Although this is the first Sunday of Lent the homily today is on the Eucharist as I'm giving a retreat this weekend to those who will be received into the Church as adult Catholics this coming Easter.
I used to work in a hospital and one of the jobs that I did for six days a week, was to bring Holy Communion to the sick and anyone else who wanted to receive. I often noticed that bringing Holy Communion around to people provoked the most reaction. People would or would not receive, but they were usually pretty definite about it. Those who didn’t receive, whether out of pride or guilt or whatever, were always a bit unsettled by the presence of Jesus. It was very seldom that I would meet someone who was completely indifferent and not in the least bit unaffected.
One day I came into a room and a patient automatically started crying. Sometimes the relatives would cry when I blessed someone sick who could not receive. Why was this? Because they knew, somehow and believed, like we do, that this was really Jesus. No one else could have that effect on people. If I brought a loaf of bread around, do you think that it would make any difference?
Even when people don’t receive, you can tell by their faces that they know there is something there, something different, something mysterious.
The Eucharist is a kind of paradox, or contradiction. It seems to be only a piece of bread, but it isn’t. It is so simple yet it is way beyond our understanding. How can it be possible that the Lord God who created everything, can become present to us in a tiny piece of bread through the hands of a priest who is a sinner? How can it be that the Lord obeys the words of a priest at the consecration of the mass? This is a great mystery, but we believe it has come from Jesus himself and that is why we believe it. In the earliest description of the mass, St. Paul begins by saying, ‘This is what I received from the Lord and in turn pass on to you…’ Jesus taught it to Paul directly, after He had risen from the dead. Jesus taught it to the other disciples when He was with them.
Because God wants to exclude no one, He gives himself to us in the most basic and simple way possible: in bread, one of the most basic of foods. It is so simple that everyone can believe it and yet it is also totally beyond our understanding. God reveals himself to us ‘in mystery’, like the burning bush before Moses; it was a contradiction. The Holy Eucharist is there before us, but we can not understand it.
Jesus says in the Gospel, ‘I bless you Father … for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom to merechildren, for that is what it pleased you to do. We can accept it like children, but if we try to understand it, we will find that it is beyond us. Sometimes it is very educated who people give up when they come to the teaching on the Eucharist, because they try to understand it and can’t. ‘It defies logic’, people will say, and they’re right. To believe in it, we have to recognise that it is beyond us, in other words that God is beyond us. We have to acknowledge that we are small and very limited in our understanding. Once we do this, then God can begin to work in us and work powerfully through us, because we have opened the door to him.
The Eucharist is a kind of doorway to our faith. It is the way in, but it’s also where a lot of people get stuck. When Jesus first spoke about the Eucharist and said, ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you can not have life within you’, many of his followers left him, they couldn’t take this. But notice that He didn’t go after them and try to explain it. He just left it with them as He had spoken. It requires faith.
I want to finish with the story of St. Margaret Clithero. In the late 1500s this woman lived in the town of York in England. She was a convert to Catholicism at a time when it was against the law to be a Catholic. Priests used to come to her disguised as cloth penders, bringing her the Eucharist and she would hide them. She never saw mass in a public church or heard a Catholic hymn being sung even though she lived next to York Minster Cathedral. It was an Anglican church at the time.
She was eventually found out and she was dragged from the butcher shop where she worked and brought before magistrates and ordered to plead guilty or not guilty, so that she could go on trial. She refused as she didn’t want her innocent blood to be on the head of twelve jurors. She said, ‘If you want to condemn me, condemn me yourself’. The judge said’ ‘Because you are a woman I will let you go free, but you must promise never to hide these priests again.’
He handed her the bible and told her to swear on it. So she took the bible in open court and held it up in the air and said, ‘I swear by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, if you let me go free, I will hide priests again, because they are the only ones who can bring us the body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’
So, just over 400 years ago, she was brought to St. Michael’s bridge in York and given the punishment, worse than being hung, drawn and quartered. It was called in English law, ‘the punishment most severe’. She was pressed to death under heavy weights. It was to take three days and she was to receive only a little muddy water to drink to keep her alive. The executioner was bribed and he put a stone under her head so that she died within an hour as her neck was broken. She was the mother of eight children, and some of them were there when she was executed.
In the little chapel that is there to her memory in York today, there is an inscription over the door, which is a message for our times. It says ‘She died for the mass’.