20 August 2009. 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 9, 1-6; Psalm 34; Eph 5, 15-20; John 6, 51-58
A student once asked me about transubstantiation or the encounter of the mystery of Christ becoming truly present under the appearance of bread and wine. He observed that the sacred species look exactly the same after the consecration as they did before the consecration. But Catholics know through their faith that there is a world of difference. After the consecration, our Lord and Savior is truly present in our midst as our spiritual food, or as the Gospel tells us, as our bread of life.
There is however, a big but: those who receive communion do not look different than before the joined the communion line. A few minutes later, they remain the same people we know, having the same behavior and manners that ruffle our feathers. Take for example government leaders whose photos grace newspaper headlines. Sometimes they appear in dailies taking communion with their eyes closed in an attempt to look earnest. But we all know that these are the same persons who take 800 million from emergency funds for foreign trips. Did they change? The first Christians to the present parish communities, which John Paul II called, “Eucharistic communities” (Christifideles Laici, Dec 1988), the Eucharist has always been an integral part of Christian living. During the time of the first Christians, they gathered in the “breaking of the bread.” Today, we gather at the Eucharistic table every Sunday; and for some with a deep devotion to the Eucharist, they come to church every day. Do all who gather change?
We believe that through transubstantiation, bread and wine cease to be bread and wine but truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus, even though all physical properties, such as size, taste, appearance, and composition, remain the same. We cannot see the difference, but we accept this teaching through the vision of faith. But the sacraments effect an analogous change. A baby girl after baptism looks exactly the same as she did before, yet she is now a child of God and a member of the Church. Some believe that after baptism, she already can travel protected by God. A young man, after his ordination, looks the same as before the ordination, but can now consecrate the Eucharist and forgive sins in God’s name. After confessions, we look the same, but we have had our relationship with the Lord restored and renewed, and we feel light and happy. In all cases, we look the same on the outside, but at the core of our being we’ve radically changed. However, just as we benefit from food’s nutrients --- only if we digest the food well --- we benefit from the grace of the Eucharist only to the extent that we effectively “digest” this spiritual food, this bread of life.
How do we change? Let’s take the dictionary meaning of “digest”. Physically, our body breaks down food in the stomach and intestines into substances that can be used by it. It therefore nourishes and sustains our lives.
Spiritually the idea is the same: by a period of reflections in our lives and knowledge about Jesus, we begin to understand and assimilate this new information or the significance of them. Again, one at a time, like the passages in the Bible. Convinced, we operate in the world according to the principles and values we believe in. But these values are also shared by a community; people who also believe that these values are right; that is why the first reading from Proverbs describes the acquisition of knowledge is done in the context of a community. Every idea has been contributed by many men and women in the past or present. When strongly agreeable to the principles, our external behavior or outlook will reflect them.
The next step in transformation is another dictionary meaning: to digest means to arrange something in a systematic or convenient order like a digest of laws. Thus the sum of all the things we understood and the significance we put on them will form us into a different person. Ideally, we develop, mature, improve as we assimilate more knowledge. That is why we have a “hierarchy of values” or “a system of laws and principles” that we follow. For example, St. Ignatius of Loyola prays in the Spiritual Exercises: To know Jesus intimately, love Him more intensely, and so to follow Him more closely. Lovingly so dearly that Jesus will now determine our outlook, our mode of behavior, our culture and lifestyle. When we happily agree to have God determine ourselves, then we acquire a life in God. In fact, we hope that we would actually approximate Jesus Himself.