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Homily for Sunday OT 21 B – John 6, The Bread of Life Discourse (part 5 of 5)


Joshua 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Ps 34         R/. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Eph 4:32-5:1-2, 21-32
Jn 6:53, 60-69


This Sunday, we wrap-up chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, the ‘Bread of Life Discourse’, as we continue with the core of Jesus’ explicit teaching on the Eucharist.

You’ll remember that last week we looked at how Jesus was very clear, through repetition and strong language, that He was speaking literally to the crowds: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (Jn 6:53). Today our Gospel takes up right where we left off and continues this very conversation with the crowds.

HolyEucharistOnce again, we see that the crowds have clearly understood that Jesus was being literal in asking them to eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. And take note of John’s change in language: no longer is he speaking about the crowds of anonymous followers; now John tells us it’s Jesus’ own disciples who struggle with His words and say, This teaching is difficult; who can accept it? (Jn 6:60).

This question reinforces that Jesus is unmistakably saying that we must truly eat His Flesh and drink His Blood in order to have union with Him and divine life within us. I say this because, were Jesus only speaking figuratively, this question was an opportunity for Him to soften His teaching and change His words. ‘Relax, I’m only speaking symbolically’, He could have said… Jesus did just that for Nicodemus a few chapters earlier, when speaking of having to be born again (Jn 3:1-21, but especially vv. 3-5).

But here, Jesus doesn’t correct His disciples — precisely because they haven’t misunderstood! Rather, Jesus again continues to push the point: Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (Jn 6:61-62). In other words, ‘you think this is difficult because you don’t realise who I am(!); if you knew that I am God, then you would accept my words and see that this is indeed true and possible…’ This will be part of Peter’s answer at the end of our Gospel (v. 69).

Jesus’ identity is at the heart of what He’s saying. This will come into play again at the Last Supper when Jesus institutes the Eucharist. You see, my brothers and sisters, the Word of God is alive and active (Heb 4:12); it has creative power: what the Word of God says comes into being, as we see in the first Creation account:

God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.
God said, … ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures … And it was so.
God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, … And it was so (Gen 1:1-26).

And again, in the Psalms: By His word the heavens were made, by the breath of his mouth all the stars (Ps 33:6).

My brothers and sisters, God’s Word is alive and active: it brings into being what it says. And so, at the Last Supper, when Jesus said the words of institution — this is my Body… this is my Blood —, through the power of His Divine Word, the bread and wine became His Body and Blood. And it’s this same mystery of the power of God’s Word that continues to act for us today in the Mass. Every time I extend my hands over the bread and wine, I do so to call down the Holy Spirit so that when I give my voice to Jesus to speak once again those very words, the Spirit transforms them, according to the words of Jesus, into the very Flesh and Blood of Jesus, crucified and risen. My brothers and sisters, our faith in the Eucharist as being truly the Body and Blood of Jesus rests solely on the authority and power of Jesus’ words. We believe because He said it would be so. This is why to believe in the Eucharist requires an act of faith: we must have faith that Jesus is who He says He is and that He has the power to do what He says He will do.

This is what Jesus is getting at as He continues His answer to His disciples: It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life (Jn 6:63). Jesus isn’t here undoing His previous statements; this isn’t Jesus telling us that it’s all just a metaphor. Rather, Jesus is precisely pointing us to the power of His word and His authority as being rooted in His divine nature: ‘The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, because they are the Word of God! You cannot understand them by using the natural senses of the flesh, but only with the spiritual senses of faith’. This is why Jesus says again, For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father (Jn 6:65).

In other words, Jesus acknowledges that indeed it’s a difficult teaching, one that requires faith and trust in God in order to believe and understand. If we rely only on our physical senses, then we’ll see nothing more than bread and wine. But if we allow the Word of God to dwell in our hearts and strengthen our spirit, then we’ll come to recognise that it is indeed Jesus Himself who is present before us, hidden under the appearance of Bread and Wine. Belief in the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist requires an act of faith; or rather, it is an act of faith!

For this reason, John tells us, many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer went about with him (Jn 6:66). This is the only place in the Gospels where we hear that some of Jesus’ disciple abandoned Him because of His teachings. So here again, had Jesus been speaking only symbolically or metaphorically He had an opportunity to correct their way of thinking… but He didn’t; He let them leave for their lack of faith in Him. How this must have saddened Him!

