17 JUNE 2001
Scriptual Reference: Genesis 14:18-20, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Luke 9:11-17

The Real Presence of Jesus Christ

       You know, there is a lot of controversy in the media about whether or not Catholics believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine. One poll suggests that up to 70% of Catholics do not have a proper understanding of Real Presence in the Eucharist. While scientific polls have an air of credibility to them, their reliability hinges on how they ask the questions. I donít believe that 70% of the people here have a flawed understanding of the Eucharist, and I doubt that most practicing Catholics do either. Many people have an intuitive sense of what the Eucharist means, even if they donít have the words to explain it.

       There is one story that comes to mind. A few years ago, at a Mass for people with developmental disabilities, there was a teen age girl named Roxy. Now, Roxy was profoundly disabled. She could speak, but only in phrases. She had been involved in the Special Religious Education - or SPRED - for a number of years, and the catechists loved her dearly. At this mass, Roxy and her catechist friend were going to bring up the gifts to the altar. When they wheeled Roxy to the back of the Church and she saw the bread, she said, "Not yet." Her caretaker said, "thatís right Roxy, weíre not ready to take up the bread yet." As they waited, Roxy again said, "Not yet." Again, her catechist affirmed her awareness, that indeed, it was not yet time to take forward the gifts. Roxy looked at her friend a third time and said, "Not Jesus yet." This time, the catechist was speechless, because she realized that Roxy understood the Real Presence of Jesus and that this presence had not yet entered into the bread and wine. Most practicing Catholics may not have the technical language to explain the real presence, but most have some sort of intuitive knowledge that the bread and wine at Mass indeed is special, and that it becomes something more than just a symbol. But, I think that there is a lot more that we can say about the Real Presence of Jesus, and our readings today will help us to do that.

       All of our readings today highlight the feast we celebrate. In the first reading, we have a glimpse into ancient worship some 4000 years ago in Jerusalem. The king-priest Melchizedek, for the first time in biblical history, offered bread and wine to God. Melchizedek, according to Christian writers throughout the ages, was a precursor of Jesus, the high priest who would offer bread and wine as described by Paul in the letter to the Corinthians. We might expect to hear, then, an account of the Last Supper in the gospel, but instead we hear about the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Jesus, in this story, was doing what he was always doing: preaching about Godís kingdom and healing sick people when the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowds so that they can get something to eat. Jesus instructs them to do their part and feed the crowd, but they are not able to provide more than 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Jesus then tells the disciples to order the people into groups of 50: a once unorganized mob now assembled in distinct units, sort of like a group prepared to worship. Then, Jesus did something extraordinary, something that he would do again at the Last Supper and again after the Resurrection in Emmaus: he took the food, blessed it, broke it and shared it. The apostles did their part by distributing the food to the people, and all 15000-20000 people ate their fill of the holy food. There were 12 baskets of bread leftover, corresponding to the 12 apostles, who would someday be charged with feeding the assemblies of people gathered in the name of Jesus for all time. Later on, at the Last Supper, Jesus asks his disciples do "do this in remembrance of me." That request, in fact, is what has brought all of us here in an organized assembly, just like the one formed by Jesus in the Judean wilderness. Jesus served them a meal, inextricably linked this meal to his pastoral ministry of preaching, healing and caring. The meal we share today is likewise inextricably linked to a pastoral ministry of preaching, healing and caring.

       When I was living in the Holy Land in the Spring of 1999, I was impressed by the cultural diversity in our group. The Irish were well represented, and on several occasions they planned for us an evening of Irish merrymaking. There were stories, humor and lots of laughing. The evening would come to a climax, though, when we would pull all of the chairs and tables out of the dining room and proceed to dance together. The Irish showed us the steps to the traditional folk dances, and we spun and twirled the night away in a sweaty and breathless spectacle. The Irish made it clear that EVERYONE was to be involved. There were to be no wall-flowers. Us Americans were the most hesitant, after all, we come from a spectator culture that leaves singing and dancing to the experts. But, all of us were included and were glad for it. Our feast today of the Body and Blood of the Lord makes one thing very clear to us: Eucharist is not a spectatorís sport. Indeed, the very act of meal-sharing implies that all of us have a place at the table, that all of us are participants in a meal laid out for us by Jesus and served by the descendents of his apostles. All of us are invited to dance the dance in the presence of Christís love.

       As I intimated earlier, I donít think that most of us struggle to believe that the bread and wine become in their essence the Body and Blood of the Lord. We join in the dance as we respond and receive here at Mass. However, I think many of us struggle to understand the ramifications of this miraculous transformation. Itís so easy to stop dancing once we leave this place because we forget that when we receive the body and blood of Jesus, it becomes part of us. We are what we eat, as the old adage goes. We become living tabernacles of Christís presence. Indeed, through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ lives in us. The Real Presence of Jesus Christ does not go away after our bodies have digested the bread and wine; his presence lives on in us. Thatís tough to accept, because it means that we have to change our behaviors that arenít very Christ-like. We have to learn that dance that is Christís, and follow the steps he teaches us in his ministry of compassion and healing. We have to stop our slanderous talk, our selfish habits, and our sinful inclinations which can get the better of us. Most importantly, though, receiving the presence of Christ in our bodies means that we have to look for the presence of Christ in all of our brothers and sisters. The dance, after all, excludes no one. If you can accept the presence of Christ in that tabernacle and genuflect before it, but you canít accept the presence of Christ in the person that you dislike the most, then something has gone wrong. Let me give an example.

       I read a story about a priest, who 35 years ago traveled to the Holy Land to learn Modern Hebrew. In Lebanon, he met a young Moslem student who questioned him on the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Fresh from his theology studies, the priest began to explain how Jesus was truly present, soul and divinity under the appearances of bread and wine. None of the answers that this priest provided, though, seemed to address the Moslemís concern. Finally, the priest asked, "What is your most basic problem with what Catholics believe about the Eucharist?" The young Moslem thought for a moment and replied, "Well, if they really believed they were receiving the body and blood of Christ together on Sunday, would they treat each other the way they do?" A challenging question, addressed to each one of us on this feast of Corpus Christi. +

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