The Responsibility of the Eucharist
August 13, 2006
It is often said that it is better to give than to receive, but it is usually more difficult to receive than to give. The person who gives is in charge, independent, and has the satisfaction of helping and supporting another. The person who receives is in a different situation. The one who receives becomes indebted to the person who gives. A bond of responsibility is formed. This is why usually in giving and receiving we try to make things mutual. We all know the experience of exchanging gifts and feeling a bit uneasy when we realize that someone has given us a gift that is much nicer than the one we bought for them. We understand when someone is presented with a wonderful gift and says, “I can’t accept this.” To accept would make the person too indebted to the other. Receiving a gift changes us. It binds us in responsibility to the one who gives.
Tommy was eight years old and blind from birth. He lived in the Midwest with a loving family who was always on the lookout for a way to improve his medical condition. When the family heard of a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital who had developed a new surgical technique that could help Tommy, they pooled together their resources and sent the boy and his mother to Boston. The only thing that Tommy insisted on bringing with him was his teddy bear. It had been his companion from birth. To a boy who could not see, its presence and touch gave him security and courage. The bear remained tucked under his arm through every test and medical procedure. It even went with him into the operating room wrapped in its own sterile plastic bag.
When the bandages were removed from Tommy’s eyes, it became clear that the operation had been a success. For the first time in his life Tommy was able to see light, color, his mother’s face, and indeed the teddy bear that he had clutched to for so many years. After weeks of follow-up in the hospital it was time for him to return home. When the doctor came in for the last visit, Tommy spoke up first. “Doctor,” he said, “I want to pay you for helping me.” He extended to the physician his teddy bear. The doctor froze. He did not anticipate such a gift. He knew that if he accepted it, it would change him. Accepting this remarkable gift from the child would bring their relationship to a new level. But sizing up the situation correctly, he rallied himself and graciously received what was offered. To this day you can find that bear on the tenth floor of Massachusetts General Hospital. It is in a glass case in the corridor. Next to the bear is the business card of the surgeon. On the card is a note that reads, “This is the highest fee I ever received in exchange for professional services.”
Receiving something of great value changes us. It binds us to the giver. It makes us responsible. That is why when we receive the Eucharist we should understand what has been given to us and what that gift entails. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven.” The Eucharist is the gift of Jesus’ very self. If the gift of a teddy bear touches our hearts, how much more should the gift of the Bread of Life change our lives. When we receive the Eucharist, it makes us profoundly indebted to God. It also makes us responsible to build God’s kingdom, to see that God’s will is done on earth.
The bread, which is the sign of the Eucharist, is also the sign of what that responsibility entails. Every piece of bread is a sign of our connectedness to the rest of humanity. Every time we eat any peace of bread we enact our connection to the farmers who grew the wheat and harvested it, to those who made the wheat into flour and packaged it, to those who transported it, to those who marketed it, to those who took the flour and baked it. When any piece of bread becomes Eucharist, Christ’s very self, then the sacrament impels us to see all of those human connections in light of the gospel. We are connected to the people who provide us with bread, to the people who sew our clothes, to the people who provide the services of life on which we depend. Every time we receive the Eucharist we are impelled to ask, “Are those people to whom we are connected receiving a just wage? Do they have health care? Can they provide education for their children? Are they free to live life in liberty and in the pursuit of happiness?”
We cannot receive the Eucharist and at the same time distance ourselves from those who make the bread. We cannot receive the Eucharist and separate ourselves from the rest of humanity. Jesus tells us today, “Take and eat.” In a few moments we will have the freedom to step forward and receive this tremendous gift of Jesus himself. But if we take, we must also know that we become responsible, responsible to the giver of this immeasurable gift. If we receive this bread from heaven, we become connected to the problems of this earth and to God’s determination to resolve them. When we receive what Jesus offers, we become responsible, responsible to build the Kingdom, responsible to act for love and justice in our world.