And we get a sense of that sadness as Jesus turns to the Apostles and asks them, Do you also wish to go away? (Jn 6:67). Jesus doesn’t doubt the faith of His Apostles, but rather, like Joshua in our first reading, He’s asking them to make a choice: ‘Will you follow them, or will you follow me?’ And isn’t this the perennial question that Jesus asks His disciples? Isn’t this the very question that Jesus asks us every time we gather for Mass: ‘Do you follow the world, or do you follow me?’

Manuscript Leaf with the Crucifixion from a Missal, Tempera and gold on parchment, Paris, ca. 1270-80.

Page from a Missal, Tempera and gold on parchment, Paris, ca. 1270-80.

In every age, the Christian is confronted with this difficult teaching on the Eucharist (as well as others). If the Cross is the stumbling block for Jews and Gentiles (cf. 1 Cor 1:22-23), then the Eucharist is the stumbling block for Christians. And how many, over the centuries, have left Jesus on this very point! Did you know that only Catholics and Orthodox accept Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist and believe that He is truly and substantially present in the Eucharist, that the bread and wine truly become His Flesh and Blood? This is one of the major reasons why Protestants left the Church; they couldn’t accept this teaching! (Interestingly, it’s also one the truths that frequently brings them back!)

And so it’s not by accident that Peter is the one who responds, both for the Apostles and for Christians of every age: Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life (Jn 6:68). In these words, we get a sense that Peter and the Twelve also struggle with Jesus’ teaching, but since they know He’s the Son of God — We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God (Jn 6:69) — they’re willing to overcome their lack of understanding by placing their faith in Him. In other words, ‘We, too, find this a hard teaching, but who else can we follow? Only you are the Son of God; only you are the Messiah, the Christ. If we stopped following you, we’d be lost and spiritually dead. We don’t understand, but we believe in you, and because we believe in you, we also believe your words’. That’s why Peter’s response is really a double act of faith: faith in Christ and faith in the Eucharist; faith in God and faith in the Word of God.

And so one question remains: What will be our answer? Will we stumble on this teaching and turn away from Jesus, or will we stay close to Him, like the Apostles, and pray: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! (cf. Mk 9:24)?

I invite now to kneel.

[Kneeling toward the Tabernacle:]

Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly believe that you are truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. Humbly kneeling before you, in union with all the faithful on earth, we adore you and worship you with all our heart. Grant, O Lord, that we, who declare our faith in this fountain of your love and mercy, may drink from it the water of everlasting life. Amen.

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Homily for Sunday OT 20 B – John 6, The Bread of Life Discourse (part 4 of 5)


Prv 9:1-6
Ps 34         R/. Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Eph 5:15-20
Jn 6:51-58


Portion of 'Christ Crucified', by Diego Velasquez, 1632.

Portion of ‘Christ on the Cross’, by Diego Velasquez, 1632.

We continue this Sunday with chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, the ‘Bread of Life Discourse’, and now this week we enter into the heart of Jesus’ explicit teaching on the Eucharist, the most important section of the whole chapter.

Since the crowds didn’t understand Him, Jesus now strengthens His language to clarify His meaning: I am the living bread that came down from heaven. […] and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (Jn 6:51).

Whereas before Jesus was using a spiritual language the crowds didn’t understand, He now switches to a more literal language so that they might understand. And we see that the crowds are beginning to do so: The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (Jn 6:52). They understand very well that Jesus is speaking of having them eat His flesh.

Here John uses irony again: though they understand His words plainly, the crowds, in fact, still don’t understand what He’s actually going to do. They now think He wants them to eat His living flesh, perhaps even at that moment. They hear Jesus’ words and immediately think of cannibalism, and this rightly confuses and even repulses them. They understand the what, but they don’t understand the how.

But notice Jesus’ careful choice of words: He didn’t say ‘the bread that I am giving is my flesh’, but rather, the bread that I will give … is my flesh (v. 51). The giving of His flesh for food is a future gift, not a present one. At the Last Supper, Jesus will change this to the present tense when He gives the Apostles His Flesh and Blood as bread and wine: ‘Take, eat; this is my body. […] ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood (Mt 26:26-28; cf. also Mk 14:22-24; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:24).

You see, the Flesh and Blood that Jesus gives us to eat isn’t the flesh that was living at the time He spoke these words to the crowds, but His crucified, risen, and glorified Flesh. The gift of the Body and Blood of Jesus, while instituted at the Last Supper and given to us on the Cross, in a sense, only becomes the Eucharist after the Resurrection. Had He given us His flesh to eat before that, we could rightly ask with the crowds, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (Jn 6:52), for once having eaten Him, there would be nothing left: He would be consumed.

