A gift of presence and unifying love

By David Cooley.

Did you know that when you attend Mass you are present — actually present— to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross? Though you can’t see it, it’s as if you were standing right there at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion.

In his encyclical letter, “Ecclesia de Eucharistia,” (“On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church”), Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the memorial of her Lord’s death and resurrection, this central event of salvation becomes really present and ‘the work of our redemption is carried out.’ This sacrifice is so decisive for the salvation of the human race that Jesus Christ offered it and returned to the Father only after he had left us a means of sharing in it as if we had been present there. Each member of the faithful can thus take part in it and inexhaustibly gain its fruits. … What more could Jesus have done for us? Truly, in the Eucharist, he shows us a love which goes ‘to the end’ (cf. Jn 13:1), a love which knows no measure.” (EE, n. 11; cf. LG, n. 3)

Each time we go to Mass, right before receiving Communion, we hear the words: “Blessed are those called to the Supper of the Lamb.” How often do we pause to contemplate how blessed we truly are to be receiving Jesus? I heard it said once that if the angels could be jealous of anything it would be of human beings’ ability to receive the Eucharist. To be sure, the angels worship constantly at the heavenly altar, and each time we go to Mass, whether we realize it or not, we are joining them in their praise. We are participating in the heavenly banquet!

As sojourners in this place of exile, the Eucharist is the strength and nourishment we need as we journey toward our heavenly home. The Church constantly draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist “not only through faith-filled remembrance, but also through a real contact …” (EE, n. 12). The Blessed Sacrament is the reason why, no matter how dark things get, our days are marked with confidence and hope. The Eucharist stands at the center of all that we do and through it we find meaning, mercy, healing and protection.

We learn from Scripture, that the devil’s work, demonic power, is always about division, scattering and separation — and then destruction. The first mark of the Church is that we are One. In the Eucharist we are in communion — union — with God and each other. It is the Eucharist that makes the Church one with Christ. The Eucharist unifies us all as members of the Mystical Body of Christ and unites us to Christ, the head.

Every offering of the Eucharist is simultaneously the sacrifice of those participating at that time, all those united to the Church throughout the world and all those who have entered heavenly glory. When we receive the Blessed Sacrament we become what we receive; we become “another Christ”— Jesus to others, his hands and his feet on earth.

Everlasting life is to be in “common union” with God, to be one with him. We are one with him by receiving his body and blood, just as he taught us: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (Jn 6:56)

God loves us and calls each of us to perfect and everlasting communion with him. He gives us our time on earth as an opportunity to either cooperate with him in achieving this goal or to reject his offer of salvation. In the center of the word “Eu-charis-t,” we find the word “charis,” which, in Greek, means “grace.” It is by the grace of God — a freely given gift — that participation in his divine life is possible and we are truly saved.

The Eucharist also commits us to others, especially the poor. Jesus sacrificed himself for us and we are to lay down our lives for others. At Mass we pray that he makes of us a sacrifice, a holy offering, to God and to others. We read in the first chapters of Genesis that the world was originally created to be in communion with the divine life. Now, through the sacraments, Jesus unites himself to us and makes us all temples of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the fallen world. The Church, the Body of the Christ, in union with Christ the Head, continues his incarnate presence on earth. We grow in sacramental living as Christ lives in us and through us. We are to let God’s love flow through us. We are conduits of his love, sharing it through our humanity.

David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization.

Out of shadows and into truth

Msgr. William Neuhaus.

I enjoyed watching recently an interesting and even somewhat charming British documentary in which Queen Elizabeth II (who even managed a rare joke) handled, examined and talked about the St. Edward Crown, with which she was crowned over sixty-five years ago and which she apparently has not seen since (I suppose she doesn’t keep these things in a dresser drawer), and the newer Imperial State Crown, which she dons on a regular basis to open the British Parliament. She spoke with some knowledge of the history of the great Cullinan “Star of Africa” diamond which adorns the latter crown, and the program featured commentary on the circumstances of its discovery, cutting and placement in the crown (the priceless gem was sent years ago from South Africa to London by regular mail!), as well as a lengthy discussion on the stone’s characteristics, colors, flaws and so forth, which was all news to me and rather beyond anything I know (which is more or less nothing) about diamonds.

