Psalm 67: 2-3, 5, 6, 8
In his book, Becoming Friends, Paul Wadell tells a funny story about the theologian Stanley Hauerwas who was visiting Chicago to give a lecture in the 1980’s about the USCCB’s pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace. Hauerwas had expressed his disappointment that the bishops had stopped short of calling all Catholics to embrace Christian pacifism. A member of the audience commented that he didn’t think that American Catholics would have gone along with such a demanding decree from the bishops, to which Hauerwas replied, “You Catholics go to Mass all the time. What do all those Masses do for you?”
For three weeks now, it has been hard for Catholics not to reflect on the meaning and importance of the Eucharist as we have heard the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel proclaimed. This Sunday’s Gospel makes the point with particular force: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
The Eucharist has always held a central place in the life of the church. And yet we might ask –Why is the celebration of the Eucharist vitally important for our lives as Catholic Christians? How does eating the body and blood of Christ change us?
There is a danger in resorting to what might be called a “magical” understanding of the Eucharist’s importance for our life of faith. That perspective sees the Eucharist as a sort of magic pill that automatically dispenses grace and makes us different. Today’s Gospel might even seem to point us in this direction –you eat, you drink, and *boom* you have eternal life within you! Dramatic, instantaneous infusions of faith are certainly possible, but typically our devotion to the Eucharist changes us in much slower, mundane fashion. God may sometimes transform people against their will, but more often our cooperation and effort are required.
In order for the Eucharist to become a source of eternal life within us, we must approach the liturgy regularly and with a willingness to be transformed. In our harried lives, we may be tempted to see the Mass as an hour of consolation and quiet, a refuge. It may sometimes be that for us, but it must also be a place in which we come to perceive God’s presence in the world, come to know God’s ways, and seek to find the strength to live accordingly. It is by regularly and repeatedly opening ourselves up to God in the Word and in the Eucharist that change can begin to occur in us. It is a change born out of deep love.
Wadell explains eloquently how worship is to build up our love for God, which in turn reshapes who we are and how we live:
“Ultimately, the goal of Christian worship is to create and sustain a community of friends of God who precisely because they are friends of God commit themselves to embodying and proclaiming and practicing the ways of God’s Reign in the world” (Becoming Friends, 17).
The liturgy should not be turned into an occasion for moralizing and yet the deep devotion and attachment to Christ that the Eucharist helps us to cultivate nevertheless has profound effects on our moral life. As Wadell makes clear, our transformation grows out of a deep love, attachment, or friendship with God. This deep attachment is a significant part of what is conveyed by the very intimate act of eating the body and blood of Christ. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
It is this abiding, mutual love that lies at the heart of eternal life that we hear about in today’s Gospel. It is from this deep love that a life of Christian virtue grows – a life in the world marked by the signs of eternal life. In this same deep attachment lies our hope for eternal life with Christ beyond the grave. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.”
May we eat and drink and find wisdom and eternal life.