Rather, Jesus is pointing us precisely to the Cross and Resurrection. First, He’s pointing us to the Last Supper, where gives us the gift of His Flesh and Blood in word, and then literally gives us His Flesh and pours out His Blood on the Cross — (this is also where the Sacraments of Marriage and the Priesthood intersect with the Eucharist, but that’s for another time). It’s in this moment that He gives His Body and Blood for the life of the world — that is, in atonement for our sins, for our redemption and salvation; that we might once again have access to eternal life in God’s presence.

Second, it points us to the Resurrection, where His Body now has eternal life; death has no more power over the Body of Jesus. And, as we see for the Resurrection accounts, neither do the laws of physics: Jesus appears and disappears, and He even ascends into Heaven with His Body (cf. Mk 16:19; Lk 24:13-31, 50-53; Jn 20:19-29; Acts 1:9). Not being bound by death, space, and time, after the Resurrection Jesus is able to give us His Flesh and Blood without being Himself destroyed — this is part of the meaning of the miracles of multiplication. Since He’s conquered sin and death with His Body, He’s able to give us His eternal and divine Body and Life so that sin and death will be destroyed in us. This is also contained in the phrase for the life of the world (Jn 6:51): in the Eucharist, Jesus gives us life, His life.

We can understand this now because we’re looking back with the lens of the Resurrection and the centuries of meditation on this text, but in that moment in the synagogue at Capernaum, as we’ll see more clearly next week, neither the crowds nor the Apostles understood this. (It’s interesting, though, that no one seems to have thought of asking Jesus what exactly He meant and how He was going to do it. John only shows us that the crowds continued in their stubbornness and lack of faith.)

But going back to our Gospel text: instead of correcting their mistaken understanding, Jesus actually intensifies His language, repeating the same phrase five more times in our Gospel passage (Jn 6:53-58)! And not only this, but Jesus now changes the word He used for ‘eat’ from the usual term for eating to the more graphic term, ‘chew’, usually only used for animals. (Here we have a beautiful link to the Nativity: He who was to become our Food already pointed to this as a newborn by lying in a manger, an animal trough!) There is no room here for symbolism or metaphor! Jesus is very clear that He is being literal in His words: we must indeed eat His flesh and drink His blood!

And in this repetition, Jesus also mentions that those who eat and drink His Flesh and Blood will share in His life: [as] I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me (Jn 6:57). To receive the Eucharist is to participate in the very life of Jesus. That’s why we call it communion (union with), because in receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus, it’s He who lives in us, and us who live in Him. Again, since it’s His glorified Body we receive, it isn’t He who’s consumed in us, but rather we who are consumed in Him, to be increasingly re-created in His image and likeness. This is the true ‘personal relationship’ to which Jesus invites us!

And to tie this in with what He said earlier, Jesus speaks again of the manna (v. 58). The Eucharist, like the manna, is a free gift from God to sustain us on our journey to the Promised Land. It’s physical food for our bodies and spiritual food for our souls, to strengthen us in faith and keep us faithful to the God who loves us and calls us to be His people. The Eucharist is our true daily bread from Heaven. (This is also a reference to the Our Father.)

That’s why we speak of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Church: it’s in the Eucharist that we’re united to Jesus and to each other, thereby being made Church; and it’s in the Eucharist that we express most profoundly the mystery of being God’s People, by being joined to Jesus in His offering of love to the Father. As Christians, we’re made by the Eucharist, and made for the Eucharist!

I invite you now to kneel.

[Kneeling toward the Tabernacle:]

Lord Jesus Christ, we firmly believe that you are truly and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. Humbly kneeling before you, in union with all the faithful on earth, we adore you and worship you with all our heart. Grant, O Lord, that we, who declare our faith in this fountain of your love and mercy, may drink from it the water of everlasting life. Amen.

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Homily – Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Deut 8:2-3, 14-16
Ps 147             R/. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.
1 Cor 10:16-17
Jn 6:51-59

 

LastSupperCommunionOn Holy Thursday we celebrated the institution of the Mass and of the Priesthood. Today, we celebrate a special feast in honour of the Holy Eucharist itself, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

The Church has celebrated this feast for almost 800 years now, as a means to remember and celebrate the tremendous gift of the Eucharist. And so this feast, then, is one of great joy and gratitude, because the gift that we celebrate today — the Eucharist — isn’t a mere ‘friendly meal’ or some symbolic sharing of bread and wine; the gift we celebrate with this Solemnity is the gift of Jesus Himself, given to us on the Cross in flesh and blood.

