When I was a boy, many moons ago, we used to transform sunlight into fire in the school playground. All you need is a small piece of paper and a magnifying glass. You focus the light until it is pinpointed on the paper, and soon the spot of light becomes fire and the paper is burnt up. I use this story because I want to talk today about how God transforms the bread and wine at Mass into his special presence. Note that I say “special presence”, because just as the sunlight is already present shining on the little bit of paper and shining everywhere to give us light, so God as Holy Spirit is already present in the bread and wine and in all created things, including and especially anything and everything that has life or is life-giving.
This is something we easily forget. We tend to want to think of God’s presence as something big and dramatic coming from outside that changes lives, and so it can be ; but we must never neglect his quieter hidden presence in and around us at all times. As St Paul says, when he first preaches in Athens, “In him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) Notice in our 1st Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) that Elijah has to be told not once but twice by God “Get up and eat”. Having experienced God’s dramatic power bringing down fire on a mountain, he has to be shown that God is also present in something as ordinary as food for the journey, and thus the story prefigures (as we say) the way Jesus will give himself to us in the simple sharing of bread and wine. In the Gospel too (John 6:41-51) the people cannot believe the power that Jesus claims he has as the bread of life. They say “We know his father and mother. How can he now say “I have come down from heaven.”
So the presence of God as Holy Spirit is easily missed, and his special coming is so quiet, that we forget that the moment when the priest prays for the Holy Spirit to come in this way is one of the most important moments at every Mass. Some people think the bell rings just before the priest says the words of Jesus “This is my Body..” to wake us up and make us pay attention to something important that is about to happen! But actually, although indeed it may serve the purpose of waking you up, it rings because something important is actually happening! The Priest is praying that God’s Holy Spirit will work in this transforming way NOW; and if you can see the priest at this point, you will see him holding his hands out over the bread and wine as he says “Therefore, O Lord, by the same Spirit… graciously make holy these gifts… that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ.” He is, as it were, holding the magnifying glass for us, so that the power, already quietly present, can be focussed more precisely for this equally quiet transformation to take place.
It’s worth remembering at this point, that this is a power given to the Church as a whole, not just to an individual called a priest or a bishop. I do not celebrate Mass by myself. As a priest, I am linked to my Bishop and through him to all my fellow priests, and to the Pope and to the whole Church of which you are all a part. So when I, as a priest, hold my hands out over the bread and wine, it is not just me but the whole Church that prays in this special way. For it is the whole Church that has been promised the gifts of the Holy Spirit, even if different people within the Church are called to a specific use of these gifts, as the priest is.
But the power of the Holy Spirit, God’s grace as we sometimes call it, does not just transform the bread and wine, it also transforms us. This is something I know that you all know, because when asked why you come to Mass many of you will say that you are like a car running out of fuel, or to use a more modern example like a phone that needs re-charging. We all know how easily we let things slide, how easily we become obsessed with the next thing we want to do, rather than what God wants us to do. But again, just as we do not notice the Holy Spirit transforming the bread and wine, so we do not notice when we come to Mass that the Holy Spirit is radiating out from the Blessed Sacrament to transform us.
St Paul points this out in the 2nd Reading today. (Eph 4:30 – 5:2) He points out that the Holy Spirit has already marked us with his seal, and because we don’t notice that this has happened we go on with our silly ways. Clearly the Christians in Ephesus way back then were just like us, and so he has to tell them. “Never bear grudges against others, or lose your temper, or raise your voice…or call each other names, or allow any sort of spitefulness.” Yes, the Holy Spirit comes to us in a special way at Mass, through God’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and through his presence in and amongst us gathered in prayer; but we have to realise this or it will make very little difference to our lives.
That’s why, sad as it may be, there are some people who will go to Mass every Sunday, and yet never allow God into any other part of their lives. Whenever we’re like that, we make God sad, we “grieve the Holy Spirit”, (Eph 4:30) or to use more violent language, we hammer nails into Christ crucified for us on the cross. That’s why, like Elijah we need to hear God speaking again and again, not just when we feel like coming to Mass, but again and again every Sunday. Because otherwise, we ever so slowly begin to slip away into nothingness. That is why we cannot just let the Mass happen in front of us and around us, as if it were a bit of religious entertainment. We have to PRAY the Mass, to allow what is happening to penetrate into our thick skulls and hard hearts, so that the Holy Spirit may truly be able to do his transforming work within us.