You can imagine how difficult it was for the Jewish people at the time of Jesus to come to terms with his teaching on the Eucharist. The words he uses as recorded in the Gospel of John must have sounded incredible to them, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’
It sounds like cannibalism and this was an accusation that was made against Christians for many centuries. His listeners must have found the whole thing very difficult. However, it does say that they began to argue among themselves so perhaps at least some of them did take his words to heart. If there is an argument then we must assume the some were in favour of what Jesus was saying as well, of course, as a good number being against him.
Because we are locked into thinking always of the scribes and Pharisees we tend to believe that all the Jews were against Jesus but obviously this wasn’t so. All of his Apostles were Jews and so were most of the other disciples. The people who followed Jesus around and the great crowds that turned out to listen to him and to witness to his miracles were also Jews who were not against him, even if they might have found some of his teaching a bit difficult.
What we are dealing with in the words of Jesus here is some teaching that is entirely novel. Here is the Son of God come down from heaven. He was about to give his life on the Cross and to rise from the dead in order to forgive the sins of all of mankind. And he gives his followers a commemorative meal to remind them of this in which he says that the bread and wine become his flesh and blood. He invites them to consume this flesh and blood in order to deepen their union with him.
Nobody had ever heard anything like this before, it was something completely new. Nowadays we take it all for granted, but in those days it must have been very difficult for people to even begin to understand what Jesus was talking about.
The point that we believers today have to understand about the Eucharist is that it is transformative. The Eucharist changes us. It is vital that we are aware of this. We are imperfect beings, we all need to makes changes in our lives in order to become better people, to become better Christians. We all require transformation.
The Eucharist is spiritual food, it feeds our souls and through our participation each Sunday we gradually become more like Christ. You may not be very aware of this transformation, but I bet you that the people who live around you are. They realise that coming to mass is good for you, they know that it helps to make you the person you are.
Of course, if we come to mass with hardness in our hearts it will do us no good whatsoever. We need to be open to the grace and power of Christ, we have to allow him into our hearts; we have to let him change us. If we come to mass with our hearts closed to the one above, if we remain locked in to our own preoccupations, we could receive Holy Communion a thousand times and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.
It is all a question of attitude. If we come to mass with the right attitude, if we come seeking forgiveness of our sins, if we come with a desire to do better towards our fellow human beings, if we come with the wish to worship God and to pay due reverence to our Saviour, then with these attitudes we can rightfully expect a transformation to gradually take place in our lives.
There are of course some rules about receiving Holy Communion, we cannot simply receive Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament any and every time we come to mass. The most important rule is that we should not be conscious of serious sin. If we come to mass in a state of sin then first we must be reconciled by going to Confession and only then receive the Eucharist.
Also we mustn’t be blasé about our reception of the Eucharist. I know of people who never go to mass at all during the year and then at Christmas during Midnight Mass they swan straight up to Holy Communion without giving it a second’s thought. They simply take the sacrament for granted, they think that it is their perfect right to receive Holy Communion whenever they wish.
I keep talking about attitude and I do so because it is very important. The best attitude we should try to develop in relation to the Eucharist is that of reverence. By this I am not talking about anything exaggerated such as lots of genuflections and bowing of heads. What I am talking about is an attitude of the heart.
By reverence we mean putting ourselves in the correct relationship we ought to have with God. It means acknowledging that he is as far above us as it is possible to imagine and that we owe him absolutely everything. We owe him our whole lives, every bit of pleasure and human satisfaction that we experience, we owe him all our family and friends, and we acknowledge that everything that we possess has its origin in him.
But more than this, because he sent Jesus to live among us and show us the way and ultimately to save us from our sins and bring us to heaven. So while on the one hand we know that we ought to grovel before him, on the other hand we recognise that it is he who lifts us up and invites us to share in his life.
Taking these two things into account we realise that we ought to be living a life in true companionship with the Lord. We know that we ought to be following his commandments and sharing in his sacraments. If we have this idea in our heads, that we should show him reverence and give him all the honour that is his due, then we should have no fear when it comes to approach the altar and receive him in Holy Communion.
Our relationship with the Lord will have deepened and we will see him as a companion on our journey through life. We will see him as the one who loves us and sustains us with the gift of his body and blood.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket