do for the Church ever since.  It is for this reason that we pray, in the course of chanting the special Sequence of this Mass of Pentecost: “Come, Holy Spirit, come! … Heal our wounds, our strength renew; on our dryness pour thy dew; wash the stains of guilt away: Bend the stubborn heart and will, melt the frozen, warm the chill; guide the steps that go astray.”

Our task this Pentecost, and every Pentecost, is to ask again for those gifts that we most need—the special gifts of the Holy Spirit that await those who pray for them. And our task is to make good use of the gifts the Holy Spirit has renewed for the Church in every generation, especially the gift of penance and reconciliation, so that the Lord, who has sent out his Spirit, may renew the face of the earth.

Trinity Sunday – May 22, 2016

“C” Readings: Prov. 8:22-31 ● Rom 5:1-5 ● John 16: 12-15

The Creed: A Summary of Our Beliefs

Each Sunday at Mass, we join in reciting the Creed immediately after the homily. The fact that we do it so often, and the need to keep pace in saying it together as a congregation, can easily bring us to say it without thinking about it. But the nature of the feast today, Trinity Sunday, gives us reason to reflect a bit on what the Creed is, and what we are doing when we profess a creed, so that we can pray it all the more attentively as a sign of our union with the Church throughout the world.

The Creed that we say at Mass is called the Nicene Creed because of the place of its origin: the second Ecumenical Council that met at Nicaea in the year 325 A.D. (the first Council was at Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.). Now, there have been other creeds (that is, statements of belief) that came to be devised in subsequent centuries, including a very beautiful, but too little known, creed called the Creed of the People of God written by Pope Paul VI after the Second Vatican Council.  But even in 325, there already was a much older creed, the Apostles’ Creed.  This is the Creed that we say, for instance, at the beginning of the Rosary. It is thought to have been created by the Apostles, and some even think that its twelve lines reflect the contributions of the twelve Apostles.  The Apostles’ Creed sets the format for all subsequent Christian creeds by its division into three parts, each of which makes various statements of our fundamental beliefs about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The Nicene Creed that the Church has said at Mass ever since 325 A.D. (to be even more accurate, we should note at this point that there were a few small refinements made in this Creed at the third Ecumenical Council, which met at Constantinople in 381 A.D.) reflects this three-part structure, and the resulting concentration on the Holy Trinity is what makes it so appropriate for us to reflect on the Creed today on Trinity Sunday. It is not just that the Nicene Creed is longer than the Apostles’ Creed. The Nicene Creed also tries to be as clear as possible on various points that had come under question by 325. The Church needed to declare the truth of these questionable points so as to prevent members of the Church from holding heretical positions, positions that thoughtful people had, for one reason or another, found attractive, but which actually deviated from the truth about God.

Now, one of the most interesting aspects of the Nicene Creed is that—except for one phrase—it is made up entirely of biblical phrases. The Council of Nicaea was so concerned to hold fast to the tradition which the Church was entrusted by Christ, and so intent on handing it down exactly as it was received, from age to age, that every effort was made to use only biblical words and phrases.  This is why it contains such wonderful phrases as “eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God” when trying to capture a sense of how the Son of God, the second Person of the Blessed Trinity is related to God the Father, the first divine Person.  Every one of those words is somewhere in the Scriptures.

Readings like the first reading at Mass today, the passage from the book of Proverbs, had already given important Scriptural evidence about the Trinity in saying: “The Lord begot me, the first-born of his ways… When there were no depths, I was brought forth… When he established the heavens, I was there….” This is already testimony in the Old Testament about the second Person of the Holy Trinity, but (as is often the case in the Old Testament) the truth being expressed here is still veiled, only to become fully clear with the coming of Christ, the Incarnate Word in the flesh.  What the Church found in the early centuries of reflection on Christ was that well-meaning people understood these Old Testament passages differently, and (to be honest) it is no wonder, given the difficulty of these texts.

If we use this particular passage as our example, some people understood it to report exactly what the Church came to declare in the Nicene Creed as the final and definitive truth on the subject: that the Son of God is God’s Son from all eternity, and that unlike human procreation, which occurs within time, there never was a time when the Son of God did not exist. It is for this reason that the Nicene Creed explicitly calls Jesus “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

Other thinkers had understood passages like the one we read today from Proverbs somewhat differently. Unable to imagine how begetting a son could take place except within time, such that there must have been a time when only God the Father existed, and when the Son did not yet exist, they interpreted this very passage from the book of Proverbs to say that the Son of God is “the first born” and the very best but, nonetheless, a creature.  However much they wanted to honor Jesus, the difference in their approach was immediately clear: this Son of God was better than all the rest of us, but nonetheless inferior to God the Father.

