Homily for Sunday
21st Week in Ordinary Time – St. Jude
Given August 21&22, 2021,
by Deacon Ken Steponaitis
Were it not that we celebrated the Assumption of Mary last Sunday, we would have read from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John for 5 Sundays in a row, and last week we would have this from verses 52-56:
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For 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.“
Now to emphasize that Jesus quite literally meant we are to eat Jesus’ body, the writer of the Gospel of John uses a Greek word that we translate into English, “eat.” But a more accurate translation means to munch or gnaw. John is being emphatic that what we consume in the Eucharist is not just symbolism.
And then in our Gospel reading today, we hear that the disciples were mummering to themselves, “This saying is hard, who can accept it?” Again, if what Jesus asked us to do was mere symbolism why would it have been so hard for the disciples to accept what Jesus was asking of them?
Just two years ago, on August 5, 2019, Pew Research issued a study that found that 69% of self-identified Catholics believed that the bread and wine used in the Mass was only a symbol. That means that less that one-third of self-identified Catholics believe in the true presence … and so, still, today we hear the same thing … “This saying is hard, who can accept it?”
If you don’t already believe in the true presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. I understand that. Although born and raised a Catholic, by the time I was 19 years old, I believed I was an atheist. Upon my return to the Church, one of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome was this very issue. If I was going to claim to be Catholic, I had to come to some sort of decision. I had to determine if this claim that bread and wine becomes the body, blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus was true, or not. At least I had to accept that the Church was teaching the truth about Eucharist even if I had a hard time accepting it. Let’s face it, the Eucharist still looks, feels, smells, and tastes like bread and wine. How can this be the body and blood of Jesus?
When I was a kid, my parents would tell me something. Then I would ask, “why?” Their response? … “Because I said so.” So, to be glib about it, the Eucharist is the Body, and Blood of Jesus, because Jesus said so.
But maybe I don’t trust Jesus the way I should. I always want to know why, or how this can be. By trade I am a computer programmer. For me to understand and believe in something, I need a logical conclusion. And for a long time after I returned to the Church, I just resolved myself to come to accept that the Church was speaking the Truth. And I prayed to God for at least some understanding, and eventually God provided it.
As I was going through school to get my master’s in theology, while I had heard that through transubstantiation the bread and wine became Jesus’ body and blood, I really didn’t understand until I took a class called Systematic Theology. I learned the term, transubstantiation, simply means that the substance of something has changed. Now, many people don’t like to learn philosophy and in particular a field of study called metaphysics, but that was something I had to study in school. And I thank God I was interested in it. It was what I learned about metaphysics that brought about a logical conclusion, in my mind, of how bread and wine could possibly become the body and blood, of Christ.
In metaphysics you learn that the word “substance” is not something physical. Like this ambo has physicality. It is made of wood, and I can feel it and see it. In metaphysics substance isn’t what something is made of, but what it is deemed to be. If someone did not know this ambo was an ambo, or recognized it only as a piece of wood, that person would say this ambo is not an ambo, it is wood. But whoever created this thing made of wood said, it is an ambo. So, while the physical substance of this ambo is wood, the metaphysical substance of this object, because we deemed it to be so, is an ambo. I look at it and I see wood. I feel it and it feels like wood, if I could taste it, it would taste like wood, but nevertheless it is an ambo.
In a short while, [the priest] will hold up the bread and say, “Take this all of you and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.” And he will do something similar with the cup, saying, “Take this all of you and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood …” When the priest says this, it is the priest in the person of Christ, it is Jesus himself, through the priest, saying this. Jesus the creator, determines the substance of these physical things. Jesus determines that this bread and wine although through our senses has every property of bread and wine are, nevertheless, His Body and His Blood. And so, if we truly believe in who Jesus is and we truly trust in what the Church teaches, then we have to conclude this tabernacle contains Jesus himself! No other faith makes such a bold claim. No other faith brings God truly present into our midst.
But why does Jesus want us to believe this? It’s quite simple, really. Jesus wants to be one with us in the same way that a husband and wife become one in marriage. Listen to the words of our second reading from St. Paul to the Ephesians:
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church. Again … This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.
St. Paul is equating Jesus’ relationship with us, the Church, to a marriage. This is incredible! God wants to marry us. God wants to become part of who we are, and God wants us to be part of who He is. This is about a love that is so deep, a desire so strong, that God wants to marry us!
Maybe what I just said to you about transubstantiation made no sense. But if you understand a love that is deep and abiding, like the love of a husband and wife, who effectively become one in their relationship, that’s the kind of love God has for us. How much closer can Jesus get than to become part of our very existence. How much more intimate can God be than to become the very substance that we are. If the bread and wine are merely symbols of Jesus, it would be like telling a husband and wife who were in fact married, that it’s all a symbol. This marriage isn’t really a marriage, it’s just a way to let people know that you want to live together. That the two aren’t really connected in any way, it’s a symbolic relationship. The nuptial vows are just words that don’t mean anything.
And so, we need to decide. It is a lot like the decision that Joshua is asking of his people in our first reading “Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem, summoning the elders, leaders, judges, and officers of Israel.” As you may recall, Moses was forbidden by God to enter the promised land. So, God had Joshua complete the journey. At the end of this Journey Joshua reminded his people of all the things that God did to ensure that they entered the promised land so that God could become part of this community and the people could enter into a relationship with God. The people of the tribes of Israel had to decide; Joshua told his people, “If it does not please you to serve the LORD, decide today whom you will serve.” Chose who you believe provides true life. Choose who you trust. Was it the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or the gods of the pagan world?
Today Jesus is asking us as he asked his disciples, “Do you also want to leave?” Remember there were those who found Jesus’ saying too hard to accept and “they returned to their former way of life.”
In the end, this whole bread of life discourse in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John is the essence of our faith. Who or what can we trust to be the source of life? Can we trust our government, the news media, big corporations? Ourselves? Who do we trust? This is an important question. It is an eternal question. It has eternal consequences. If you trust Jesus and His Church, why not trust Him when he says, “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life;” Why not believe Him when he says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world?”
The more we understand our Catholic faith, as mysterious as it is, the more it can actually make so much sense and the more we fall in love with God. If we believe there is a God and that God is the source of all that exists, then you have to ask, what purpose would God have for creating you and me other than to love and be loved? Isn’t that what we all want? And if God wants to love us, how much more intimate can we get than God coming inside us through the Eucharist? How much more can God show us his love than by being willing to be humiliated, subjected to torture, and allow himself to hang on a cross? And yet, despite His infinite power, despite His ability to destroy us all in our sinfulness, God would rather subject himself to our will, just so he can be with and in us; so that He can redeem us from the inside out. Jesus chose to give us his body and blood as a sacrifice, as spiritual nourishment, and as a source of eternal life! What a gift!
This is why the bread and the wine consecrated, transubstantiated, has to be the Body, Blood, Soul and divinity of our beloved Lord, Jesus the Christ!