Have you ever found yourself in the pew as the priest slowly chants prayers thinking, “What the heck am I doing here?” The homily can sometimes be un-stimulating at best. The music seems to be something that could be on SNL’s Church Lady, and many of your fellow brothers and sisters at the parish seem more like zombies than worshipers. Why stay? Why subject yourself to such an experience?
Why do Christians in places like Iraq, China, and North Korea risk their lives to go to Mass? There are countless stories of families walking into Mass knowing that could mean the end of their lives. Most of us would think, really? For an hour of boredom? Everybody would understand. The Church would not consider it a sin for someone to stay home instead of attending mass, if there were terrorists waiting with machetes. Yet they go. Chris Stefanik tells a story of his friend who was in Iraq. He was texting Chris to petition him to pray for the parishioners of his parish, because the parishioners had been warned that terrorists were going to bomb the Church. Hours later he received a text that a bomb was set off in this friend’s parish and all were dead.
The answer to this question of, why go to Mass, is very simple for these persecuted Christians. They would put everything on the line for the chance to receive…the Eucharist.
I attended a huge Christian Festival with some of my Christian friends. They had great praise and worship and great talks, but I was starting to go to back to Catholic Mass and I still desired to go while I was there. So I said to my friend Scottie that I would like to go to Catholic Mass that Sunday. He asked politely, “Why?” And I said that essentially it’s because of the Eucharist. Scottie paused and said, “Just a second,” so he ran over picked up a wafer and a paper shot glass full of grape juice. I laughed, but he didn’t understand. I said, “Have you ever read John 6?” And for all the scripture Protestants memorize, he had never read this passage. John 6 is a striking passage and, a weird one, that changed Jesus’ ministry in a big way.
Read John 6:41-70
In John 6:41-51 John recounts the Jews began to murmur at Jesus. This would instantly draw a reader familiar with the Old Testament back to the book of Numbers, when Moses began to take the Jewish forefathers through the desert to the promise land. Their journey was characterized by two main events, miraculous bread and murmuring. In their travel to the promise land they had to pass through the desert. In the desert there was no food and water and the journey was about a 40 day walk. So God sent them miraculous bread. As soon as the dew would lift in the morning, the Jews would walk out and find on the desert ground Manna. It was wafer-like bread that had a taste of honey and they named it Manna, which means in Hebrew, “What is it?” This bread was able to keep them alive and allow them to make it to the promise land. But as their body was nourished by the Manna, their hearts were still prideful, cold, and full of sin. As heartless people do, the Jews began to murmur against God. Their murmuring got so bad God vowed that every adult that had witnessed God’s awesome power in Egypt and yet still did not trust him would not enter the promise land. They all died in the desert.
Why John draws attention to the Jews murmuring in John 6, is to show that around 1,500 years later, after centuries of the practice of the Mosaic Law, the Heart of the Jew had remained the same: prideful, cold and full of sin. Jesus reveals to the Jews that God is now going to give a new miraculous bread. One different than that given to their ancestors in the desert. This new bread would not just nourish the body but would change the heart as well. And this bread of heaven, which Jesus would give for the life of the world, “is his flesh.”
Jews were forbidden according to Mosaic Law to participate in cannibalism. So you can imagine the crowd was getting rowdy. What did Jesus do?
He intensifies his teaching.
Up until then the Greek verb “to eat” used was phago. It was used in Greek to denote a person eating. But Jesus switches to a new verb. He uses the verb trogain. This verb means, “to gnaw or chew.” It was only used to describe a pig or an animal eating. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat (trogain) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life within you; he who eats (trogain) my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats (trogain) my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living father sent me and I live because of the Father, so he who eats (trogain) me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died… (John 6:53-58).”
Is Jesus a combination of Hannibal Lecter and Count Dracula?
This is where many would say Jesus was speaking figuratively and not literally. Really??? It doesn’t get more real than this! John reports, “Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘this is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” and John 6:66 (creepy) reports, “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him.”
If Jesus was feeling poetic and getting his Shakespeare on, now was the time for the curtain call and the moment to shout to all those leaving, “It was not literal!!! Of course my flesh is not true food or my blood is true drink, what am I, a lunatic?!”
But he doesn’t.
What does he do? He turns to the apostles who are closest to him and says, “Will you also go away (John 6:67)?” And Peter gives the answer that every Christian will utter hereafter who believes in the Eucharist -“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and come to know, that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68-69).” Translation: Lord I have no idea what you just said, but I know that even though I don’t understand, I do know who gave the teaching and You are trustworthy.
