Sometimes when I think of some of the different things that people of different faiths believe, and how strange they seem to me as a Catholic, 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 a symbol of Jesus, but really and truly 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 Jesus is present in a piece of bread when a priest says certain prayers over it?
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor 11:23)—which is the oldest account of the mass in writing—St. Paul says, ‘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 and turned his life around. He 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, 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 are asked to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion and why we don’t eat, or drink, or smoke, in the church, to remind us that this is something unlike anything else we do 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. And it is 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 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.’
There are two extremes that I often 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.’ That is correct! No one is worthy enough, nor ever could be, but since the Lord himself is happy to give himself to us this way, we should not be afraid to receive him. We try to confess regularly, but we should never be afraid to receive the Eucharist unless there is something really serious stopping us. Remember it is God who desires to come to us and He does not want us to be afraid of him.
The other extreme is where people feel they have a ‘right’ to receive the Eucharist without any kind of repentance, or need to go to confession. This 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 every so often. St. Paul says,
“Each one must examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgement on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick and some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 11:28-30).
We must be careful never to be casual about receiving the Eucharist, or we will bring condemnation on ourselves. But the most important thing to remember is that the Lord 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 that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.’
The priesthood is also intimately connected to the Eucharist. The Lord Jesus wants to be available in the Eucharist to as many people as possible, but without the priesthood there is no Eucharist. To be able to celebrate the mass for God’s people is really the greatest thing that I can do as a priest. That is primarily what I was ordained for. It doesn’t mean that I am worthy enough, because no priest could ever be, but God delights in using ordinary sinful people, like me.
Why did Jesus give us the Eucharist at all? Very simply because He loves us and wants us to know that He is with us all the time in the most intimate way and that we can receive his body into our bodies, every day if we wish. It is an extraordinary gift of intimacy that the Lord gives to us. Jesus gives himself to us purely because He loves us and He knows that we are all struggling most of the time, but when we have the Eucharist we are reminded how close God is to us.
Over the centuries, many men and women have sacrificed themselves in order to receive the Eucharist and many priests have given their lives to be able to bring the Eucharist to people and in some countries that continues today.
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 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 (Protestant) 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 just 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’re tired, think of her and of the many priests and men and women who have been executed for carrying the Eucharist, or for celebrating the mass. God has given us an extraordinary treasure in the Eucharist may He give us new eyes to see what is here before us.