Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me, it also makes me think of the Eucharist. For those who do not believe as we do, it must seem like the craziest notion of all; that God makes himself present through the hands of a priest, in a tiny piece of bread and some wine. What could be more bizarre than that? And we don’t just believe that it is a reminder of Jesus or that it represents Jesus, but that it really and truly is the body and blood of Christ. I also think that it is a teaching so extreme that only God could come up with it and get away with it, so to speak. What human being would try to convince others that a piece of bread actually becomes the body of Christ when a priest says certain prayers over it?
The first time that Jesus gave the people this teaching, which we have in today's Gospel—“Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you cannot have life within you”—it says that many of the people who had followed him up to that point left him. They said “This is madness. Who could accept it?” It is interesting how Jesus responded to them. He didn’t. He just let them walk away without changing anything he said. He then turned to the disciples and said, “What about you, are you going to go away too?”
In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23-26)—which is the oldest account of the mass that we have—St. Paul says straight out, “This is what I received from the Lord and in turn passed on to you…” He doesn’t say that he received it from the other Apostles, but from the Lord himself. Jesus, as you probably remember, appeared to St. Paul while he was persecuting Christians and the event turned his life around. Jesus appeared to him several other times as well and Paul was so affected by what happened to him that he dedicated the rest of his life to preaching about this man Jesus, but the line that always strikes me is where he says, “This is what I received from the Lord…” He is saying, “I didn’t make this up and neither did any other person. Jesus himself taught us this and taught us to do this in his memory.” And so every time an ordained priest says the words of consecration at mass, “This is my Body… This is the chalice of my Blood…” Jesus becomes present in the form of bread and wine. How are we supposed to understand this? We aren’t! I do not understand it at all, but I believe it. That is why we try to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat or smoke in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else in the world. It is also a beautiful sign of how close God is to us that He would continually come to us in the middle of our lives, each week, each day, to help and encourage us. He comes to us as we are, not as we should be, but as we are. It is also God himself who makes it possible to receive him, because we could never be ready or worthy enough to even come close to the divine presence, not to mention receive him. That is also why we always say the prayer: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed” (just as the Roman soldier said when Jesus offered to come to his house to heal his servant).
|Remains of a 'mass rock' where priests celebrated mass in secret during times of persecution|
There are two extremes that I come across with regard to the Eucharist. One is where someone will say to me, “Father, I don’t receive the Eucharist because I really am not worthy enough.” Correct! No one is worthy enough nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to come to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him. The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance or need to confess every once in a while. That is also wrong. There is no question of this being a ‘right’ on our part. The Eucharist is pure gift from God and for our part we must try to approach it as well as we can, especially by confessing our sins every so often. But the most important thing to remember is that Jesus wants to give himself to us, and so we should not be afraid to come to him. Remember that ultimately it is God himself who makes it possible for us to receive him. “Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and I shall be healed.”
I want to finish with this story: In the late 1500s there lived a woman named Margaret Clithero 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 sellers, 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 (Episcopal) 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 then 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.’
So the next time that you find yourself bored with the mass, or just not too bothered to go because you are tired, think of her and think of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist or for saying mass. God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist. May He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.
“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.” – St. Margaret Clithero.