Last Sunday we celebrated a great mystery of faith, the Holy Trinity. We pondered the beauty of its truth, and marveled that at the origin of all things — behind this world of death and sorrow — is infinitely selfless, joyful and outpouring love, God, who was revealed above all in a drained and exhausted Body. And we see that that image is our image, who we are meant to be. Trinity Sunday is a contemplative feast of gazing on what we wish to become: like the God of other-centered love.
But today we go even farther. We not only contemplate and confess the mystery of our Triune God, but we claim a divine command beyond belief (John 6:53): ingest the mystery of God.
No mere metaphor, but in reality. Jesus, eternal Word-made-flesh, commands us to devour, tear and shred (trōgōn of John 6:54) His Flesh and Blood, taking Him into our own flesh and blood.
Any illusion Christians may have that “spiritual” means non-material is dashed by this doctrine. Eucharistic Communion is nothing other than the coming together of the Incarnate God with our ensouled bodily digestive fluids. This is the spiritual mystery of the edible and potable Flesh and Blood of God.
Christian spirituality is not about rising above the body into some antiseptic, pure and bodiless spiritual world. Rather, it is about lifting up flesh and spirit together as a single spiritual sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). God so loved our material body — with all of its gross secretions, sinews and tissues — that He sent His Son to unite it to His own Person forever. God has joined matter so intimately to Himself in Jesus that it remains forever constitutive of who God is. The Son of God has a Body, taken from the humanity of Mary, and forever will. As moral theologian Germain Grisez once said to me when we were discussing the role of earthly goods in heavenly fulfillment, “Remember, in His glorified Body Jesus continues to enjoy cooking and eating food” (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:9-13).
I love that.
To this effect, a priest once said in a stellar homily on the Eucharist,
Receiving the Eucharist reverently is a matter of interior disposition, with faith, devotion, free from serious sin. But the manner in which we actually receive the Holy Gifts is really quite appalling, if you think about it. Saliva, chewing, swallowing, digesting. But of course this is no more appalling than the manner by which Christ became our Food and Drink — the Passion, with all its sordid details. This is my Body broken, Blood shed.
… And there’s something else remarkable here. All other foods say to us, in effect, “Take us in, consume us and raise us up to your higher form of life.” But to us the Lord says something totally new, “Take me in, consume me and I will raise you up to my higher form of life.” St. Augustine says, “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive.” God, as it were, obeys the logic of nature’s food chain, and yet (as He always seems to enjoy doing) subverts, inverts it in the Eucharist, putting a final end to the death and violence of the whole process.
Fr. Aidan Kavanagh also captures the stark meaning of our Eucharistic theology:
Two main forces have traditionally balanced this tendency and checked its spread. The first has been the attempt at keeping Eucharist as “banquet or meal” in tension with a perception of Eucharist as “sacrifice.” The tension reminds us that, however elegant the knowledge of this dining room may be, it begins in the soil, in the barnyard, and in the slaughterhouse—amidst strangles cries, congealing blood, and spitting fat in the pan. Table manners depend upon something’s having been grabbed by the throat. A knowledge ignorant of these dark and murderous “gestures charged with soul” is sterile rather than elegant, science rather than wisdom, artifice rather than art. It is love without passion, the Church without a cross, a house with dining room but no kitchen, a feast of frozen dinners, a heartless life. The pious (religious and secular) would have us dine on abstractions but we are, in fact, carnivores—a bloody bunch. Sacrifice may have many facets, but it always has a victim
In the Eucharist, we recognize that “God is love” and “God is food and drink” are interchangeable definitions. God is a feeding God (Psalm 107:9) who makes Himself the “finest wheat” and “best wine” harvested, crushed, baked and fermented for us and for our salvation. Those who feed on God in turn become partakers in this facet of His nature (John 6:57), manifesting their “deified” state precisely by becoming feeders of the hungry and slakers of the thirsty (Mark 6:37; Matt. 25:35).
Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev said, “When you’re a Christian, bread for yourself is a material problem, but bread for my brother is a spiritual problem.” This is Eucharistic logic.
St. John Chrysostom also said,
Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. For he who said, “This is my Body,” and made it so by His word, is the same one who said, “You saw me hungry, and gave me no food. As you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor. For what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.
When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in D.C. back in the early 1990’s, I was entrusted with the care of a man in his late 30’s who was from Tallahassee originally. I’ll say his name was Richard, which it wasn’t. He was partially paralyzed from a stroke he had had while sleeping in an abandoned car during the winter. Thank God he was discovered before he succumbed to hypothermia, and was brought to the Sisters’ home to recover.
I had to feed him, clip his nails, brush his teeth, wipe the feces off his bottom and change his clothes. He had slurred speech from the stroke, so communicating with him was difficult. It was very hard work for me. Not simply because of the tedious repetition or unpleasant odors, but because it was pulling me out of myself. Up to that point in my life I had lived a largely self-centered lifestyle, meaning most of my decisions were not determined by someone else’s needs. No one depended on me or my care. And if they did, it was part of my job and I was being paid to respond. But here I was a volunteer, and here these people — this was terrifying — depended on me to love them, and to care about their hopes and fears.
I felt like the Lord was saying to me for the first time in my life, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go” (John 21:17-18). I would soon come to realize that adulthood is about learning to be taken where you do not wish to go, and there making of yourself a worthy sacrificial offering.
One day I was at Mass with the Sisters and the residents. Nothing unusual. That morning had been a difficult one, as I had to give Richard a shower. It was always a long, arduous and complex process. Far more humiliating for him than for me, I was sure. He was angry at something and very resistant that day. I couldn’t figure out why. So at Mass I was feeling agitated and sad about the experience. I wrote in my journal afterwards, “What the hell more does he want from me?”
Then the Words of Institution came along. Nothing unusual. But they were different this time. “This is my Body which will be given up…This is the cup of my Blood which will be shed.” I thought of Richard’s naked body, so vulnerable, soiled, partially paralyzed.
The Sisters taught me when I first arrived to reverence the residents’ bodies Not easy to do in a shower as you try to clean very private parts, and they are cussing you out. Sr. Manorama had said it to me even more plainly: “You need to reverence these men’s bodies like you reverence Christ’s Body. Even if they treat you poorly, maintain your reverence, as then Christ comes to you in His distressing disguise, as Mother tells us. That’s when He is closest, you know.”
I didn’t know. But that day at Mass I said to myself, “Yes, even then. Especially then. Amen.”