Santi di Tito, Vision of Saint Thomas Aquinas (1593)
Saint Thomas has always been one of my favorite saints, a man legendary – even in his own time – for his astonishing intellect and his profound holiness. He was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance: a philosopher, theologian, scientist, mystic – one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization, let alone the Church. He understood well the human condition and the human person, and he knew we humans cannot find happiness apart from living in communion with God. He is also, to my mind and to the minds of many others, one of the most important saints for our time because the theological tradition he was a part of is so needed today – viz., that faith and reason are compatible, that science and theology are not mutually exclusive, that Truth with a capital T is real and rooted in God.
In the Gospel today, Jesus speaks about Truth, beginning his famous Sermon on the Mount. The imagery of the scene should not be too quickly passed over. Jesus goes to the top of a mountain where he then is seated, with the peoplle spread around him to listen. Quite intentionally, the Gospel writer is portraying him in the place of God, imparting to his creatures wisdom about how to live. And Jesus opens with the Beatitudes – the eight famous but paradoxical statements about to find beatitudo, blessedness, happiness.
Thomas Aquinas wrote on the Beatitudes, as earlier Christian writers did. He saw in them not a series of platitudes about life as an ideal – as if a person should strive to live in such a way but without real hopes of doing so. Rather, he understood the Beatitudes as Jesus’s keys for true happiness, the acts by which we detach ourselves from the things of this world and hold fast to what truly will last. The blessed person – the person who embraces poverty in spirit, who is not enslaved to pleasure, who is humble, who is merciful, who is focused on God, who works for peace, who endures persecution for God’s sake – such a person becomes herself godly, becomes himself one who thinks with the mind of God and loves with the heart of God. That is true happiness, a happiness that anticipates the state of eternal happiness, beatitudo, of heaven.
So how do we grow in the Beatitudes? How do we become blessed in this way? One of the most important ways is what we’re doing right now – worshipping together in the Mass. The Mass is not just the service that we attend once a week out of habit or some vague sense of obligation. It is rather the school by which we are educated, the training ground by which we are formed in learning how to be happy. We are apprentices in the school of beatitudo – happiness, blessedness – and so we gather to hear God’s teaching and wisdom about how to live. We reflect upon our own lives to examine how we might be happier, according to God’s definition. And most importantly, in the Eucharist, we receive the Real Presence of Christ, literally taking him into ourselves so that his attitudes and virtues might become ours.
Saint Thomas had a deep love for the Eucharist. It was at the very heart of his spiritual life. In addition to his theological reflections, he wrote beautiful and mystical hymns about this greatest of the sacraments. In honor of his Eucharistic devotion, I would like to make some practical suggestions about how you and I can grow in our understanding of and love for the Blessed Sacrament. I wish to say in advance that I’m not trying to nitpick about behavior or to make any of us feel bad if we’re not doing something exactly the right way. Rather, I share these thoughts so that you and I can grow in our appreciation, as Thomas did, of the sacrament we receive each week.
· First, we need to understand well what it is we are receiving. It’s easy to get in the habit of getting in the communion line each week and letting our minds wander. But we remember we are preparing not just to do something symbolic or ritualistic. Rather, we are preparing to receive Jesus himself, his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is our Catholic belief that while the appearance and characteristics of bread and wine remain, after the consecration it is Jesus himself who nourishes us.
· This act of communing with the Lord also means that we must be in communion with each other. We are always happy to welcome friends of other faith traditions to join us at Mass, but since our faith traditions are not fully united, we cannot extend to them the invitation to communion. If you invite a non-Catholic friend, to Mass, great! But it's also your responsibility to show them how they are to cross their arms in the communion line to receive a blessing. Similarly, those Catholics who are conscious of having committed serious sin should refrain from receiving the Eucharist without first making a confession, so that they can prepare a fitting place for the Lord to abide with them. They too are invited to receive a blessing.
· For those of us who do receive, we must make an effort to receive well. It is proper, for example, to make a slight bow of the head before communion (usually when the person directly in front of you is receiving). If one is receiving on the tongue, one should open one’s mouth sufficiently and let your tongue protrude slightly so that the minister can give you communion easily. It’s not proper to bite at the host with one’s teeth or lips. If one is receiving in the hands, make sure your hands are relatively clean, and that you hold them out flat in front of you and close to the minister, not way down low. It is not proper to grab at the host or try to take it with your own hands – remember you are receiving communion. Remember also that you should place the host in your mouth before you turn away from the minister; you are not to walk away with the host still in your hands. Finally, when the minister says, “The Body of Christ,” or “The Blood of Christ,” the proper (and only) response is “Amen,” not “Thank you” or no response at all.
· Having received the Eucharist, we should turn to prayer and reflect upon who we have just received. This may be in the prayers of the song that the congregation is singing or it may be in our own silent prayers. It is not proper to let our minds wander, or to start chatting with our neighbor, or to just watch as everyone else goes to communion. You and I have just received the Lord who has created all things, who formed us in our mother’s womb, who became man for us, who suffered on the Cross for us, who rose from the dead for us, who desires to bring us to his eternal happiness. Surely, we can offer a few moments of thanksgiving for all that he has done for us! Perhaps we might even consider staying after Mass a few moments for an extra prayer before we head out into the world, or consider coming a few minutes earlier the next week so that we prepare again with prayer.
Sassetta, St. Thomas Inspired by the Dove of the Holy Ghost (Arte della Lana Altarpiece), c. 1423
Friends, as we celebrate our patron today, Saint Thomas Aquinas, let us ask that God may instill in each of us a new and deeper devotion to the sacrament which is the source and summit of our faith. From the Eucharist, we receive strength to live the Beatitudes, to find happiness in the way that Jesus has given to us. Through the Eucharist, we are able to be disciples the rest of the week in all of the challenges that that presents – to love our neighbor as ourselves, to work for peace, we endure suffering, to find the courage to accept the invitation of Christ, even when it is the Bishop calling. In the Eucharist, we experience a foretaste of the eternal beatitudo, the blessedness, of heaven. May Saint Thomas Aquinas intercede for each of us this day that our faith may deepen, that our works may prosper, and that nourished by the Bread of Life each day sees us journeying closer to our heavenly homeland.