May 9, 2021: Sixth Sunday of Easter - Pastor’s Corner
With eighteen letters and six syllables, the word “transubstantiation” is a mouthful. Historically, theologians have used this fifty-cent word to articulate the mystery of the Eucharist. Yet when I began ministry, my initial instinct was to avoid using this word when teaching about Holy Communion, especially when catechizing children. Such a philosophically dense word would befuddle young minds. I was wrong. I soon learned never to underestimate the natural wonder and insightful perspective of those to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. For example, when I explained that “transubstantiation” means that something changes from one kind of thing to another, the children inundated me with natural examples of caterpillars, tadpoles and some species of fish that undergo analogous metamorphosis. Just as nature has a process of transformation, so too the Eucharistic is the fruit of the creative words of the priest echoing Jesus at the Last Super: “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” When I cautioned that the Eucharistic transubstantiation is not exactly the same as natural phenomenon, since the bread and wine still look like bread and wine even after they are changed in Jesus’ Body and Blood, one young girl was undaunted. She gave a “reverse” example. Just as water can appear in three different forms while still remaining the same thing, so too the bread can become Jesus, even it if looks and tastes like cardboard!
Talking transubstantiation with children comes to mind as this weekend we celebrate First Communions. As a mystery, the “how” of the Eucharist goes beyond full comprehension. Thankfully, Jesus says: “Take and eat, not take and understand.” So we might not fathom its physics, Christ does reveal what Eucharist is: His Body and Blood. Further the Gospel reveals the reason for the Eucharist. At the Last Supper, knowing that he will soon be separated from his apostles, Jesus transforms the Passover bread into His Body, so that when the apostles are faithful to his command to “do this in memory me,” the Eucharist will form them together as a living body. Christ’s humility in assuming human nature manifests itself most profoundly at the Last Supper. For on that night, the courage and nerve of most of the apostles and disciples fail. In the face of crisis, they betray, deny and abandon the Lord. They fail to live the Gospel command of love. What is Christ’s response? To become even more humble, to stoop to meet them in their fragility. He becomes as small as a bit of bread, so that, through the Eucharist, they might have the strength to love one another the face of adversity. In the Eucharist, Jesus becomes small, so that they might become strong. The Passover bread that they share is no longer simply bread, but is the substance of Christ himself which unites them both with Christ and with one another.
In the Eucharist, God not only forms us as a people, but transforms us by his grace. Our Gospel speaks about this transformation: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete. This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you slaves, because a slave does not know what his master is doing. I have called you friends.” The great gift of the Eucharist is the gift of God’s of friendship. A friend is someone who shares their life with another. Jesus wants to share His life with us. He desires to live within us. When we consume Communion, the very life of God transforms us, just as it does the bread. This bread of angels, the panis angelicus, nourishes us with the life of God’s grace, and there is no moment in which we are closer to heaven than the moment we receive the Eucharist. In this moment, our hearts are nourished by heavenly bread. Jesus becomes bread so that we might be fed.
As our children receive communion for the very first time, we are invited to once again treasure the gift of the Eucharist. Like the apostles, we struggle to live the command we hear in this week’s Gospel to love another. Jealousy, selfishness, resentment: if we’re honest, we are not stranger to such sins. Through regular communion, we are given the strength of him who became small for our sake: Jesus becomes small, so that we might become strong. Even if we are successful in rooting out some of our more obvious vices, the simple routine of our worship can itself be a pitfall. Especially for us who are in the habit of receiving communion week after week, we have to guard against complacency and indifference. Inspired by the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we might make their desire to be with Jesus our prayer “Remain in me, Lord.” As you receive the Eucharist and return to your pew, join me in praying: “Remain in me, Lord.” As you go about the busyness of the day, invite Jesus with the words: “Remain in me, Lord.” As you wake in morning and retire in evening, call upon the strength of his presence: “Remain in me, Lord.” And expect Christ to bear the fruit of his love in our lives.