No doubt, we can all relate to those words, or will one day. It is part of the human experience to learn to let go of people whom we love and who loved us and who pass from this life, and to find a way to both move on with our life and also to not lose them entirely – to remember them in a way that is meaningful and lasting. We have all kinds of cultural ways of doing this – by telling and re-telling stories about them, by holding on to keepsakes and relics that were theirs or that remind us of them, by visiting their resting places to offer prayers or tributes. Perhaps most of us though also understand the limitations of those things. Stories and heirlooms and graveside visits ultimately don’t mean nearly enough. What we want is that person with us again; and short of that, we hope for what my friend hopes for – a sense of continued connection internally, a sense that the presence and values of our loved one somehow endure within us.
In the Gospel today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his departure. Though his physical body suffered no illness or malady, he knew that his time with them was drawing to a close, and that soon he would accomplish his mission – to offer himself on the Cross as the eternal sacrifice of redemption for humanity’s sinfulness and thus to restore God’s creation to himself. This was the great and ultimate purpose for which he had come, and so he approaches that hour with resolution, with love, even with joy. And yet, our Lord also knew how difficult that departure would be for his disciples. His time with them was coming to a close – while he would be rise again after three days, he would soon ascend to his heavenly Father and so would no longer be physically present among them.
The Last Supper (c. 1562) by Joan de Joanes
With all of this in mind, Jesus gave his loved ones a wonderful gift: the sacred meal that we celebrate today and indeed every time that we gather together. The Eucharist is the living memorial of the love of Christ for us, a sign of the covenant that we have with God in Jesus. Much like the acts of remembrance that we do and say for loved ones who have passed on, the Eucharist helps us to keep the remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross alive in our memories, so that we never forget the mystery of salvation that he has won for us. We “do this in memory of him”, recalling that each time we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes again.
But! As wonderful as all of that is, though, that is only the first part of the meaning of today’s feast. Nothing that I have so far described is particularly unique to us as Catholics. If you go into a Baptist church or a Lutheran church or an Anglican church, you will find that same sense of things: of communion being a memorial of the Lord’s love, a way of reminding ourselves of his sacrifice. But memory only goes so far – it can remind us, maybe console us, but it cannot give us what we most desire: the presence of the one we love.
And that is why when Christ instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, what he commanded us to do was not only to remember something long ago, but to participate anew in a reality that is still very much present. The Lord’s love was not only shown for us on the Cross 2000 years ago – it becomes really present for us again at every Mass, when we are made present spiritually at the foot of the Cross, at the very moment of Jesus’s act of redemption. Through the sacrifice we offer in the Mass, Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is not only remembered but made present again, offered anew to the heavenly Father so that the merits of our redemption long ago become present for us here and now.
Even greater, of course, it is our firm Catholic faith that the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood is not only a memorial, not only a sacrifice, but also his very Real Presence. By calling to mind the love he showed us, by becoming present anew at his sacrifice, he accomplishes what we cannot – he goes beyond mere memory to answer the deep desire of our hearts: to be present again to the one we love and the one who loves us. The Eucharist is the ultimate gift of Jesus to his Church, because it is the gift of his very Self, living and enduring with us.
The feast that we celebrate today – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – marks the conclusion of a series of feasts that we have been celebrating since Easter Sunday. For five weeks, we celebrate the central reality of our faith – that Christ has conquered sin and death and offers to us the redemption he has won. On the Feast of the Ascension, we celebrated that the Risen Jesus has gone ahead of us to his Father, where he intercedes for us at his right hand. The next week, on the Feast of Pentecost, we remembered that the Lord has sent us the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us live well our Christian identity in this life, directing us to the life to come. Last week, we celebrated that the Lord has revealed his own divine Being to be a Communion of Love, of three Persons in one God, a communion which he invites us to share. And finally, today, we recognize that the Lord, drawing us ever closer to our heavenly home, feeds and animates us with his own Body and Blood as our food for the journey.
Today then is an opportunity to appreciate anew the greatest treasure we have on this earth: the Holy Eucharist. To live the Christian life is not an easy thing; to be faithful to Jesus and to what he commanded us to do as his disciples is challenging. It was that way for the disciples long ago, and it is that way still for us now. We must endure challenge and even persecutions at times for what we believe, especially when the wise ones of this world do not agree. We must live charitably, not giving into the temptations to become petty and begrudging, but always taking the higher road of love. We have to persevere with faith and hope despite sufferings that sometimes are inexplicable, like the too-soon passing of a loved one.
These things are hard. If all we had to guide us and to help us was mere memory – a spiritual heirloom of something that happened long ago – then we would surely fail in our faithfulness. But what we have is so much greater than that. Jesus knows that what we need most to be his disciples – that what we want most to be confirmed and consoled in our journey – is Jesus himself, and so for that reason, he continually makes himself available, present, accessible to us in the Eucharist. Each time we come to Mass, we are not just reminded of the Lord’s love, we experience it anew – made present again at the foot of the Cross, we are nourished by our Lord’s very Self, as food for our journey and hope for eternal life.
Friends, we need not long for the presence of Jesus, as if he were a loved one who has passed beyond our midst. His physical, resurrected body may be in heaven, in glory with his Father, but he has not left us. At each Mass he displays his love and humility to become present in the Eucharist, to be received by each of us so that we may live out our identities as members of his Mystical Body with the love and presence of his Sacramental Body radiating through us. All heaven and earth is caught up in this sacramental mystery, so that in a very real way we are never closer to God – and never closer to those who have passed from this life – than when we are at Mass, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood.
As we come forward again in a few moments to partake of that sacrament which is both “the Source and the Summit of our faith” (Lumen gentium 11, Vatican II) let us meet the Lord’s humility with our own, bowing low in our hearts to receive the One who loves us so ardently and who nourishes us so faithfully. O Sacrament most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment Thine.