If you have ever visited the United States or know anything about its people, you will be aware that outdoor activities and sports are an important and even integral part of American life; and in the State of Oregon – where I lived for seven years – hunting and fishing are very much part and parcel of everyday life, especially for men and boys. I got to know several families who were heavily into hunting and I had to get used to my altar servers telling me on Sunday morning – sometimes with great relish – how they stalked a deer or an elk: shot it, skinned it, filleted it, and parcelled up the meat for the freezer. I remember one young father telling me how he and his son had a close encounter with a black bear in the mountains where they were camping, and how he chased it off and saved his son from almost certain death. As he tucked his son into his sleeping bag that night the boy said to him: “you know what daddy; I would risk my life for you.” Daddy gave his son a big hug and said, “And I would risk my life for you too.” There followed one of those special moments of silence while father and son digested each other’s pledges. The silence was broken by the boy who said, “Daddy, I have just one question, what does ‘risk’ mean?”
I think this is a perfect example of how children use words without really knowing what they mean. But, of course, it’s not only children who do this. We all do it and particularly, perhaps, when we are talking about what we believe as Catholics. For example, we refer to the ‘Real’ Presence of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. But what does ‘real’ mean? Is Jesus really present? Or is it the same kind of ‘real’ they use in the Coca Cola advert: “It’s the real thing?” If we were asked to describe what we meant by the ‘Real Presence’ would we be able to do so?
Today’s feast is a reminder to us of how ‘real’ Our Lord’s presence is to us. Throughout the Gospels we witness Our Lord welcoming the crowds and, in his words and actions he expresses his longing to be with them. Saint Paul tells us in the second reading how that longing was fulfilled. Just as Our Lord gave himself to the Apostles at the Last Supper so he continues to give himself to us every time we celebrate the Mass and receive Holy Communion; every time ‘we eat this bread and drink this cup’.
When we give ourselves to one another person we use a sign. We may give a present, or it may be a kiss on the cheek or a handshake. We may give our time. Signs are the only way we know of giving ourselves to someone else.
Likewise, Our Lord can only give himself in a sign. But there are two big differences between the signs that we use and the signs that Our Lord uses. Our Lord uses a ‘perfect’ sign of his desire to be united with us and to become part of us; he uses the sign of bread and wine given to us as food and life, which is his own Body and Blood. In the sign of the Eucharist Our Lord doesn’t give just part of himself, rather he gives the whole of himself. When we eat his Body and drink his Blood at Mass we become part of Christ’s own Body. As Saint Augustine says, “If you have received worthily you are what you have received.” And as a French philosopher and gourmet said, “You are what you eat”.
Sometimes we Catholics can become a bit bogged down in questions of just ‘how’ Our Lord can be present in the form of bread and wine. As children we are taught that the substance of bread and wine is changed, while its accidents stay the same. But speculating on the ‘how’ is pretty often doomed to failure, unless, of course, we know what we’re talking about. It is part of the same mystery of how God can be born in human flesh and as a human person. Or how the One God is Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Human words can only go so far in trying to explain these divine mysteries, which at the end of the day, and in spite of all our education and cleverness, still remain mysteries. We’ll never fully understand them, at least not in this life.
In this sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ we see how Our Lord not only risked his life for us; he has given us his life. He hasn’t just told us of his love, he has died for us. Actions speak louder than words, and in the Eucharist we have the ultimate action: the re-enactment or memorial of Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross.
We Catholics believe that the Eucharist is Jesus Christ for real. Under the appearance of bread and wine Jesus Christ is as really present as he will one day be present to us in heaven. The only difference is that today we see him in a sign – for that is the human way – but in heaven we will see him face to face.