Yet, in teaching about the Eucharist, I have often found myself mentioning diamonds — they are proverbial for being (pun intended) multi-faceted, a term which comes to mind when one reads this beautiful quote on the Eucharist from the Second Vatican Council, to be found (n. 1323) in the wonderfully comprehensible and accessible “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which should have a place in the home of every committed Catholic:

“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’”

Sacrifice, memorial, sacrament, bond, banquet … how wonderfully bright is this shining “source and summit,” as the Council calls it, of the Christian life.

The Catechism with great clarity references the centuries of scriptural and Church teaching on the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, including that “summary” which was presented in the sixteenth century by the Council of Trent:

“Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God … that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” (n. 1376)

It sometimes happens that faithful Catholics encounter people objecting to what we believe about the Real Presence by claiming that the Church’s use of that medieval, philosophical term, “transubstantiation,” as well as the development over the centuries of how the Church has sought to honor that Presence, means that what we believe about the Real Presence is some kind of a medieval innovation or exaggeration remote from what the early Church believed about how Christ is present in the Eucharist.

In 1968, in his beautiful yet relatively brief “Credo of the People of God,” and like his successors in many subsequent papal teaching documents, Pope St. Paul VI tried to address that and other modern errors concerning the Eucharist, and perhaps especially concerning adoration of the Eucharist, by describing the use of “transubstantiation” as appropriate while, at the same time, emphasizing that whatever kind of language we may use in describing the change which occurs on the altar, we must always understand that “in the reality itself, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the Consecration, so that it is the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus that from then on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine, as the Lord willed it, in order to give Himself to us as food and to associate us with the unity of His Mystical Body. … And this existence remains present, after the sacrifice, in the Blessed Sacrament, which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of each of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present before us.”

“Our very sweet duty.” Pope Paul appreciated and loved the Catholic impulse quietly and reverently to express our wonder and gratitude for what happens before us at Mass, and for what — for whom — we receive in holy Communion. And so we have, among many other hopeful things in the life of the Church, and shiningly standing out in a troubled and confused world, the phenomenon of parish programs of Eucharistic adoration, including here in our own diocese. It’s always a great and often a moving pleasure, and a reaffirming one, to see how such expressions of our belief in the Real Presence strike converts to our faith.

Msgr. Ronald Knox (preacher, apologist, Bible translator and mystery writer) was a 20th-century English convert, and in a powerful Corpus Christi homily recalled the epitaph of St. John Cardinal Henry Newman, the great 19th-century convert (himself very frequently cited in the Catechism), “Out of Shadows and Appearances into the Truth”:

“When death brings us into another world, the experience will not be that of one who falls asleep and dreams, but that of one who wakes from a dream into the full light of day. Here, we are so surrounded by the things of sense that we take them for the full reality. Only sometimes we have a glimpse which corrects that wrong perspective. And above all when we see the Blessed Sacrament enthroned we should look up towards that white disc which shines in the monstrance as towards a [crack] through which, just for a moment, the light of the other world shines through.” (“Pastoral and Occasional Sermons,” 304)

Msgr. William Neuhaus is a retired priest in the Diocese of Covington.

The Eucharist and our longing for God

Father Michael Hennigen

One of my favorite places to go ever since I was young is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. My family and I would always stay in Gatlinburg, and we still go down as a family every year in the summer.

Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains is spiritually uplifting, a kind of retreat for me. Every morning we go to Mass at St. Mary’s in town and then spend the day out in nature. Nature is God’s “first word” to us, showing us that he created us, he loves us and he sustains us. In the Gospels it is mentioned many times that Jesus would go off alone to pray, to be with his Father, out in the wilderness, up on the mountain alone to pray. Mountains in Scripture are often the place of encounter with God. Psalm 144:5 says, “Lord, incline your heavens and come down; touch the mountains and make them smoke.”

It was about 10 years ago on one of our family trips to the “Smokies” we decided to buy huge inner tubes called River Rats at the Walmart in Pigeon Forge. We went tubing in the Greenbriar and Elkmont areas of the park. We fell in love with this activity and now do it every year. I notice the beautiful mountain streams — the cool, clear, crystal water — and how they keep flowing, they never dry up. The water is refreshing to see, to listen to, and to get in to. It always reminds me of the verse in Scripture, “As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1)

We long for God, we thirst for God, we are made for God. We long for his life — eternal life — to be one with him. As St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Our Lord thirsts for us. Jesus’ words on the cross, “I thirst,” demonstrate that he wants to share his life with us. Only in God is our soul — our thirst — quenched, so that we will never run dry.

