“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Think about that for a second. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” Immediately after he says this, a significant number of Jesus’ disciples left him. Why? Because Jesus is talking like a crazy person. We do not eat someone’s flesh or drink their blood. These things are not food. That is a horrifying idea.
And yet, after his disciples abandon him, Jesus does not revoke his statement. He stands by it. And so, because we are Christians, we take the Lord seriously. We choose to believe Jesus when he tells us that we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order for us to have eternal life. Thankfully, unlike the disciples, we understand how we can eat the Lord’s body and blood; we understand that Jesus gives himself to us under the appearance of bread and wine, which we are able to consume without revulsion. We understand that, somehow, the words of the priest make all of this possible.
But let me be abundantly clear: we preach, without any reservation, without any nuance, that on this altar today will be the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, and that many of us will, in fact, not in analogy but in fact, be consuming that flesh and blood.
My friends, this is a hard teaching. We may nod our heads, and give our intellectual assent, but it is only during very graced periods of our lives that we actually appreciate and fully realize what it is that we do when we receive the Eucharist. For most of our lives, we are numbed to it, and we may even doubt it.
Thankfully, our Church is very wise. Those believers who came before us devised many practices that help us to grow in love and devotion for the Eucharist, even if we may find it strange, or even if we are in a period of doubt. I would like to talk to you about a few of these today. Specifically, four things.
First, we have the genuflection, the practice of going down on one knee when entering the church, or when passing the tabernacle. In Byzantine times, this was a sign of reverence reserved for the Emperor, but we use it to reverence the King of Kings, Jesus Christ, who is present to us in the Eucharist. I find this practice very helpful as a first step because, at a very minimum, it helps me remember that Jesus is in fact present among us. When I get in the habit of kneeling in front of the tabernacle, even when I am busily running around our church, it helps me never forget that Jesus is here.
Second, we have the practice of Eucharistic adoration and exposition. Exposition is where you take a consecrated host (and remember, a consecrated host is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ), and you put it in a special display case, so that people can worship it. If you want to know the power of adoration, look up the conversion story of Curtis Martin, one of the most important lay Catholics in the country today. Curtis went to exposition with some friends, and just observed what was going on. These people were singing to the host, bowing to the host, sometimes laying prostrate in front of the host. Curtis realized that one of only two things could be true. Either the people present were committing the most horrendous idolatry possible, because they were literally worshipping bread; OR that bread was, in fact, Jesus Christ. Adoration forced us to come face-to-face with the hardest, strangest teaching of our faith, that this bread is the flesh of Jesus Christ, and it forces us to make a choice. Either we are idolaters, or Jesus is physically present here.
Third, you will notice today that when I celebrate Mass, after I lift up the host for the first time, I keep my thumb and pointer fingers pressed together. This is an old practice that used to be required in the old Mass. It is not required anymore, and today it is sometimes associated with priests who want to go back to before the Second Vatican Council. But that is not why I do it. I do it because I realized from the first day I said Mass that it can be really easy just to say the words, like I am reading a story book, without thinking about the incredible action taking place. The little devotional exercise, of keeping my fingers pressed together until I wash the particles of the host off of them, reminds me that what my hands are touch is really, really special. So special that these two fingers are reserved ONLY for Jesus during the course of the Mass.
Finally, you might notice that after everyone has received Communion, we wash, or purify, all of the vessels. This is to ensure that any particle of the host, or any drop of wine that might remain, is consumed, and not poured down the drain. What these vessels have contained is so special that they must be rinsed, with a special prayer, before they can be put away. The Church says that this can be done immediately after communion or immediately after Mass, and here at St. Bernadette we have chosen to purify them after communion. It may add a minute or two to the Mass length, but I encourage you to use that time to reflect on the Eucharist you have just received, and to remind yourself why these vessels are so special that they need purified.
So what is the take away from all of this? The take away is that Jesus was not kidding when he said that we have to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and we take him at his word. We believe that we actually do consume him when we receive the Eucharist. But this teaching is so hard and so easy to doubt that our faith has given us little practices, little signs that help us remember how special the Eucharist is. I assure you, if you genuflect, if you go to adoration, if you think about the priests fingers and the holy vessels; if you do these things, you will open yourselves to God’s grace, and you will grow in love for Jesus in the Eucharist.