The Council at Nicaea saw the need to stop cold in its tracks this heretical way of thinking, however well-meaning it may have been. Not only did they pile up biblical phrase upon biblical phrase when calling Jesus “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.”  In addition, the Council Fathers saw fit (after long and vigorous debates on the Council floor!) to include one non-biblical phrase in the very next phrase, that is, a phrase that came from philosophical circles, and is nowhere found within the Bible. But they thought that they had to include it in order to preserve the Church’s long-standing faith in the tradition of biblical interpretation that had been handed down from the very beginning: “begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.”

The phrase “one in being with” (in Greek, homoousios, in Latin consubstantialis) is a very precise and abstract way of putting the matter.  It uses the metaphysical language of being and substance, rather than such biblical phrases as “Light from Light.” But it does so only in the effort to make absolutely clear, once and for all, that the second Person of the Holy Trinity is in no way just a creature, but a person who is truly divine.  This is the intent of the phrase “begotten, not made”: it says that the Son of God is truly a Son, and not a creature, but that he is a Son, unlike all the rest of us who only were begotten at some point in time.  He is eternally the Son of the Father, from whom he has received all that he is.

Now, all this could easily sound too abstract and complicated for a homily, and yet we have only touched on just one of the more technical points. Others await us if we would turn to the section on the Holy Spirit. But perhaps, we would do better to stay with just this one point for now, and to consider one of its practical implications.  One of the truths which the Church has come to realize, over the course of time, appears in reflecting on the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel,  where he promises us that “the Spirit of truth,” whom he will send to us, “will guide you to all truth.” That truth is that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, and thus made in the image and likeness of the Trinity, for God is a Trinity. Not only do we bear a certain resemblance to God, but we are supposed to reflect the way God loves in the way we act and think and love.

Here is one of the practical points that can flow from pondering the Trinity through the Creed. The special love of the Son of God for his Father arises precisely from having received all that he is from his Father.  The special love that he eternally shows is gratitude for the utter and complete generosity of the Father.  One respect where we differ from him, of course, is in having been born in time.  Yet, we too have received everything that we are from God through the parents who begot us.  In this respect, what is due from us also is a love of gratitude for having received our being and our life. Cultivating a deeper sense of gratitude, modeled on the divine gratitude shown by the Son to the Father, can be an excellent way of remembering what we have received, and of imitating, in action, the Person of the Son.

The Psalm in today’s Mass encourages this very attitude. By posing a rhetorical question, it already suggests the very answer we have been discussing: “What is man that You should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?”   Why should God care for man?  Precisely because God created man in his own image and likeness.  The love which God the Father eternally shows for his Son has become manifest to us in the care that he exhibited in sending his Son to suffer and die for our sake.  In gratitude for what he had received, the Son undertook this commission without question or pause.  And in this he is the perfect model for the gratitude we in turn should show to God, and to our parents, in using (as St. Paul says in today’s reading from Romans) “the love of God … poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”   This is our privilege: creatures made in the image of the Holy Trinity, and made to love in a way that resembles the way in which each Person of the Trinity loves.


The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – Corpus Christi – May 29, 2016

“C” Readings: Gen. 14: 18-20 ● 1 Cor. 11:23-26 ● Luke 9: 11-17

How a Catholic Receives the Lord
The subways in New York City occasionally feature ads for the Bronx Zoo. One of my favorite advertisements shows an enormous brown bear feasting on fresh fish, and the caption reads: “If you are what you eat, this is sure one funny-looking salmon!”  I certainly hope that the ad lures many visitors to a wonderful zoo.  But the humor in the caption relies on a truth that may prove quite valuable in considering the theme of today’s feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.

In many respects we are what we eat.  That’s why we are so concerned nowadays with having healthy diets, and avoiding the bad kind of cholesterol.  The foods we eat become part of our own flesh, and depending on our bodily condition, we tend to profit from certain kinds of foods, and not from others.  Now, consider how the saying applies to receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. Under the appearance of bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus is our spiritual food and drink.  If we receive the Body of Christ, we should be, and act like, the One we have received.  Sometimes we receive communion so often—every Sunday, or perhaps even every day—that we can forget to reflect on what we are doing, and what effect it has on us.

The passage from the first letter to the Corinthians that is read today at Mass tries to bring out the real significance of this point. After reminding us how the Lord Jesus first took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said the words that transformed it into his own body, St. Paul speaks very directly to us about what we must remember when we receive Holy Communion: “Every time, then, you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes!”  His stress on “every time” makes it clear that he is talking about the regular reception of the Body and Blood of Our Lord, and he is insisting that we take the practice very seriously. We should say what we mean, and mean what we say.  Since this is a very serious thing to say, we need to take it very seriously by understanding what we are doing, and never doing it lightly, or unthinkingly: “Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of Me.”