In the book of Ezekiel, chapter 47, the prophet speaks of water flowing from the temple giving life to the earth. Jesus is the “New Temple,” as he speaks of himself, his body as the Temple — God with us — and from his side came forth blood and water, the sacramental life of the Church. Water and blood are signs of life.

From the side of Christ came forth his bride, the Church, just as from the side of Adam came forth Eve. He gave us his divine life, his body and blood, the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving,” and we are thankful for the gift of his divine life, which is everlasting life, salvation from sin and death. We long for salvation like a deer longing for flowing streams; our souls thirsts for God.

 Father Michael Hennigen is pastor at Holy Cross Parish, Covington.

Sacred treasure, sacred space

By Father Britton Hennessey.

To me, one of the most moving aspects of the Easter Triduum that accompanies and accentuates the sublime celebration of the Paschal Mystery has always been the dramatic changes that happen in the interior of the church. After the conclusion of the Holy Thursday liturgy, the Blessed Sacrament is reposed in a different location, leaving the main tabernacle empty. Quite often thereafter, linens, candles and other items are removed. When entering the church for the Liturgy of Good Friday and seeing the dark, empty tabernacle, I always experience a deep sense of emptiness that drives home the emphasis of the Lord’s death for our salvation. But shortly thereafter, on Holy Saturday, the Light of the World re-enters our darkened world after rising from the domain of death. The tabernacle remains empty until after Communion when the Risen Lord is once again reposed and is present for his people. If you’ve ever been able to attend the dedication of a new church building or chapel, a similar experience occurs when the tabernacle remains empty until the Eucharist is consecrated for the first time in the new place at the dedication Mass, and when reposed after Communion, the Lord’s Real Presence dwells there.

The tabernacle in each church building serves various functions. As a repository for the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, a treasure worth more than any amount, it’s often constructed with costly metals and may be adorned with jewels, like at our Cathedral Basilica. For the protection of such a priceless treasure as the Eucharist, the tabernacle is locked. But despite being secured, it is accessible for Mass, for Communion to the sick, and for reserving the Eucharist for Adoration. Most importantly, though, it is the physical dwelling place where the Lord is always present to his people.

The dwelling place of the Real Presence of Jesus is sufficient enough to define the tabernacle, but to understand more about its role we have to look to the Old Testament, the 24th and 25th chapters of the book of Exodus. Moses and the Israelites have just arrived at Mount Sinai. The Lord God makes himself manifest to his chosen people (whom he had just delivered from slavery), with flashes of lightning, billowing smoke and peals of thunder. But Moses was to lead the people to the Promised Land, and the Lord desired to accompany them by being present in the Ark of the Covenant. In these chapters from Exodus, construction plans are given for the ark and for various other elements of the Lord’s dwelling. The ark was to be made of acacia wood, have every surface covered in gold, and was to be adorned with angels. In later chapters, after the construction was complete, the Lord descended to his dwelling place in the form of the glory cloud, the Shekinah. It was here that bread was placed in the Lord’s presence in sacrifice and was only able to be eaten by the priests, an early prefiguring of the Eucharist. Later in salvation history, Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem and the Lord dwelt there in the Holy of Holies, an area separated by a large veil. Sacrifices were offered to the Lord day and night.

 

It was important for the people of every generation to know of the Lord’s presence among them. But also, the Meeting Tent was where Moses met with the Lord panim-al-panim … that is, face to face. No one else had such an intimate friendship with the Lord to be able to meet him face to face, only Moses, the people’s intercessor. One element of Moses’ interactions with God that has always fascinated me is the fact that Moses’ face became radiant from being in the Lord’s presence — so much so, that it frightened the people and he was forced to wear a veil.

Despite the many years that have passed since the time of Moses, several things are still the same. First, the Lord still desires to be present to us and to accompany us on this journey through life, and as such, is still very present to us in the most holy Eucharist. Veiled in the outward appearances of bread and wine, Jesus Christ becomes present to his people at each and every Mass. Second, as in the Old Testament, the Lord’s dwelling is still a sacred vessel (the tabernacle) made of precious elements and centrally located in many churches. The sanctuary lamp, a specific and conspicuously placed candle, denotes the presence of the Lord. Finally, like Moses, any amount of encounter with the Lord reserved in the tabernacle (or especially during Eucharistic Adoration) leaves a radiance within our souls. Our faces may not glow as Moses’ did, but our hearts, our minds and our actions cannot help but radiate Christ to the world if we continually place ourselves before the Lord, face to face.

