All four Gospels narrate the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness. Today we affirm our unhesitating faith that Jesus still feeds his hungry people in the wilderness of this life. Only in the Holy Eucharist the nourishment we receive is no ordinary bread, but something far more wonderful. Here Jesus gives us his own Body and Blood to be our food and drink. In this way he gives us all we need to be perfectly united with him and with one another in his one Body. With this food he gives us his own life; he strengthens us in grace, and prepares us for the life of heaven.
So today the Church gives us this great feast in honour of the Holy Eucharist, with a particular focus on the real and enduring presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
There’s an old custom some people still observe, that when the Priest lifts up the Host immediately after the consecration at Mass, and then again when he lifts up the chalice, one says quietly the words of St. Thomas: My Lord and my God. That is our faith. Jesus, our Lord and our God is here, hidden under the forms of bread and wine. He is present to us in the Blessed Sacrament no less than he was to the disciples in the upper room, when he instituted this sacrament at the Last Supper, and again when he appeared in his risen and glorious Body on Easter Day.
So today we offer Jesus our homage of adoration. We adore him as creatures in the presence of their Creator, but even more so as the redeemed in the presence of their Redeemer. We adore him because he is so great, but also because he bowed down so low for our sake. We worship the one who poured out his life for us on the Cross, and we thank him for communicating all the fruits of that redeeming act to us in this holy Sacrament.
In many Catholic countries nothing is spared in honouring the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament today. In some places almost the whole population turns out for the procession. Everything is pressed into service in celebration of the festival: lavish costumes, banners, music, flowers, gorgeous vestments, the most precious sacred vessels, and the rest. Our own modest efforts today can’t compare with that. We can be consoled to reflect, though, that the Lord himself looks at the heart, and is pleased whenever he finds true faith and pure love.
We recently read in the community here of how Cardinal Van Thuan in his Vietnamese re-education camp would celebrate Mass using a piece of bread and a drop of wine held in the palm of his hand, reciting the texts of the liturgy by heart. He would then carry the Blessed Sacrament about in a cigarette packet in his shirt pocket, and in the packed and brutalising conditions of the prison barracks, organise rotas of the faithful to maintain a watch of adoration before the Lord thus truly present among them. Surely in the eyes of the Angels, an act of devotion like this is as worthy as any to be found in the greatest basilicas of the Church.
We know that Pope Urban IV entrusted the composition of the hymns and prayers for today’s liturgy to St. Thomas Aquinas. But there’s one well loved Eucharistic prayer I’d like to dwell on a moment, not by St. Thomas, but ascribed to the 14th century Pope John XXII. It’s the Anima Christi.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me, we pray. It’s interesting that we begin with the human soul of Jesus. At his death it was separated from his body: but at his resurrection it was united again, and henceforth soul and body can never be separated again. So to receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion is also to receive his soul, and his blood, and his divinity.
Sanctify me, we say. Our faith teaches us that every person born under original sin is unholy. But Jesus was holy, free from sin, filled with the holy Spirit, perfectly united with his Father, and when he touched someone, like the leper, or the woman suffering from the haemorrhage, they were made clean, whole, holy. When we receive this Sacrament we too are put into immediate contact with the all-holy one. But the effect of his touch is not automatic. The crowds jostled him, the Pharisees sat in his company, and they were not thereby sanctified, because their hearts were closed. So we pray that our reception of holy communion may have its proper effect in us: to make us Saints; one with Jesus, filled with the holiness of God.
Body of Christ, save me. It’s an amazing paradox that, according to the logic of the Incarnation, we receive eternal salvation precisely through the Body; through the very thing that is doomed to death and corruption. The Body of Christ we receive is precisely that of one who was slain. But that Body is now risen and glorified, and through it we have eternal life. If we have that greatest of all gifts, we should not therefore under-estimate lesser gifts we receive through it also. The Body of Christ still has the power to take away afflictions, to perform healings and miracles of every sort. We should always feel free to say: Lord, I know you can heal me. If it be your will, please do so through this holy Sacrament.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me. All the life-giving blood of Jesus, poured out for us on the Cross, is received, in all its abundance and divine power, in every holy communion. The mystics were completely overwhelmed by that; carried out of their senses, not as with alcohol in a degrading way below themselves, but above themselves, through the sheer force of invading divine love. Surely that must be the normal reaction to holy communion, though perhaps it’s just as well that it’s not the usual one.
We know it’s not right to ask for extraordinary graces: but we do want to be carried out of the limitations that hamper our progress as children of God and even as human beings. So we ask that receiving this holy communion may transform our life, if necessary out of all recognition, for the better. We want to be so filled with divine love that we forget our resentments, our anxieties, our earthly attachments; for in the presence of God they are all relativised. We want to be like Christ: perfectly patient, generous, loving, united with God.
It might be appropriate to conclude with the figure of St. John Mary Vianney, who had such great love for the Holy Eucharist. When preaching he used to gesture towards the tabernacle and say: Il est là – He is there. May he intercede for us, and especially for all priests, that our faith may never falter, that our love may grow ever warmer, and that our hope may be rewarded in eternal life.