Tag Archives: Eucharist


When you sit at a restaurant table and the waiter brings a basket of bread, precut but not all the way through, and the basket gets passed from person to person, you are literally breaking bread together. Ancient cultures — and many still today — weren’t the least bit squeamish about the dirt the bread picked up as it made its way from hand to hand. And, of course, they had no idea about bacteria or any other invisible enemies.

Bread to them was life — figurative and literal life. As they ate from the same loaf, they were keenly aware that they were feeding on a common source of life. That life made them one people and symbolized their unity. With food of all kinds available to us day & night and wherever we go, the sense of a family meal as a life source is greatly diminished. On the other hand, for our ancestors it played a major role in their identity as a people.

We heard in today’s gospel passage that after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples “knew him in the breaking of the bread.” As helpful and enlightening as all the instruction they were getting from this apparent stranger along the way must have been, within the context of the story as we know it, that intellectual approach was not enough to make those men realize that the one they were conversing with was actually Jesus. It was their friend and teacher who had been crucified, the Jesus who was said to be alive but whom they had not yet seen — or so they thought.

But when they sat down to eat with him, when they broke bread with this stranger, the process of discovery was complete: their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

But wouldn’t those who believe that Jesus rose physically from death ask, Wait a minute: you mean they did not immediately recognize his face, his voice, his accent, his laugh, the message in the instruction they were getting from him?

My guess is that what we have been left with is a timeless, beautiful, highly symbolic story whose job it is to reveal to all of us a very significant layer of meaning in this Jesus event that we might otherwise have failed to appreciate.

What we are hearing is a gift to us — a brilliantly conceived story of embellishment and clarification.

The careful instruction they had received from him during their long walk together was not sufficient for what he had in mind. It had to be accompanied by another kind of experience, an experience of deep, personal fellowship in that best understood setting of a meal — the sharing of life from a common source.

Put the two together and we have sacrament. The sacrament of Eucharist. The earliest Christians called the Mass the “breaking of bread.” It had two basic parts: words of scripture, both ancient and contemporary; and the action involving the bread & wine.

Let’s keep in mind that this meal event takes place in the course of a journey. What could that imply but the journey that you and I are on? We are walking through life with Jesus, conversing all the way, stopping occasionally to eat or to rest, becoming more familiar with him with each shared step.

There is no fixed roadmap so complete that it can serve as guide in all the circumstances of our lives. But we have more than that: we walk with the Risen Jesus every step, every minute of the unpredictable way. If we relate to him honestly, openly, frankly, we will get from him, especially in the breaking of the bread, the most satisfying answers.



The followers of Jesus had come to realize his irreplaceable uniqueness; upon his death they cried out with that immortal lament, “To whom shall we turn now, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life.” Even though they were somehow convinced that he was alive and living among them, they must have felt his physical absence terribly.

His presence had brought them courage, inspiration, wisdom, hope and the joy of life. But with his death they were on their own — or so they thought — like persons who had briefly lived in a dream world and had now awakened to find themselves as weak and frightened and human as ever before.

Without him around to turn to, there were some serious difficulties. We can picture them saying, “What did he mean when he said so & so?” ‘“Does anyone remember what his response was when we asked him…?” Among the apostles — the bishops of the infant church — there were disagreements. The head of them all, Peter, had, for example, not quite understood that the old law of their beloved Jewish religion had been supplanted by a new law and that many of its age-old requirements could no longer be in force.

There was a baptism now and the whole law was summed up in the person of Jesus. Paul emphasized that the followers of Jesus are children of the promise, not of the law, and the promise is fulfilled, it is personified, in the Risen Jesus. Paul had some misconceptions of his own too and, like the others, he wasn’t always ready to give in to the majority opinion.

But Jesus wasn’t there to be consulted. So the leaders of this unprecedented religious venture had next to learn that it was henceforth in Eucharist that they would find strength and wisdom and truth that would make them and keep them one. Admission to that fellowship had one basic requirement: care for one’s fellow human beings. The invitation to belong was extended to men and women, not to angels. One accepted the invitation with one’s own sinfulness and weaknesses — and entered the faith community in an atmosphere of intellectual honesty and, most important of all, a sincere concern for the welfare of others.

At the parting meal he shared with them, that Last Supper, he gave a new meaning to bread and wine. The bread, he said, was himself, who loved them beyond their comprehension; the wine, he said, was himself poured out in the fullest gesture of friendship and love. From now on, he said, you do this in memory of me. And know that when you do I am with you, just as I am now, to renew with you the eternal covenant sealed in my blood.

In many respects, things haven’t changed much over the past 20 centuries. The same Jesus who loved his first followers just as they were loves us just as we are. He demands of us no more or less than he did of them. We don’t have the comfort of his abiding physical presence anymore than they did. We don’t always respond to others with generous concern, and neither did they. Often we find each other’s points of view threatening and disturbing and just like our ancestors in the faith we too fail to distinguish between the mind and the heart of our sisters and brothers.