In this life, we face many challenges each and every day that might seek to close our hearts and minds to the Lord’s Real Presence among us. But in each and every Catholic Church, the Lord is reserved in the tabernacle and waits for us to come before him … to speak to him whatever may be on our minds … to show his love to us and transform our souls. Humanity’s most intimate desire is unity with our Lord and Creator because we are made in his image and likeness and can only be truly fulfilled through unity with him. He continues to sustain us at every Mass through the reception of his very Body and Blood, and he makes himself available to us in a real way in every tabernacle in the world. He does this not because he needs us — he does this because he desires us, and he loves us. May we always remember that when the world faces us with adversity, the Lord waits to show us his love face to face.

 Father Britton Hennessey is parochial vicar at St. Timothy Parish, Union, Ky.

The Eucharist: how we should receive this gift

By Father Andrew Young.

“Let the entire man be seized with fear; let the whole world tremble; let Heaven exult when Christ, the Son of the Living God, is on the altar in the hands of the priest.” These words from St. Francis of Assisi should give us pause as we reflect upon the reality of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a sublime gift from God that enables us to enter into a union with Jesus Christ unlike any other. When we receive holy Communion, we are not simply receiving bread and wine. We are really, truly and substantially receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The awesome nature of this gift is something that should fill us with intense joy and we should be awe-struck every time we are in the presence of the Eucharist — because the very same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, worked amazing miracles, suffered, died and rose from the dead is right there in front of us. All too often, however, we can lose sight of this great reality and we can find ourselves approaching the Eucharist in a routine, nonchalant, way that makes it seem like receiving holy Communion is no different from anything else happening in our day. If we find ourselves falling into this category, a look at how the Church says we should approach the Sacrament can be a helpful reminder of the glory in front of us.

Since the Eucharist is the bedrock of our faith, the Church sets certain requirements for one to be able to receive holy Communion. Baptized (or fully received) Catholics who have reached the age of reason (7 years old) and who are not aware of mortal sin and who have observed the Communion fast may receive holy Communion. One who knowingly receives holy Communion while guilty of mortal sin that has not been absolved in confession, receives unworthily and thereby commits the mortal sin of sacrilege. Venial sins do not and should not prevent us from receiving Communion. The grace received in holy Communion forgives our venial sins and fortifies us against temptation to mortal sin. The Communion fast is absolutely necessary as well. All are obliged to not eat or drink for one hour prior to receiving Communion. Water and medicine are always permitted and do not break the fast. Deliberately not observing the Communion fast and still receiving is a mortal sin. Those who are seriously ill, however, and those who care for such persons are not bound by the fast.

Beyond these basic requirements to receive the Eucharist in a fitting manner, we also must make sure our hearts are properly disposed. When it comes to our prayer lives our disposition is of pivotal importance. God hears all of our prayers and answers all of our prayers but how we prepare ourselves for these encounters with God and how we approach God makes a huge difference in how we are able to experience God’s grace in our lives. Think about the last time you received holy Communion. Did you line up, look around the church, wave to a friend, then mechanically stick out your tongue or hand, quickly make the sign of the cross and go back to your pew? Or did you step into the line, try your best to block out any distractions, bow as the sacred Host was elevated in front of you, and then humbly receive the Lord of the Universe into your very person?

In both cases the same things occurred. In both cases you received holy Communion. One case, however, clearly had a better realization of the true gift that was being received and certainly had a greater impact on the one receiving the gift. Our preparation for receiving our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament should begin even before Mass begins; hence the need to fast for a while and to confess any grave sins we are aware of having committed. Once we enter the church, we should spend time in silent prayer so that our hearts are ready to fully enter into the Mass. Throughout Mass, we should try to avoid distraction and continually unite our own prayers and petitions to the prayers being offered by the priest. We should especially offer our own petitions at the moment of the Offertory and in that most sacred moment of consecration, we should be so plugged-in to the action of the Mass that we can truly recognize our Lord and God as he is elevated before us in the sacred Host and precious chalice. All of this should lead up to the moment when we step out of our pews and prayerfully approach the throne of God, disguised as a golden ciborium.

St. Therese of Lisieux once reminded us, “Our Lord does not come down from Heaven every day to lie in a golden ciborium. He comes to find another heaven which is infinitely dearer to him — the heaven of our souls.”

