The Body and Blood of the Lord: Experiencing the Eucharistic Presence
A number of years ago I took a few days off to visit Chicago. Now along with wanting to see the great baseball cathedral known as Wrigley Field, I really wanted to attend Mass at Holy Name Cathedral. It had recently been restored. I wanted to see it, and I wanted to worship there. It was only a few blocks from my hotel, so the first morning I was there, a Sunday, I walked to the Cathedral for Mass. It was closed. There had been some sort of ceiling damage a month earlier, and the cathedral is closed for repairs. But it was Sunday, and signs directed people to the school auditorium for Mass. So, in I went. Now the auditorium, was just that. A stage with an altar set up on it. People sat in the type of seats you find in a movie theater. I initially felt disappointed. I was looking forward to being in a beautiful cathedral, and here I was in an auditorium. Then I saw that there was a table in front of the stage to the left. On it there was a tabernacle and a red sanctuary light. Suddenly, I felt the rush of Presence, the Divine Presence. The Blessed Sacrament was here. I was in a Church.
A church structure may be beautiful. The church may have amazing appointments, statues, pictures, etc, but for a Catholic, what makes a Church a Church is the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. You might say, “But Father, it is the people that make up the Church. The Lord said, ‘Wherever two or three are gathered in my name I am there.’” Yes, I know that. But there are degrees of experiencing the Presence of the Lord. We experience God in the beauties of nature. We have a greater experience of the Lord in the Word of Sacred Scripture. We have the deepest experience of the Lord we could ever have in the Blessed Sacrament.
I love St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. No one can describe what it feels like to enter through the huge doors of St. Peters and step into the biggest Church in the Catholic world. The artwork is beyond words: Michelangelo’s Pieta is on your right as soon as you enter, the main altar is framed by the Bernini’s baldocchino, the curving columns rising up, is straight ahead of you. Anyone who has been there can go on and on. If you go to St. Peters about 7 am in the morning or around 5 at night, Mass is being celebrated, and you really feel the Presence of the Lord in the Eucharist. If you go at other times, the number of tourists who are there to snap pictures and chat really distracts you from what the basilica is about, unless you do something, unless you go into the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. This part of the basilica is always kept quiet so that people can pray before the Eucharistic Presence of the Lord. When you go into the chapel, you experience the Lord and you realize that you are indeed in a Catholic Church.
I love the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. It is a magnificent monument to devotion to Mary Immaculate as the patroness of the United States. Like everyone else, I love going through the side altars each dedicated to various Marian devotions, the Miraculous medal, Our Lady of Loreto, Our Lady of Lourdes, etc. All the chapels are beautiful. But one chapel is beyond beautiful. That is the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. When you enter it you see golden flakes descending around the tabernacle. You experience the presence of the Lord and are reminded of the way that God cared for his people when Moses led them through the desert: through manna, the heavenly bread. The chapel recreates our first reading for this Sunday. The chapel is striking. You immediately understand the message: The new manna that God gives, the manna that lasts forever, is the Eucharistic Bread.
Twenty five years ago, I founded a parish, St. Matthew, in the Bardmoor area of Largo. I didn’t create the parish, only God can create. What I did was get people together to form a new Catholic community. For the first two years, we did not have a church structure. We would have Sunday Mass in the cafeteria of Osceola Middle School. Sometimes, the cafeteria would be decorated for an art fair, book fair, or what have you. It did not look like a church, but it felt like a church. It felt like a church because we had a little tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament present.
The Eucharistic Presence fills us and sustains us. And we take this presence within us every time we receive communion. That is what it means to be a Catholic. We are people of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
I sincerely believe that the spiritual life of our parish has grown in proportion to our expansion of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The added hours to our First Friday Eucharistic Adoration, our Forty Hours devotion during Lent, and the prayers of our Teens before the Blessed Sacrament during the Teen Eucharistic Adoration liturgies we call XLT, all have had a tremendous effect not just on those present, but on the entire parish. We are the Body of Christ, the Church. When even one of us is united deeply to the Eucharistic Presence, the entire body is strengthened by the nurturing life of the Eucharist.
The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord is given to us as a yearly reminder of the Awesome Gift we celebrate that is the Eucharist. It reminds us to respect this Gift, to reverence this Gift. When we come into Church, we genuflect to pay respect to the Divine Presence and to remind us that we are before the Lord. When we are about to receive communion we stop and reflect on what it is that we are about to do. The reception of communion is sacred. It is wrong for us to use this as a time to socialize. We shouldn’t wave at friends or give a hug to a neighbor. No, this is the time to focus on what we are about to do. Just before receiving communion we bow. That is a statement of faith, just as saying Amen is a statement of faith. We are taking Jesus within ourselves. After receiving communion we pray to the Lord of the Universe within us.
“But, Father, why all this emphasis on the Eucharist? All this Eucharist talk is not very ecumenical, you know. Christians of other faiths might be offended if we keep speaking about the Eucharist. And Father, you have to admit it, many Catholics themselves don’t see a value in weekly reception of communion. Many are more concerned with being signed with ashes at the beginning of Lent then with receiving communion. Don’t you think that you should really tone it down?”
That is exactly what the disciples said to Jesus at the conclusion of the Great Discourse on the Eucharist in the sixth chapter of John. He had said, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” Jesus refused to hedge on this truth. The disciples said, “This teaching is too difficult. People are leaving us.”
Jesus responded, “And are you going too?”
Peter’s answer to this is our statement of faith: “Where are we to go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.”
The beliefs of others of different Christian denominations are to be respected. The beliefs of those who do not acknowledge Christ are to be respected. But we are not respecting others if we hedge on our own faith. In fact, if we hedge on our faith, particularly our faith in the Eucharist, we are insulting others. We are saying, “I don’t think you have enough character to respect for my faith, so I’ll tone it down for you.”
No, let’s be who we are. We are Catholics. And let’s exalt in that which makes us uniquely Catholic, the Great, Awesome Gift, the Eucharist.
The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord reminds us of who we are, Who is present in the tabernacles of our churches, and what we are doing when we receive communion.