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8/19/18 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Fr. Reggie

Forty days after his Resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven; every year we celebrate that event on the Feast of the Ascension.

But before he ascended, our Savior promised to remain with his Church "until the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).

The most remarkable way in which he has fulfilled this promise is the topic of today's Gospel passage: the Holy Eucharist, which we celebrate during every Mass and receive through Holy Communion. To keep our human nature alive, we need natural food; to go without eating is to languish and die. But by our baptism we are no longer merely children of natural parents; we are also sons and daughters of God himself, sharers in his divine life. To sustain that supernatural life, then, we need supernatural food. Christ himself is that food. Just as children receive life and existence from their parents' flesh and blood at the moment of conception, so we receive Christian life and existence from Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist. During the Mass, when the ordained priest, in obedience to Christ's own command to "do this in remembrance of me," pronounces the words of consecration ("this is my body... this is my blood") over the bread and the wine, those humble substances are changed into Christ's own body and blood. This change is known by theologians as "transubstantiation," the transformation of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ's body and blood. And since Christ is alive today, residing physically in heaven, wherever his body and blood are really present, he himself must also be present.

Thus, the Church has always taught, and the faithful have always believed, that in the Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine, our God is truly and sacramentally present in his body, blood, soul, and divinity.

This is one of the main distinctions between the different branches of Christianity. Catholic Christians and Eastern Orthodox Christians have maintained the ancient faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But during the Protestant Reformation, which took place in northern Europe in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, the different Protestant groups stopped believing in the real presence. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, John Knox - these and other reformers started their own churches, breaking away from the Catholic Church. It was during this period that the many different Protestant denominations began to appear: Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists...The Puritans who arrived on the shores of Massachusetts in the 1600s, the ones Americans call "the pilgrims," were a spinoff of these reformed churches.

All of these new Christian groups continued to celebrate some kind of communion service in their Sunday worship, at least once or twice a year.

But none of them believed firmly and clearly that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist.

They all taught that Jesus was only speaking symbolically when he said, as we heard in today's Gospel, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life." But if Jesus had been speaking of a mere symbol, and not a real sacrament, would he have referred to eating and drinking his flesh and blood seven times? Would he have made such an effort to explain that his flesh is "real food" and his blood "real drink" (verse 55)? Would he have used two different verbs to make sure he was understood: "phago" (verses 50 and 51), which means to consume a meal, and then, after his listeners expressed shock and doubt, "trago" (verses 53-58), which means to gnaw, crunch, or chew, as when we eat raw vegetables, or when cattle graze on grass?

No, Jesus meant exactly what he said: he is truly present in the Eucharist, because he loves us too much to abandon us.

This is why Pope Benedict gave the title "Sacrament of Love" [Sacramentum caritatis] to his Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist (22 February 2007). The Eucharist is God's most amazing gift to us. Through the incarnation, Jesus, the Word of God, lowered himself to our level, out of love, by taking to himself our human nature. Through the Eucharist, he raises us up to his level, by nourishing us with his divine nature. The Eucharist is par excellence the sacrament of Christ's love. Christ works through the other sacraments, but he himself is wholly present inthis Most Blessed Sacrament.

This is one reason that the Church has always valued so highly another sacrament: the priesthood.

Only a validly ordained priest can celebrate the Eucharist, making our Lord truly present under the appearances of bread and wine.

This is one way God guarantees the sacrament. He wants us to be certain about how he has fulfilled his promise to be with us until the end of time. And so, he instituted the priesthood to celebrate and guard the Eucharist. He actually obeys the priest in every Mass: as the priest pronounces the words of consecration, "This is my body... This is my blood," Jesus Christ humbly becomes truly present. His action through the priest doesn't even depend on the priest's own level of personal holiness. A priest could be in the state of mortal sin, but as long as he is validly ordained and celebrates the sacrament as the Church has instructed, Jesus will obey. This is a powerful sign of God's faithfulness to us.

Both the Eucharist and the priesthood were invented by our Good Shepherd, the one who "loved us and gave himself up for us" (Galatians 2:20).

As we continue with this Mass, let's thank him for these gifts, and promise to use them well.

 

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