When we receive the Eucharist with the proper disposition and having prepared our hearts for the amazing gift that it is, the Lord’s grace is able to flood our souls and provide us with the strength we need to continue our mission of being true disciples of the Lord in the world. May each of us never lose sight of this precious gift. May we always make every effort to receive the Eucharist in the best possible manner and may we always approach the Eucharist, as St. Francis of Assisi said, with holy fear, trembling and exaltation!

Father Andrew Young is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Maysville, Ky.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ — The new manna

By David Cooley.

In the first installment of “The Eucharist: The Source and Summit” we focused on the doctrine of Jesus’ Real Presence and on prefigurements of the Eucharist in the Old Testament. In this second installment we now turn to the New Testament and will focus on the scriptural scenes and passages that pave the way for the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

Early in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to pray the “Our Father.” (Mt 6:9-15) It’s interesting that, in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to pray for food: “give us this day our daily bread.” This seems the most “human” or “practical” of all seven petitions in the prayer. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to “not be anxious about your life or what you shall eat” (Mt 6:25), yet he invites us to pray for what is necessary each day. Is it possible that Jesus is referring to a “daily bread” that is both physical and spiritual?

The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ teaching against anxiety acknowledge our earthly needs but they also call us to turn our cares and worries over to God. We rest in God’s providence and we are called to have faith — an attitude of trust in the presence of God and openness to his will. It is not a blind trust, but an assent to what has been revealed to us.

So, while there is clearly a straightforward, earthly sense to this petition, there are deeper and higher dimensions as well.

The earthly sense is that we need sustenance to survive, and we should trust that God will take care of us. As, St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) observes: anyone who asks for bread each day is poor. In other words, the prayer presupposes the poverty of the disciples — those who have renounced the world, seek no security other than God and pray for the fulfillment of his kingdom

The deeper dimension is found in the context of the Exodus, when the People of God, wandering in the desert, were fed by God himself with “manna from heaven.” Jesus referred back to that story when he said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3). In this context, “our daily bread” is the Eucharist, the new manna from heaven.

In the fifth chapter of his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” (Ignatius Press, 2007), Pope Benedict XVI points out that the Fathers of the Church were practically unanimous in understanding the fourth petition of the Our Father as a Eucharistic petition. “[I]n this sense the Our Father figures into the Mass liturgy as a Eucharistic table-prayer (i.e. ‘grace’).” (“Jesus of Nazareth,” pg. 154) In other words, the Our Father is our prayer before the meal at our Lord’s Table.

When Jesus feeds 5,000 people by miraculously multiplying bread we are reminded, again, of the miracle of manna in the desert. In the ancient Jewish tradition it was believed that manna was originally from the Garden of Eden but, after the fall of man, was taken away and stored in heaven. Therefore, manna was a perfect food unaffected by sin, and only appeared when God sent a mediator to deliver his people from slavery. It was also believed that the Messiah who was to come would be a new Moses and would bring with him a new manna. In the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:35-59), Jesus repeatedly refers to “manna from heaven,” using it to explain to his disciples how they would be able to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It seems just that the new manna provided by the Messiah would be even more miraculous than the ancient manna provided in the wilderness. Jesus said: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51) When Jesus was in danger of losing many disciples because of this hard teaching he said, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn 6:55)

New Testament scholars widely agree that Jesus is speaking here about the Eucharistic food and drink that he will give the disciples at the Last Supper. If we consider Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse from an ancient Jewish perspective then the Eucharist could never be just a symbol, it must be supernatural bread from heaven. The Eucharist is a gift of himself that Jesus left behind for all time for the people of the New Testament — us. He left us himself in his sacrifice offered under the appearance of bread and wine. It is a manifestation of his boundless love. It is a uniquely intense fulfillment of the promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt 28:20

In the gospels, when Jesus speaks of bread or uses bread to perform a miracle there is always a transcendent message that mankind’s true food is the Logos, the eternal Word. In the Blessed Sacrament the Eternal Word becomes true manna for us, a taste of heaven that we can experience this very day. Being in communion with God, we are sharing in the life of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The Eucharist, our daily bread, is spiritual food for our soul, giving us graces for our journey back to God.

David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization.

Born in Bethlehem — the ‘House of Bread’

By Father Nicholas Rottman.

