TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, 27TH AUGUST 2000, SUNDAY XXI(B)
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
Today’s Gospel brings us to the end of John 6, Jesus’ great exposition of the Eucharist, which we have been hearing for the last five weeks.
“After hearing his doctrine many of the followers of Jesus said, “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?” Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, “Does this upset you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Modern society might prefer Jesus to say: “I think you heard my meaning and interpreted it in an unhelpful manner. Let us delegate an all-inclusive committee of womyn, men, gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and ethnic minorities to discuss the matter, that they may surely come to an agreed form of words acceptable to all sides. It is the figurative meaning of my words that is important, do not understand them literally. The words that I have spoken to you are meaningful and life-enhancing. Some of you only half believe them, but at least you are asking questions, and that is more important than arriving at an answer.”
Modern dialogue about religion and morality so often aims at reaching a compromise consensus. Jesus does not allow compromise with His Eucharistic teaching. “The flesh has nothing to offer.” The full commitment of faith is more important to Him than mass approval or numerical success. Many of his disciples walk away. He challenges even the Apostles: “Will you also leave me?”
Limited human brain power cannot encompass the sheer generosity of God’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist: “I will give you my flesh to eat and my blood to drink.”
Frightened, dimmed human nature does not want the Immortal Eternal God to come so close. We can rationally cope with a symbolic remembrance of Christ. This does not threaten us or disrupt our ever-so-rational presumptions of how God ought to act. It allows us to be the active partners, pleasantly recalling and celebrating the example of Christ in our community celebration.
But to witness a new and unimaginable miracle every time we meet for the Eucharist. To have the Infinite Godhead descend upon our altars, disguise Himself in the appearance of human food, and in this way to enter our bodies and souls, to feed us upon His own Being in so intimate a way – does that not sound like a blasphemy?
Our fear of the Almighty inclines us to keep him at a safe distance. How dangerous and scary is the idea that we are to swallow Him, not in mere symbol, but in true reality, to digest Him in our stomachs, and to be changed slowly by the heavenly manna we have consumed into His image and likeness. “He who eats me will draw life from me.”
This is to walk upon holy ground, to venture too near the burning bush. It is to associate with the cherubim and seraphim, too close for comfort to the spiritual conflagration of the All-Holy, whom no man can see and no man is able to see, the all-powerful Lord of the Universe. It is to risk being pierced and seared by the numinous Divine Flame, which terrifies us and attracts us at the same time.
It is to walk out on the waters of faith, trusting ourselves to the One whom we consume, allowing Him to purge us and refashion us. Holy Communion is this divine penetration of God into our innermost being. God loves us so much that He desires to be united with us, inside us. He desires us to know His peace, His joy, His truth, not externally as we know our friends and acquaintances, but deep within our souls. “Unless you tear with your teeth my flesh and drink my blood, you will not have life within you.”
Shortly after the beginning of his Pontificate, in his Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae of 1980, addressed primarily to the Bishops, Pope John Paul II commented upon a modern phenomenon:
“Sometimes, indeed quite frequently, everybody participating in the Eucharistic assembly goes to communion, and on some such occasions, as experienced pastors confirm, there has not been due care to approach the Sacrament of Penance so as to purify one’s conscience. This can of course mean that those approaching the Lord’s Table find nothing on their conscience, according to the objective law of God, to keep them from this sublime and joyful act of being sacramentally united with Christ.
But there can also be, at least at times, another idea behind this: the idea of the Mass as only a banquet in which one shares by receiving the body of Christ in order to manifest, above all else, fraternal communion. It is not hard to add to these reasons a certain human respect and mere ‘conformity.’”
The Pope was worried about sacrilegious or unworthy Communions for he went on to say: “We cannot allow the life of our communities to lose the good quality of sensitiveness of Christian conscience, guided solely by respect for Christ who, when He is received in the Eucharist, should find in the heart of each of us a worthy abode. This question is closely linked not only with the practice of the Sacrament of Penance but also with a correct sense of responsibility for the whole deposit of moral teaching and the precise distinction between good and evil, a distinction which then becomes for each person sharing in the Eucharist the basis for a correct judgement of self to be made in the depths of personal conscience. . . . this judgement is an indispensable condition for a personal decision whether to approach Eucharistic communion or to abstain.” (DC 11)
For so awesome a Gift as the heavenly Giver Himself, our souls must be cleansed and prepared - to be in a state of grace before receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood, for whoever eats and drinks unworthily eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Cor 11:29). When the Church refuses communion to those in mortal sin, she does this for their own good – the Communion they take will do them harm. It will bring condemnation upon them. It will harden them in patterns of sin, and cause them to play down the seriousness of their sinful lifestyle. It will delude them into thinking they are on the way to heaven, when they are drawing close to the gates of hell.
Consider, for example, the many sacrilegious communions Henry VIII must have made, as he married, divorced and executed one wife after another, hardening himself in his proud conviction that he and Cranmer were right and the rest of the Church was wrong, in particular the Pope, One way of having your cake and eating it, of course, is to appoint oneself Supreme Head of the Church within one’s own realms – even if it is only the narrow confines of one’s own life and relationships. Then no objective judgment, no weight of natural law, no mass of scriptural edict, no bulk of papal encyclicals, no thunder from the pulpit, not even that still small voice of calm, is allowed to interfere with one’s own utterly infallible decisions of a blinded, stifled conscience.
What unpalatable doctrines does Jesus today give our nation? He stands in our midst and teaches most solemnly through Peter: “Whoever impedes or prevents the fruit of human love will come to hate the Giver of Life. To destroy the fruit of human love is to be a murderer from the start. To create human life in order to destroy it is to make oneself a slave of the Evil One. Whatever you do to the least of these little ones conceived, you do unto me.”
Our society cannot arrive at a reasonable compromise about these serious moral questions as fertility destruction, abortion and cloning. There is no consensus. There is an unbridgeable abyss between God’s way, and Satan’s way. Jesus speaks in our day through his duly appointed Vicar on earth, the successor of Peter the Apostle. His teaching is a seamless robe, whether it concerns the Eucharist or these modern ethical issues. We cannot have the one without the other.