As we hear in during the Eucharistic Prayer at each Mass, Jesus, at the Last Supper, said, Take this … for this is my Body… the Blood of the new and eternal covenant… (Words of Institution). Now every Sacrament in the Church happens through a combination of word and an action — in Baptism, the minister says I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, as he pours water on the child; in Confession, after sins have been confessed, the Priest lays his hands over the penitent and says the formula of absolution; in Marriage, the couple give themselves to each other through their vows at church, and then fulfil that gift bodily in the marital act.

The words of gift that Jesus makes of Himself at the Last Supper are fulfilled in body on the Cross, where He literally gives us His flesh and blood for our salvation. When we put these two parts together — the words of the Last Supper and the gift on the Cross —, we have the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

This is the Mass! It’s the gift of Christ made present for us today, so that we might receive from Him that very gift of His flesh and blood, that we might be fed and strengthened by His sacred Body and Blood.

And just as when a husband and wife come together to give of themselves to each other in body, so too, in the Eucharist, Christ’s love for us is expressed and our love for Him is strengthened.

In receiving the Holy Eucharist we’re united to Jesus in the most intimate communion possible in this life. So much so that, through it, we receive His divine life, for now His Body and Blood live in us, and work in us to transform us ever more into His image and likeness. Become what you eat!, St. Augustine used to say.

This is why the Church speaks of the Eucharist as the source and summit of the Christian life. Source, because it’s through the Body and Blood of Christ given to us on the Cross that we’ve been saved; it’s through the Body and Blood of Christ given to us in Communion that we’re made into more perfect disciples and are strengthened to live the Christian life.

Summit, because its through the Body and Blood of Christ celebrated at Mass that we offer to the Father the greatest gift and thanksgiving possible, and through that, experience our most sublime heritage as the people of God; and because through the Body and Blood of Christ, God makes Himself near to us, not just in Spirit, but also in Body.

These are challenging truths that we celebrate today, and they always have been. As we heard in John’s Gospel, many disciples found it hard to believe in what Jesus said: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?, they asked (Jn 6:52); many even abandoned Jesus as He continued to explain how His Body and Blood are true food and drink (Jn 6:66).

The Church continues to profess this same truth today: the bread and wine that we offer at Mass truly does become, through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. And so the Communion that we receive, then, is none other than the Body and Blood of Christ: the same Body which was given up for us on the Cross; the same Blood which was poured out for us on the Cross.

This is the food with which our Lord feeds us on our journey of faith; this is the extent to which He loves us; this is the gift that we celebrate today and receive at each Mass. There can be nothing greater in this life than to witness this miracle of God’s love and to receive this gift for our life and our salvation. This is why the Eucharist is sacred; this is why we celebrate with joy!

The Eucharist is our glory as children of God, and a foretaste of the eternal communion promised us through the covenant of Christ’s blood. May we continue to grow in our love and understanding of this great mystery, so as to better appreciate and adore this wondrous Sacrament. Amen.

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Corpus Christi 101

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (also known as Corpus Christi) is celebrated on the Sunday after Holy Trinity. It’s a special feast in honour of the Holy Eucharist that highlights the importance of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.

‘But isn’t Holy Thursday the feast of the Eucharist’, you might ask? It is, but it’s also the feast of the Priesthood, of the great commandment to serve one another, and of the Agony in the Garden. And since Holy Thursday falls right between Lent and Passion Friday, it isn’t the most favourable time for a joyful festival. These were some of the reasons that St. Juliana of Liège proposed 800 years ago in her repeated appeals for such a feast. In 1264, Pope Urban IV agreed and established Corpus Christi. At the request of the Pope, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote many of the prayers and hymns used for this feast, most notably O Salutaris and Pange Ligua (Tantum Ergo).

This Solemnity has the purpose of inviting the whole Church to celebrate the great gift and joy that is the Eucharist; of renewing and strengthening our belief in the real and abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist; and of reminding us of the tremendous love God has for us in bringing us into Covenant and Communion with Him through the Body and Blood of Christ given on the Cross.

Each Mass celebrates the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and re-presents, commemorates and perpetuates that one single offering, and allows us to participate in it here and now, in our own day, by receiving His Body and Blood, as if we had been there when He was crucified.

For those who have been reconciled to God, receiving the Eucharist unites us to Christ in His sacrifice, gives us a share in His divine life, feeds us to live the life of faith, and sanctifies us so that we might become more and more like Him, whom we receive, and to whom we have been united.

May our worship of this Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood helps us to experience the salvation He won for us and the peace of the Kingdom, where He lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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