Okay, I’ll admit it, “O little town of the House of Bread” does not have quite the same ring to it as “O little town of Bethlehem.” But, although not helpful for singing, it may be very helpful for our faith to know that “Bethlehem” means exactly that. The name is old Hebrew and comes from bêth (house) and lehem (bread). As Christians, we recognize immediately the significance. Bethlehem, the “House of Bread,” was the place where Jesus Christ entered the world on that first Christmas morning. How does Jesus describe himself later on in his public ministry? “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (Jn. 6:35). In this passage, Jesus emphasizes that he is the nourishment, the food that we as believers need to strengthen us as we make our pilgrimage through this land of exile. But what sort of nourishment is this? Is it just a purely spiritual nourishment? No.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, Hebrew was not the spoken language of the Jewish people, but rather Arabic. Interesting, the Arabic equivalent of bêth lehem is bêt lahm, which means “house of meat.” You just can’t make this stuff up! Jesus promises that he will feed us not just by some spiritual power or grace but also with his own flesh and blood: “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. […] This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” (Jn 6:55–56, 58) In the holy Eucharist, Jesus provides food for the world — the food of his body, blood, soul and divinity. And God symbolically prefigured all of this through the name of the town where he was born. Christ, born in the House of Bread, has become our food for the journey of life.

This Christmas, we should have a new appreciating of the Nativity Scene thanks to the meaning of “Bethlehem.” There in a manger — a container for holding food and feeding hungry animals — lays the Bread of Life who will sacrifice his flesh to give us new life. Bethlehem is truly both the House of Bread from Heaven and the House of the meat of Christ’s body. Indeed, this is why it is so important that we celebrate Christmas (Christ-Mass) by attending holy Mass and receiving the Body of Christ in holy Communion.

As we prepare for that celebration through the Advent season, let us remember that Christ can come to us every day — every day can be Christmas —because of the holy Eucharist. St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that there are three comings of Jesus Christ (see Sermo 5, In Adventu Domini, 1-3). The first, which we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas, is his coming as man at the Incarnation. The second, which we look forward to with a mixture of anticipation and fear, is his coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of the world. In between these two comings, said St. Bernard, is a third coming. That is Jesus’ mysterious and sacramental coming to us in the most holy Eucharist. By our worthy reception, may we ourselves become a new Bethlehem — a house of the Bread of Life and a house of the meat of Christ’s body in the most holy Eucharist.

Father Nicholas Rottman is a priest in the Diocese of Covington, currently on sabbatical.

The feeding of the five thousand and the Eucharist

By Father Ryan Stenger.

The only one of the miracles of Jesus that is included in all four of the Gospel accounts is his feeding of the crowd of five thousand with miraculously multiplied bread and fish. Obviously this event greatly affected the first Christians and was influential in forming their understanding of the Lord’s identity and mission.

In the Gospel according to John, the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is reported at the beginning of the sixth chapter and is followed by the Lord’s famous Bread of Life discourse, in which Christ explains to the crowd his teaching on the Eucharist, thus drawing a strong connection between the miraculous feeding of the crowd and the sacrament of his Body and Blood that he would institute at the Last Supper. The evangelist also emphasizes this connection in his description of the time and place of the miracle. St. John writes, “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples” (John 6:3). So often throughout the Bible the mountaintop is where God and man come together most profoundly. Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, the prophet Elijah spoke to God in the silent whisper on Mt. Horeb, Christ himself was transfigured in glory on Mt. Tabor, and crucified on Calvary. According to the ancient imagination, the mountain was the place where heaven and earth meet, the symbol of God reaching down to us as we reach up to him.

And St. John also writes, “The Jewish feast of Passover was near” (John 6:4). It was on Passover that the sacrificial lambs were put to death in remembrance of God’s liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Of course, Christ would die on the Cross at Passover time, as the true Lamb of God whose sacrifice saves us from death and liberates us from slavery to sin. And so, with these details, St. John is showing that the miracle that Christ performed in feeding this massive crowd was not simply a matter of providing ordinary food, but that it was symbolic of something much more, that the bread he gave them prefigured the Bread of Life about which he would go on to teach them, the Eucharist — the place where heaven and earth meet, the unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross, the Lord’s sacred Body offered up and his precious Blood poured out.

It’s easy to imagine that enormous crowd of five thousand following the Lord across the Sea of Galilee and up the mountain. They surely must have been hungry and weary and maybe even lost and confused. How many times throughout their lives had they sought for a way to satisfy their hunger, for a place to find rest, for a source of guidance and direction, but been left unfulfilled in the end? But now they have come to Christ. And after they have been fed by him, St. John tells us that they “had their fill” and still there were twelve baskets of bread left over (John 6:12). That crowd stands for all of mankind, because we all have a profound spiritual hunger, a longing for more than what the world can give. Our hearts reach out towards the infinite, the transcendent, the divine, because God has made us for himself. Only in him are we able to have our fill, so to speak.