Peter doesn’t pretend to know the depths of what Jesus is talking about nor does Jesus expect them to, but he does expect this – That you trust, because of who is giving the teaching. Peter had already witnessed Jesus raising the dead, feeding thousands from almost nothing, walking on water, changing water into wine – Even though this teaching was hard, he was still with Jesus, for no ordinary man could do these miracles. And extraordinary men give extraordinary teachings.
C.S. Lewis said there are two options about Jesus. Either he is a Liar/Lunatic because he claims he is God. Can you imagine someone preaching and finishing with the sentence, “and you should believe because I am Yahweh in the flesh (The LORD GOD, the creator of the heavens and the earth, the strong arm who defeated Pharaoh and brought the Israelites out of Egypt)!” Call the white coats! Not only does he claim to be God but claims you must eat his flesh and drink his blood? Now that’s crazy!
Or is it?
CS Lewis said the second option is this…That he is the LORD GOD. And if he is Lord, the being who is Truth itself, “those who hear the truth hear my voice (John 18:37),” he can only tell the truth. Jesus tells those leaving, “Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before (John 6:62)?” A.K.A, what if he showed you where he came from – heaven? The truth is He is the Lord and we know this by his miracles, his greatest miracle being the resurrection – which only could be performed by God (did Buddha, Mohammad, etc. ever rise from the dead to confirm their teaching authority?). Although, you may not understand fully, you don’t have to, because you only need to speak with Peter in saying that the one uttering the truth is trustworthy because he is God.
Side-note: Can you imagine what the anticipation must have been like for the apostles waiting for this to actually happen? They must have pooped their pants on the night of the last supper! Thank God we are on the other side of history!
The Eucharist is a mystery. A mystery does not mean that you cannot understand anything, but only you cannot understand everything. So what can we understand about the Eucharist? It seems weird, but the best explanation comes from two sources, a movie called World War Z (thanks Brad) and Fr. Barron’s review of it.
Sin is a disease, a disease which infects our ability to reason, our freedom, but most of all our heart – the center of our affectivity. The center, where we should experience the deepest spiritual feelings, compassion, love, sorrow, joy, empathy, etc. Yet the sickness of sin makes the heart cold, either wounded and half alive or totally corrupted – an affective eunuch. The Eucharist is the antidote! It cures the heart. It comes in and medicates, warming the heart. The Eucharist is the only thing which has this potential, this power. Most are walking around like zombies, pseudo-humans with pseudo-hearts. It is the Eucharist that awakens the hearts and resuscitates it.
Because the Eucharist is not some “thing” but Some “Body.” And although our puny little brains can’t even begin to understand how this substantial change occurs in the bread and wine, that doesn’t negate the truth that it does happen. The Eucharist is Jesus in all his fullness. It is Jesus with a body, with feelings and emotions, it is Jesus as God, it is Jesus with a human and divine heart. The heart that caused him to weep at the death of Lazarus, the heart that caused him to whip the hypocrites in the temple, the same heart which will lead to him whipping the evil from your temple (1 Cor. 3:16-18). When one receives Jesus, Jesus comes as one “riding on the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13; Matthew 26:64) and enters the open door of the poor and wretched sinner’s heart. And when He comes in, he first “dines” (Rev. 3:20) with the sinner. He enters into a personal relationship, a relationship of friendship. Then once he gains trust, he begins to remodel the soul. He teaches the poor sinner how to think like him – how to see God in every person, to see their infinite value no matter how wretched their physical appearance may be. He teaches the heart how to feel like him, how to feel with and in the entirety of every person. He teaches the will how to act like him – how to sacrifice yourself even for your enemies (Matthew 5:44). And the more the poor sinner submits to this great King, the more he is healed and the more he is healed the more he becomes alive! Jesus is the perfection of what it means to be human, of what it means to be divine.
I’m not saying I know all the mysteries of the cosmos, yet alone the divine mysteries of when God becomes a little piece of bread, but what I do know is I have seen the power of the Eucharist and what it is capable of producing. The church calls these people the Saints.
My brother would say the church is full of hypocrites. And I would say, “Amen!” and I am at the forefront. But if you want to see the power of the Eucharist you need to look at those who have taken the Eucharist seriously and have given Jesus the power to work miracles on their hearts. After all, weren’t the best disciples of Jesus former prostitutes and tax collectors?
If you want to see the power of the Eucharist, look to the Saints. Hearts healed,
hearts hugging the outcast,
hearts kissing the de-valued.
Take a look at one of the most recent saints, Fr. Kapaun.
You are not called to be a zombie, a pseudo-human whose heart contains little love, little life. You are called to be great. You are called to be perfected in love. And the Eucharist is the dynamite which will allow God to explode in your heart.