How ironic that we are celebrating this feast of Jesus’ sacramental, the most tangible presence, in a virtual, physically absent way! This sacramental presence is so vital for the life of the Church that it has a special solemnity, held on Thursday, ten days after Pentecost Sunday (in Scotland it’s moved to Sunday for practical reasons). In normal times the significance of this feast is emphasised by solemn expositions of the Blessed Sacrament and outdoor processions with the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of towns and cities, usually very colourful and lively. In some countries, like Poland, the celebration is spread over the week, with daily processions around the church and concludes with the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. That’s how it’s celebrated in normal times. My Mum reported that this year’s procession in my home parish was very subdued, taking place within the church and with much, much smaller numbers of people. And yet, we could consider them fortunate to have at least an opportunity to attend Mass, receive communion and hold a eucharistic procession. Because we cannot. Yet. Temporarily.
We have to cling to that last word. Our current situation is temporary. If we believe ‘that for those who love God all things work together for good’ (Romans 8:28) this time of ‘eucharistic deprivation’ is the time of God’s grace. Today’s first reading can be a lamp that casts some light on our present situation. In his farewell speech, Moses reminds the Israelites – who are about to cross the Jordan and enter into the promised land, flowing with milk and honey – that ‘God led you […] in the wilderness to humble you, to test you and know your inmost heart – whether you would keep his commandments or not. […] He made you feel hunger, he fed you with manna […] to make you understand that man does not live on bread alone but man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ God led the Israelites through very difficult and very challenging experiences so that they could learn to trust Him. The meagre food of manna itself was a test of trust. When the Israelites came across it for the first time, they were instructed to collect only as much as needed for one day (or two for the sabbath). When some of them collected more (stockpiling isn’t our invention) it rotted away very quickly. Their attitude towards collecting the manna was an outward sign of whether they trusted God that He would provide. The key phrase, repeated by Jesus when He was tempted in the wilderness, is this: ‘man does not live on bread alone, but man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’
Jesus elaborates on such attention to and heed of ‘everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord.’ In chapter four of the Gospel of St John Jesus responds to his disciples offering food in a rather cryptic way: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’ (John 4:34) The biblical author didn’t mention their reaction, but I imagine they sagely nodded but didn’t know what to make of those words – what’s the connection? Just one chapter later the disciples face a challenging question from Jesus: ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test them, for he himself knew what he would do.’ And then He multiplies bread and fish and feeds five thousand people who followed him. I don’t know whether the disciples remembered Jesus’ earlier words, but if they did, they might have been a bit confused. On the one hand, He deemed earthly food unimportant, on the other hand, He took care of feeding the crowds in such a miraculous way that they were going to proclaim him a king – no mean feat! When Jesus discreetly left, they chased him to the synagogue in Capernaum where a long discussion ensued. Today’s gospel reading is taken from that long conversation.
Because the whole speech is so long, it’s quite challenging to pick up a relatively short passage that would represent its full meaning. In fact, today’s gospel reading is the final section or conclusion of the entire tirade. I’d suggest treating today’s gospel as an invitation to read the entire chapter six for yourself after Mass. At the beginning of this speech, Jesus echoes the words we heard earlier from Him: ‘I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.’ From that moment the overall theme of the speech is eternal life. Consuming Jesus’ flesh and blood is essential to achieving that. Jesus’ audience is increasingly disgusted by apparent calls to cannibalism, and eventually they leave. The atmosphere must have been so awful that Jesus asks his closest followers directly: ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Jesus’ audience leaves in disgust because they literally and wrongly interpret his words. Jesus indicates that with exasperation: ‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’
The Eucharist is an incredibly important and powerful gift that Jesus left to the Church; it’s Jesus himself. The consecrated bread and wine are not symbolling His interminable presence, but He himself is truly present. When we receive communion, we are as close to Jesus as is possible in this life. He’s ‘transported’ to each and every living cell in your body and even if you were chopped to pieces, it would be impossible to separate you from Him. Saint Paul put it beautifully in these words: ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? […] No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:35-39) It’s mind-boggling to think about it! And yet, we might miss the point, like Jesus’ audience in Capernaum. How’s that?
Based on today’s gospel reading we might think that the Eucharist is all about physical consumption of the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ. It’s part of the process, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t stop there. The Church teaches that ‘the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.’ (Lumen Gentium 11). Let me recall the words of consecration: ‘Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you. Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.’ Essentially, these are words of offering the ultimate sacrifice. The final phrase Do this in memory of me has two meanings. The first one is a call to celebrate the Eucharist; the other one is a call to follow in Jesus’ footsteps by offering yourself to others out of love. It’s not my pious, devotional blabber. Remember those words I quoted earlier on? ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’ On the day of His resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Apostles and told them: ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ (John 20:21) Each one of us is called to be the ‘sacrament of God’s presence’ in this broken and suffering world; each one of us is chosen to be a living monstrance that carries Jesus through the streets of our towns and cities. Yes, we cannot receive communion in a physical way for the time being. But it shouldn’t stop you and me from becoming the sacrifice of love to those around us.