The Power of the Eucharist
August 9, 2009
John 6: 41 – 51
Sister Mary Grace was an Irish nun who ran an orphanage after the Second World War. Joe was a young nine year old boy who entered that orphanage after both of his parents were killed in the bombing of London. Joe was very small and thin. Despite the best attempts of Sister Mary Grace to fatten him, up nothing seemed to work. As much as he would eat, Joe simply did not put on much weight, and so he continued to look like he was close to starvation. One day the government sent a doctor to examine all the children in the hospital. Sister Mary Grace was coming down the hall as Joe left the examination room. In a casual way she asked him “Joe, what did the doctor have to say?” The boy answered, “Well, he told me to undress, and then he said, “My what a miserable little specimen you are!” The nun was shocked by the insensitivity of the doctor’s remarks. But before she could say anything, Joe continued, “But sister,” he said, “I don’t think that the doctor understood that I had made my first communion.”
This young boy for all of his trouble and all of his pain knew that he was not a miserable little specimen. He had received the bread of life. The very presence of Christ was within him. He was a person of dignity and value. He was a child of God. I think his example might be useful to us as we try to understand today’s readings. For in the Gospel Jesus says, “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven.” As Catholics we believe that in the bread of the Eucharist and in the cup which we drink, we receive the very presence of Christ. That the Eucharist provides for us an immediate and real contact with the Risen Lord. The question is how often we do allow the Eucharist to change us? How often do we open ourselves so that the Eucharist can shape our identity and give us power like it did to that young orphan? If we can understand how each time we receive the Eucharist the very power and presence of Christ is within us, then that presence and power can change us. In fact it can shape our past our present and our future.
The Eucharist can shape our past because the Christ that we receive in the Eucharist both forgives us and heals us. All of us have in our past mistakes that we have made, hurts that we still carry, regrets that we can’t erase. But if we can realize that the real presence of Christ which comes to us in the Eucharist is a healing presence, then we can find the power to put the past behind us, to move beyond the mistakes that we have made, to forgive our enemies, and to let anger go.
The Eucharist can shape our present because the Christ that we receive in the Eucharist is the Christ from whom all blessings flow. Having that presence of Christ helps us to recognize how we have been blessed. So often we absorb ourselves with fretting about the details of life and forgetting about the gifts that sustain us. So often we center on what is wrong with our lives and ignore what is right. If we can claim the presence of Christ within us in the Eucharist, Christ can allow is to see what we have been given, the people who love us, the talents we received, and the opportunities that have been given. Then we can live our life more deeply, because we can recognize how we have been blessed. Then we can be thankful.
The Eucharist can shape our future because the Christ that we receive in the Eucharist promises us eternal life. The bread of the Eucharist is our pledge that we will live with God forever. So each time we face evil in our lives that we cannot understand, when we have to deal with sickness or we fear the approach of death, we can receive this sacrament. Then we can realize that the Christ who is with us is one who has promised us that there is still more to come. Christ has promised us that we will have a life where tears will be wiped away, where pain will be relieved, where fears will be allayed. The Eucharist is our hope because the Christ we receive in the Eucharist is our promise of unending joy.
So in a few minutes we as a community will celebrate the Eucharist. We will have the opportunity to receive the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Salvation. How important it is that we do not take this gift for granted. How important it is that we open ourselves to the power of Christ that comes to us in this action. The Christ who we receive can heal our past, deepen our future and sustain our hope in everlasting life. Let us then celebrate the Eucharist with thanksgiving. Let us open ourselves to Christ’s power and claim our status as children of God.
The Importance of Hunger
August 9, 2015
We presume that who Jesus is and what Jesus offers us is good. We are confident that the things Jesus gives us are valuable: wisdom, peace, eternal joy. So how can we explain that in today’s gospel when Jesus presents himself to the crowd, there is so much opposition? The people murmur against him. They claim that he only the son of Joseph. They are ready to reject whatever he says. How can we explain this determination to discount and reject what is so good and valuable?
