When I taught high school I used to have the students bring in news articles about the topic of the week. The week on the Eucharist, one student brought in an article about Eucharistic miracles. The article spoke about the historical miracles, such as Orvieto, but also contemporary cases under scientific study.
This led one student to proclaim, “Whoa! If that happened in front of me, I would totally believe! It would be the only thing I would ever want! Like I would go to Mass every day!”
She reminds me of the disciples in today’s Gospel, who after having been present at the feeding of the 5,000 turn to Jesus and ask, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do?”
I told her, “but it has happened in front of you! At every Mass the bread and wine are turned into the body and blood of Christ. And these other miracles have happened, they’re real, what difference does it make if they happened in front of you or not”
This of course led the class collectively to point out that, “yeah, but at your Masses it doesn’t turn into the actual Body and Blood of Christ, like in the miracles, it still tastes and looks like bread and wine.”
Ahh. Good. Now we are getting somewhere. They had correctly pointed out one of the biggest mysteries and most difficult things to understand about our faith. One that many of us wrestle with our entire lives.
Now to help, I want us all to engage in a little exercise. Don’t worry! It’s not physical. I want you all to think of a chair. Perhaps this morning in your house you sat a chair in the kitchen at breakfast. Perhaps you went out to lunch and you might have sat in a low chair or a high chair. Maybe you’re aiming for or have already earned the proverbial corner office, with it matching big chair. At school you have different kind of chairs too. Kindergartners sit in smaller ones than the seniors. Maybe in your tv room you have a favorite chair? When we go outside we have folding chairs. Those of you at least as old as me remember those really hot chairs at Cardinals games at Old Busch when they still had astroturf, they were so hot you could fry an egg, or yourself in them? I suppose at Royals games you could actually fry an egg, because they seats are empty!”
Anyway, so many different kinds of chairs. Some are made of wood, metal, plastic. Some have cloth cushions, others don’t. They come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and colors. But all of them have something in common, their, “chairness.” While they might have different attributes or qualities, none of them is more or less of a chair. It’s not more or less of a chair because it’s at the Cardinals or the Royal stadium, you might get to enjoy a better product at one, but the chairs are equal in their “chairness.” You can even change or modify some of those characteristics, for instance, add a cushion, paint it a different color, re-stain the wood on an old chair from the thrift store, reupholster a chair, add wheels etc. No matter what, the “chairness” doesn’t go away.
When it comes to Mass, and the changing of bread and wine, the big word, transubstantiation, it’s the opposite. The characteristics of the bread and wine, its color, shape and taste, don’t change. Rather its “breadness” or its “wineness” change into the Body and Blood of Christ.
So what? Why does that even matter? Why does the Church insist on this teaching and make such a fuss about it? Wouldn’t it be easier to just say that it’s symbol or a reminder of Jesus’ body and blood? It seems like a lot of extra hassle for the Church, like she could just save her time and focus on something else instead.
After further discussion, the same girl who made statement about the Eucharistic miracles added, “wait so the reason the Church teaches it’s not just a symbol, but the real deal, the body and blood of Jesus is because that would be like me wanting a knock off instead of a real Gucci bag?”
While I’ll admit it wasn’t the analogy or explanation that first came to my head, I was left to agree with the student.
At every Mass the priest, repeating the words of Christ at the Last Supper says, “Do this in memory of me.” He doesn’t say, do a knock off of this in memory of me, or do a symbol of this in memory of me. He says, do THIS in memory of me. When the Apostles heard those words, they in the early Church began do just this, the Mass, what we are doing right now. There are accounts from the time of the formation of the Bible describing the Mass, with all of the same elements we have today. So when they heard Christ say those words, this is how they understood them, this is how the Church has carried them on through the years.
Furthermore, in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to seek after the food of eternal life, not a symbol or a knock off, the store-brand imitation of that food, but THE food of eternal life.
At the end of the Gospel he says, I AM the bread of life. Again, not a symbol of me or a knock off of me, but I AM. That is why it matters that the Church continue to teach this hard and difficult mystery. In the Gospel Jesus tells us that the he will give us this food of eternal life. The Church is continuing the mission of Christ on Earth by bringing us his body and blood.
I am not pretending that it’s easy to understand, grasp or believe. In fact if you think about it, almost all of the recorded Eucharistic miracles took place when the priest had doubts about the true presence. It’s a challenge for us as individuals, but a gift that Church continues to provide nonetheless.
So each time we come to this altar it is an opportunity to enter deeper into that great mystery of the Eucharist, in that way to grow in relationship with God. He doesn’t give us anything less than his very self, so that we may have eternal life. Every time we approach this altar it’s an opportunity for us to be nourished by the bread of life, to strive for the food of eternal life.