And it is in the Eucharist that he gives himself to us as food to sustain us on our journey towards him, as the only food that is able to satisfy that most fundamental longing of our hearts. If it were merely a symbol, it would not be enough, but the Lord gives himself to us truly in the Eucharist — his Body and Blood, his soul and divinity. And he gives himself to us not simply in a momentary way during the liturgy, but he remains with us always in the Tabernacle. His presence abides in our midst; he lives within his Church, so that we always have access to him, so that we’re always able to find our sustenance in communion with him.

The Second Vatican Council taught that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life (Lumen Gentium, n. 11). It is in the Eucharist that God lives among us — from him do our lives come and to him are our lives directed. He must indeed be the source and summit of our lives, as a Church, as a diocese, as parishes, as families, as individuals. But sometimes we lose sight of that. It seems so common to hear the Church spoken of as a sort of social service agency, which exists to run hospitals, and schools, and soup kitchens, but then for it to be forgotten that her primary purpose, the reason for all of her activity, is the worship of God. A parish, for example, can do all sorts of great things, but if it doesn’t draw its people closer to Christ in the Eucharist, then it has completely failed in its mission. And it is the same way in our individual lives. We can become so consumed with activity and busy-ness, even good and important and necessary things, that we lose sight of God living in our midst, that we sometimes even tell ourselves that we don’t have time to spend with him and worship him. Sometimes we look for our sustenance and satisfaction in other places; sometimes we direct our lives to other ends.

But the Lord’s miraculous feeding of the five thousand reminds us that only he can truly feed us, only he can satisfy the restlessness of our hearts. May we never look for our happiness apart from him who lives with us always in the Eucharist, so that we might live at all times with him as the source and summit of all that we do.

Father Ryan Stenger, J.C.L., is pastor, St. Joseph Parish, Camp Springs; and judge, Diocesan Tribunal Office.

The Bread of Life discourse — have you come to believe?

By Father Michael Comer.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life within you.” Jesus spoke these words to a group of his disciples — those who had already begun to follow him, and who had at least the beginnings of faith in him. But these words shocked them to the core. The very idea of eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus was totally repulsive to them. In fact, they were, as Jews, forbidden to have any contact with blood at all. It made them ritually unclean. And so, they turned away from him. We are told that they returned to their former ways of life. They abandoned him, and refused to have any more to do with him. This was just too much.

We read this account in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John — what is called the Bread of Life discourse. It is a dialogue between Jesus and his followers, who have experienced the miracle of the multiplication of the bread and fishes, and want him to continue to provide for their physical sustenance. Jesus explains that they have missed the point. God wishes to feed them with bread from heaven that will give them eternal life. “Give us this bread always,” they respond.

Jesus then begins to explain to them that he himself is the Bread from Heaven. He is the only one who can satisfy the deepest hungers of the human heart. Only he can give them eternal life. If they eat this bread they will never be hungry again. They will never thirst again. They are shocked, because they have never heard this kind of talk from a rabbi before. Each of them taught about God and how God would satisfy their deepest longings. But Jesus is saying that he himself will fulfill their deepest longings. This is scandalous at best, and blatant heresy at worst. Who does he think he is? Who, indeed!

At this point in the discourse, Jesus changes the metaphors. He no longer speaks of bread from heaven, but of his own flesh and blood. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” This is even more shocking. “How can he give us his flesh to eat? What can this possibly mean?” And now Jesus becomes even more shocking in his statements.

“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will have no life in you.” Now he is not only talking about eating his flesh, but drinking his blood. How repulsive! How disgusting! How offensive! Jesus keeps pushing the issue, not softening his words in any way. In fact, he doubles down, beginning to use a new word for “eat”, which is typically used to refer to a dog gnawing on a bone. “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh (whoever gnaws on my flesh like a dog gnawing on a bone) and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

It is at this moment that the line had been crossed. Jesus had gone too far. It is one thing to say that God will provide for his children. It is something else for Jesus to identify himself with God and tell them that he would provide for them. If Jesus had said that God had sent him to provide for his people that would have been somewhat acceptable. But when Jesus essentially made himself equal to God that was too much. And when he said that we must eat his body and drink his blood, that was really too much. But now, he has become even more graphic, even more literal, telling us that we must actually gnaw or chew on his flesh and drink his blood — this is a bridge too far.