I would suggest to you that the answer to this dilemma can be found in the image that Jesus uses in today’s gospel to describe himself. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” Now, bread is a very good thing, but in order to appreciate the true value of bread, you must be hungry. People who are satisfied can discuss bread and critique bread. They can argue in favor of one type of bread over the other. But it is only those who are hungry who can truly understand why bread is good.
Today’s gospel is telling us that if we want to find what is valuable in life and attain it, we must do more than think about it and discuss it. We must hunger for it. Without such hunger it will be easy to miss the gifts that God gives. Married couples must do more than wish for a successful marriage. They must hunger for a relationship that is mutual and life giving. It is only then that they will have the strength to do the hard work of communication, compromise, and forgiveness. If they do not hunger for unity and intimacy, marriage can easily devolve into a series of decisions based on self-interest. When someone hurts us or betrays us, we must do more than hope for healing. We must hunger for a means to rebuild the broken relationship. It is only then that we will be attentive enough to see the opportunities for reconciliation and to seize them. We must do more than desire a better world. We must hunger for ways to undercut the cycles of violence and poverty around us. It is only then that we will find the energy to engage in actions of justice and peace and to move the world closer to the place where it should be.
Jesus presents himself to us as the bread of life. That means that if we want to understand him and accept him, we must be hungry. So let us today recognize the things that we need, the things that we desire, the things of which that we dream, and hunger for them. It is only through such hunger that we will know the truth of what Jesus says and who Jesus is. It is only through such hunger that we will be able to receive the Bread of Life.
I Will Go On
August 12, 2018
1 Kings 19:4-8
“I can’t go on. I will go on.” Those eight words are a quotation from the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, a writer who is known for his terse and paradoxical statements. How can you go on, if you can’t go on? The two statements contradict one another. Yet it is in the middle of that contradiction that Beckett invites us to find meaning. Many of us here have been in a situation where we felt we could not go on. In grieving the loss of a loved one in death, in coping with a progressive disease, we can come to the point where our energy is depleted and we feel we need to stop. Consumed by depression because of some failure, rejection, or even the advancing of age may lead us to think we must sit down and quit. We can’t go on.
Yet we do go on. Another day begins and we are in it. Responsibilities arise and we meet them. We go on even though we can’t go on. We end up living in the middle of this contradiction, and living there is not easy. This is why our reading today from 1 Kings is helpful, for it shows us how we can soften the transition from where we can’t go to where we do go. The prophet Elijah has come to the end of his rope. His enemies have driven him into the desert. He believes that his life is over. He says, “It is enough.” I can’t go on. But then the prophet does two things that we are called to imitate, if we find ourselves in a similar situation: He prays and he eats.
In his prayer to God, Elijah tells God exactly how he feels. He tells God that he is finished. He even asks God to end his life. God does not end his life. But the expression of hopelessness is the beginning of Elijah’s healing. In the same way when we feel we cannot go on, we need to have the freedom to tell God exactly how we feel. We need to speak our pain from our hearts without filter. The honest expression of our pain can begin to lessen the despair and allow hope to grow.
But Elijah does not only pray, he also eats. Two times he eats the food that the angel of God brings to him. When we feel that we cannot go on, we too must eat the food that God offers, and God offers food to us in at least two ways. The first way that God offers us food is by the people in our lives who love us. The family and friends who know our pain and who help us carry it are God’s food for us. When we receive their love, it is nourishment for our soul. The second food that God offers us is the ability to give. God has entrusted every one of us with talents and abilities. It might be the talent of sewing, listening, teaching, or making other people laugh. When we give to others from the gifts we have received, that giving nourishes us. It is food that allows us to continue our journey.
I can’t go on. I will go on. I will tell God exactly how desperate and crushed I am, and I will surround myself with the people who love me and use my gifts for the good of others. By this prayer and this food I will go on, by God’s grace.