Be What You receive
A talk given to parents of first communicants at Our Lady of the Assumption and the English Martyrs, Cambridge by Sr. Tamsin Mary Geach
In the next few weeks your children will reach the point of making their first Holy Communion. This era of fortnightly early rising will be over! Praise the Lord!
So well done. You have faithfully brought your children to this point. It’s my job today to remind you why we go through all this – parents, catechists and children. What is the motivation that makes this worth-while?
Basically, eternal life.
In the Gospel of St John, Chapter 6, we read that after the feeding of the 5000 the crowds came back to Jesus hoping for more free food. He told them not to seek for ‘food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you…which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” When they press Him further He tells them “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ Later on He says ‘I am the living bread[c] which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
This is impossible language, and Jesus repeats Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; 54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever”…’After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him’
Why did they leave? He has said a thing that human nature revolts against. The Greek word we have for ‘eat’ is trwgwn, which really means something like ‘munch’: We are to munch on the flesh of Christ. Furthermore, even if cannibalism were ok, the Jews have an absolute taboo about eating blood. Jesus is using deeply upsetting language, and it loses Him support. Notice He does not rush after them and say ‘No, it’s ok, I was just using a metaphor.’
As Catholics we believe that the Word of God is true, that when Jesus says ‘This is my Body’ He speaks as God and what He says is truth. That is He truly gives us His Body and Blood to eat and drink. So why?
When I was reflecting on this it struck me that there is a long hallowed tradition among Catholics to dress children who are receiving their first Communion as if they were Brides or Grooms. This speaks to a fundamental and deep understanding of what is happening. In receiving Holy Communion we enter into a covenant relationship with Christ, one which is echoed in the relationship of Christ with His Church, which St Paul says is like marriage; And like with marriage, there is an intimate, and physical aspect to receiving Christ, His Body Blood, soul and divinity, into our own bodies. But as St Augustine says, in one of his sermons:
‘What you see is simply bread and a cup - this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood….Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God's right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?" My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true!’ (Augustine: Sermon 272)
We receive Christ’s Body and Blood then in order to become one with and in Christ.
A few misunderstandings that some people may have: we do not believe, as Lutherans do, that the bread and wine are still substantially there, simply because you cannot have two things being, existing in the same place at the same time. So what we look at taste and feel has what St Thomas Aquinas calls the ‘accidents’ of bread and wine, but the being that we receive is Christ. Not many Christs, but the same body of Christ that is ‘physically’ present in Heaven at the right hand of God the Father. But this real presence is one presence, and so when we receive we are closely united, as it were in one person, with Christ but also with each other.
We receive all of Christ. Every tiny particle of the Host is the Whole Christ, Every drop of the Chalice is the Whole Christ. We do not bite Jesus’ arms and legs when we eat the sacred species(appearances).
I said to your children last time I spoke to them that there is a similarity with the way in which many people are able to watch the same programme on television at the same time. The Eucharist is as it were a ‘Jesus signal’, in that everyone is where He is and receives all of Him at the same time.
Given that it says in Scripture also that when people pray in secret, or when they gather in the name of Christ, or when they serve the poor and needy, Christ is with them spiritually, why do we need in addition this extra sacrament, of Christ’s sacramental presence?
I once was asked this question by a young man who was deeply in love with his wife, but temporarily absent from her. I said to him ‘you ring your wife every day, and when you do, you are with her spiritually; but being with her physically is another thing’. He was satisfied by this answer. Receiving Christ into our bodies is a whole new level of intimacy, different from a simply spiritual encounter.
It is possible all the same to have a deeper encounter with Christ when not receiving Him in communion, and it is possible – or even easy – to receive Christ in communion with luke-warm affection and sinful dispositions, or even in a state of mortal sin: Later in the same sermon I just quoted, Augustine says:’ All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts.’ I counsel you as parents to keep the flame of love of Christ alive in your own hearts, by study of your faith, by regular confession, by regular Mass-going and by daily prayer if you want to see the same love grow in your children. There is no longer much space in the world for luke-warm Catholicism, if there ever was. We live in difficult and increasingly dangerous times, and you cannot guarantee that the question of martyrdom will not come your way, or your children’s way. We need to be as ready and as worthy as those men and women, those children who entered into glory in Sri Lanka on Easter Day. There will be many temptations to leave the Church. In the end most Catholics who remain in the Church do so because they love Christ, and love to receive Him in Holy Communion.
When the disciples of Jesus were leaving Him in droves because of His teaching about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He turned to the twelve and asked them ‘ “Will you also go away?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” ‘
So the real question is, Do you believe and know that Christ is the Holy One of God? If you do, No power on earth will ever turn you away from Him, or snatch you from His hand, so long as you abide in His grace. There is no other to whom we can turn, since it is He who has, now as then ‘the words of eternal life.’