I expect all of you know that in some wonderful way Jesus is present for us at every Mass, not just in a general way, but specifically in the bread and wine after it has been blessed – the techie word is “consecrated” by the priest. The priest asks God to “make holy these gifts” and then says the words of Jesus, “This is my Body… this is my Blood.” Today, in the first of my series of Homilies on the Mass, I want us to look at what this really means. One of the reasons we need to do this is that many people dismiss this belief as stupid superstition, not least some of our fellow Christians. But we will see, at the end of the next 5 weeks, as we read through John Chapter 6 as our Gospel, that people found this difficult even when he was physically present with them back then. (See John 6:60)
St John deliberately begins this teaching of Jesus, as in our Gospel today (John 6:1-15) with the story of the Feeding of the 5 Thousand. He does this because he wants us to realise that the presence of God is quite different from the natural, we would now say scientific, way of talking about things. We all know that if we say that salt is present in this or that food, then the scientists can take it away to their laboratory and find after analysis exactly how much salt there is. But I hope we all know that although we say that God is really present in the bread and wine, he is not present in an outward way that these same scientists could analyse. His presence is therefore real, but in a different way.
An easy way of understanding this is to think of someone who has love within them, as I hope we all have. We care about others, some more some less, but if the scientists were to examine us they would not be able to find something called “love” inside us. They would find that this love affects our physical body in various ways – a rise in adrenalin levels perhaps, or in brain waves – but despite the fact that love can so powerfully influence and change our behaviour, its reality cannot be analysed scientifically. It is no surprise therefore that in one of his Letters St John actually says “God is love, and those who live in love live in God, and God lives in them.” (1 John 4:16)
Today’s Gospel also reminds us that this presence of God within the Blessed or the Most Holy Sacrament (as we call it) is not to be seen as just inside it, almost as it were “trapped” inside it, and only accessible to us when we eat it. Because God’s presence is like love, it actually radiates out from the place where it is present, just like the bread shared by the 5 Thousand multiplied so that there was more left at the end than at the beginning. Thus it is like the light we share at Easter, when from one candle the light spreads out to all the other candles, until the darkened Church is full of light. Light, like love, multiplies when it is shared.
This is why we all receive the benefit of God’s Presence at Mass, whether we receive Communion or not. Simply being present is sufficient, provided we believe, provided as St Paul says that we “discern the body” (1 Cor 11:29). The Church calls this making a spiritual communion. But St Paul writes about discerning the body actually to warn people that if any of us eat the bread and wine “in an unworthy manner” we are in danger. It’s a bit like someone who, being handed a lighted candle, took hold of the flame. It burns! But be comforted, for being worthy does not mean being perfect; it simply means being open to God’s love and grace.
The other thing the Presence of Christ does to us who believe is that again, like love, it draws us into a closer unity. So the priest prays “Grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son… may become one body, one spirit in Christ.”
We heard this also in our 2nd Reading today where St Paul prays “Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Body, one Spirit” (Eph 4:1-6) This is worth remembering when we share the Peace at Mass. Remember that we share it in the special Presence of Christ in the just consecrated elements present on the altar. The Peace we share then is not just us saying “Hello” to one another. It is an affirmation of that binding together in love that God, who is Love, creates within us by his Presence – provided remember that we LET IT HAPPEN. God never forces us, but he is there if we accept him.
I want to finish by clearing up a misunderstanding that stops some Protestant Christians from becoming full members of the Catholic Church. They have often been taught in history lessons at school, or elsewhere, that Catholics believe in “transubstantiation” – which we do. It means that the “substance” of the bread and wine is changed into the presence of Christ. The problem is that when St Thomas Aquinas created this word, back in the 13thC, to explain what happens, he was using substance in a different way from the way we use it today. Substance then meant the inner reality, as opposed to what he called the Accidents – the outward matter. He actually created the word to correct ignorant people who thought that when they bit into the bread they were biting the Flesh of Christ. The bread remains bread outwardly, but its inner reality, is what is transformed, as I hope I have been explaining. Sadly, at the time of the Reformation, this was not properly understood, and so many Protestants reacted by saying God was NOT present in the bread and wine, that his presence was not located there, but only present in a general way, thus sadly making less real the words of Jesus at the Last Supper, where he actually said, holding the bread in his hands “This is my Body” (1 Cor 11:23-26). We believe that what Jesus said, he actually meant, and so we worship him in present in this wonderful way.