It was precisely to cultivate this sort of reverence for the Body and Blood of the Lord that the Church instituted the feast of Corpus Christi back in the thirteenth century. Then, as now, it was possible for believers to become indifferent to the magnificence of the miracle by which bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord.  The story is told of a priest in the Church of S. Cristina in the small Italian town of Bolsena, not far from Orvieto—a priest who had lost faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  Out of habit, he still went through the motions of the Mass, but in his heart there was no belief.  But one day, before his very eyes, the host he had just consecrated began to bleed on the white pall.  The utterly unexpected miracle shocked him back into belief.  St. Thomas Aquinas, who was then teaching at the papal court in Orvieto, was commissioned to authenticate this miracle.  To this day, the blood-stained pall hangs as a relic in a side-chapel of the Cathedral in Orvieto, and each year we still recite (as we did today at Mass just before the Gospel) the Sequence which Aquinas later wrote for the feast of Corpus Christi.  Many Churches sponsor special processions with the Holy Eucharist carried in the monstrance for veneration by the faithful.

But even without such wonderful miracles, we need to offer the Body and Blood of Our Lord worthy reverence before, during, and after receiving him in Holy Communion. The respect we need to show beforehand consists, first of all, in good preparation for Holy Communion.  It should be our practice to get to confession on a regular basis (such as once a month) in order for any sins we have committed to be forgiven, for the Church teaches that we should be in the state of grace when we take Holy Communion. If we have committed any mortal sin—that is, if we have knowingly and deliberately committed any grave offense against God, we may not receive Holy Communion until we have been to confession and received absolution.  Supposing, however, that we have no mortal sins to worry about, there could still be the lesser offenses of venial sin. It is good to confess these sins, and that is why it is so important to have the habit of regular confession.  Yet, they need not keep us from Holy Communion—in fact, it is precisely to gain the strength to confess and overcome even such venial sins that we are encouraged to prepare ourselves to receive Holy Communion worthily by sincerely making an act of contrition before we approach the altar.  In fact, the Church aids this process even by including such prayers as the Lamb of God, and the Lord, I am not worthy, in the Mass just before the distribution of communion.

It is also good to remember that preparation for Holy Communion includes a certain period of fasting. Although the Church has vastly shortened the fasting time before Holy Communion to just an hour, it can be a virtuous practice to abstain from food for an even longer time than that, precisely in order to feel a bit of hunger, or at least to avoid the feeling of being already full, when we come for Holy Communion.  The sacraments, after all, are visible signs instituted by Christ to give us grace, and the fasting which the Church directs us to do here can help us to appreciate the visible sign of this sacrament all the more.  And by the way, it is very important that we never judge a person whom we happen to notice not to be receiving communion on a certain day, for it may not at all be the case such people have something on their conscience—they may simply not have been able to fast that day, or not have been able to prepare themselves adequately.  We need to respect their consciences, just as we would want them to respect ours, if we should be in a position to have to refrain from receiving Our Lord on a certain day.  And we need to remember not to be afraid to remain in our pews if we are not prepared to receive Our Lord worthily.

Second, it is important to show Our Lord the proper reverence when actually receiving his Body and Blood. We do well to consider the very way in which we take the host.  If we are using the traditional manner, we might want to be sure to say our Amen clearly in response to the priest’s words, “The Body of Christ,” and then to close our eyes while allowing the priest to place the host on our tongue.  If we want the priest to place the host in our hands first, we should be sure to place one hand over the other so that the priest can place the host securely on our palm, and then we should take a step away from the line and consume the host before we walk any further—there is just no way to show the Lord the proper reverence if we inadvertently rush away, and eat this Holy Flesh as if we were at a fast food restaurant!

Third, we can increase our reverence for the gift that the Lord is making to us of himself by making sure to pray in thanksgiving after communion. We may have some favorite prayer to say at this point, or we might just want to speak to the Lord who has come into our hearts.  Mindful of the beautiful communion prayers that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, my own favorite prayer to offer from the altar after the distribution of communion is finished goes like this:

Thank you, blessed Lord, for coming within us in Holy Communion, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity.  Abide within us now.  Heal us and strengthen us and sanctify us, and make us more and more like your divine Self.

Often there are beautiful hymns sung in Church at this time to help us express our thanks.  But whether we join in the singing, or just pray in quiet, the important thing is to be sure to offer real thanksgiving for having received so great a gift.

Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J. About Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J.

Father Joseph W. Koterski, S.J. is a Jesuit priest of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. He has been a member of the Philosophy Department of Fordham University since 1992, and is the editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly. He served two terms as president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Among his recent publications is An Introduction to Medieval Philosophy: Some Basic Concepts (2009). On the Fordham campus, he serves as master of Queens Court Residential College for Freshmen. For The Teaching Company, he has produced lecture courses on Aristotle's Ethics, on Natural Law and Human Nature, and most recently on Biblical Wisdom Literature.



    THANK YOU FR. JOSEPH, for the writings during the past month of Sundays. I was very happy to read about the pall with the blood from the sacred host now in the Cathedral at Orvieto, a story I have NOT heard of before. As a person who lives for the Eucharist, I am very pleased to read your writings on the Holy Eucharist. Thank you once again, Blessings, Fr. Bill H. (Australia)