I am certain that Jesus must have felt a great sadness as he watched these followers of his turn away, and reject not only this teaching but also him. He loved them. He had come in order to redeem them, and to be the food that would satisfy them, and make them into the children of God. It must have broken his heart. Couldn’t he have tried a little harder to hold on to them, and not let them leave? Couldn’t he have softened his teaching just a little bit, so that it would have been less shocking and upsetting to them? But he didn’t. He let them walk away. If they could not accept this teaching, they could not be his disciples. This was that important.

We then see Jesus look with sadness to the Twelve. His words are filled with hurt and disappointment and fear. “Are you going to leave me, too?” My guess is that the Apostles were just as shocked and confused by this teaching as were those in the crowd. They too were repulsed and repelled by the idea of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. They were shaken to the core. And yet Peter responds, for all of them, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe that you are the Holy One of God.” In other words, “We don’t get this either. It makes no sense to us. But we know and believe in you, and so we are staying. We trust you.”

Some studies state that on any given Sunday, only about 20 percent of those who identify as Catholic attend Mass. And only about half attend with any regularity at all. There are many reasons for this, but I believe that one of the main reasons is that in their heart, many Catholics do not believe what Jesus tells us in this Bread of Life discourse. “I am the Bread that has come down from heaven. … I am the Bread of Life. … Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. If you eat this bread, you will live forever. … This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. … Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life within you. … My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

If we truly believe the words of Jesus and what he is promising to those who eat his flesh and drink his blood, how could we possibly absent ourselves from the Mass?

Let us pray for a rediscovery, by the Catholic people, of the remarkable gift of the Eucharist, the Bread from Heaven, and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ himself.

Father Michael Comer is the pastor of Mother of God Parish, Covington.

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, why bread and wine?

By Father Daniel Schomaker.

The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life. The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch.” (CCC 1324) The Church’s teaching in memoriam tells us that contained in the “sacred species” and veiled in the objects of bread and wine, is in fact Jesus Christ! His very body, blood, soul and divinity!

But why when we celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist do we use bread and wine? The simplest explanation is that we are adhering to the command of the Lord when at the Last Supper “He took bread and gave it to his disciples…” and “He took the cup filled with wine …  ‘Do this in memory of me.’” Ultimately as believers this should be enough, but since God has given us a mind let’s delve a little deeper.

After being cast out of the Garden of Eden because of disobedience, God tells man that it is “bread you shall eat, by the sweat of your brow.” (cf. Gen. 3:19) Humanity also offers back to God the “first-fruits” of the field — as seen in the offering of Abel and later in the offering of bread and wine by the priest-king Melchizedek. Prior to their journey into the desert as they fled Egypt, the Israelites ate “unleavened bread”; and when wandering in the desert, it was the manna or “bread from heaven” that God gave to sustain them.

The gift of bread to eat (which we pray for every time we offer the Lord’s Prayer) is a sign of “the pledge of God’s faithfulness to his promises.” (CCC 1334) Or another way to say this is that in the midst of the trials of life and on our pilgrimage towards the “promised land” (Heaven) and in our thanksgiving to God for any and all blessings, it is bread that always sustains us physically and reminds us of God’s closeness.

The gift of wine or “the fruit of the vine” also finds its way into the revelation of salvation history. Just as there was an offering of bread in the Old Testament, so too was there an offering of wine — often referred to as the “cup of blessing.” At the conclusion of the Jewish Passover meal, this “cup” “adds to the festive joy of wine an eschatological dimension: the messianic expectation of the rebuilding of Jerusalem.” (CCC 1334) We also see, in Jesus’ very first public miracle — the Wedding Feast at Cana  — the centrality of wine, where he transforms water into wine, but not just any wine, the very best wine. And this miracle takes place at a joyful celebration.

So, why do we use bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist? 1. Jesus said to; 2. Bread points us to the continual sustenance we receive from the Lord when we cooperate with his grace; 3. Wine points us to the joy of the Gospel and of our eschatological end, heaven; 4. Human beings are a compilation of body and soul; both need to be fed — bread sustains the body; wine sustains the soul.

Father Daniel Schomaker is vicar general; pastor, St. Augustine Parish, Covington; moderator of the Curia; and assistant director of seminarians in the Diocese of Covington.