To the likes of us is given the Eucharist, the celebration and the assurance of the presence of Jesus among us. What that means is simply that in the person of Jesus we are embraced by the unconditional love that is God. The Eucharist, the Mass, commands only what it presupposes: that we care for one another without exception.


It is, of course, very much to the credit of the United States of America that we are free to express criticism of our government and also engage in the process of purifying and improving it. We’ve been seeing that priceless right exercised recently in the popular demonstrations that took place from coast to coast regarding an executive order of our new president.

But many Americans today, myself included, feel that we are living in a time when words, especially those spoken by some of our highest leaders, cannot be assumed to be true and that we citizens have been reduced to mere spectators at a game.

When Jesus speaks as he does in today’s Gospel excerpt, he is addressing, not only individuals and churches, but society and government and business and the military and the professions and systems of every conceivable kind. Therefore, phrases and terms like “secular vs. spiritual” and “separation of church and state” and “business is business” absolutely cannot be used to mean that there are spheres of human activity that are not ultimately accountable to God, That is an impossibility.

Jesus’ teaching on the matter is simple, clear, and incontrovertible. I paraphrase him:

STOP THE PRETENSE! Get to the heart of the matter and deal with it honestly, without sham or deceit. Get to the root of your own behavior first and don’t deny what you see there. Address it truthfully, humbly, bravely.

Everyone knows that murder is wrong. Well, don’t pride yourself on the fact that you’ve never gone that far; instead, recognize the sullen anger, the prejudice, the vindictiveness that may be in your heart that are every bit as related to murder as a glass of water is to a flood.

You may not have committed adultery, we can hear Jesus saying; but you men, take a good look at the way you regard women, whose names you may or may not know, whom you have made dehumanized objects of selfish pleasure. Look at that one woman closest to you whom you do not really respect as your equal, your loving partner.

And you who are called to trial, Jesus says: stop hiding your guilt behind the clever subterfuges and techniques that an imperfect system provides for you, and instead say and do what you and your God know to be true.

Our modern age – no different in essence, I suppose, from any other age – not only makes evil appear attractive, but makes it appear good. To that, Jesus reacts emphatically and insists that we, his baptized followers, are to be the Gold Standard, radiating without compromise truth and justice and love, no matter the consequences.

I remember fondly a retreat I gave in north Jersey a few years ago to 32 men from a wide variety of backgrounds — mostly businessmen, along with a handful of doctors and lawyers and others. They themselves had organized the retreat, seeing it as an opportunity to compare their present lifestyle with the perfect model that Jesus himself offers and is. As so many of them put it to me in private, they were there to move closer to him and live his way more completely. We are all expected to do that always, and to accelerate the process especially at our Sunday Eucharist.

This is not the first time we Americans have experienced sharp divisions among ourselves. We survived those crises and we learned much from them. It seems to me that this is another opportunity for us to contribute honesty, integrity, justice and charity to our own small circles —and therefore to the vast circle of our national life.


Some of us have had life-threatening experiences that brought us to death’s door. Many such persons work at not losing the gratitude they felt when they escaped death. We speak of a child’s limited attention span, but we have to admit that that’s a characteristic we carry with us all our lives. When we lose the capacity to be grateful or let it whither, we are candidates for the disorder of consumerism, the need to keep adding more & more new things to our lives because we have lost the ability to appreciate what we already have. We can be like babies or little children, who grow tired of their toys and playthings and need to have them constantly replaced.

A Benedictine brother by the name of David Steindl-Rast is the author of a practical book entitled Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer. I read it many years ago when I was having trouble praying. Prayer had become a chore for me, very mechanical, rote, too formal, too pietistic, so regulated that it had become downright boring and thoroughly unsatisfying. It seemed more like a religious duty than personal conversation with God. Brother David explained in his little masterpiece that prayer to God should be basically gratitude. In fact, he wrote, it can be entirely — only — gratitude. It is essentially our acknowledgement that we are creatures of the ultimate source of all being that we call God. We did not bring ourselves into being, nor can we prevent our inevitable deaths. We are creatures who have been made by a power, an intelligence, a love that is other than ourselves. Prayer is simply expressing our thanks to the Creative Spirit for the gift of life. After all, we need not have been, but we are.

Prayerful persons extend that thankfulness to take in every detail of their lives, especially all those other persons with whom they enjoy relationships of love and friendship. Hell, the theologians tell us, is not a distant, fiery place; it’s not a place at all. Hell is the condition of that human being who is totally alone, has no one to relate to. The spiritual person lives in unceasing gratitude for that, above all: that we are created to enjoy community, relationship. Jesus’ prayer, as we know from the Scriptures, was always formed around gratitude to the Creator, whom he called “Father.” He was very sensitive to that primary duty and privilege of the human being, to be grateful for his or her very existence. He could be terribly disappointed by the behavior of those who recognized their blessings yet were not thankful. We sensed that disappointment in his comments about the ten lepers who had been cured, although only one had the thoughtfulness to be grateful.

The word “Eucharist,” as you know, comes from the Greek word for gratitude — “thanksgiving,” giving thanks. What we do here at Sunday Mass is basically an act of communal gratitude. While each of us brings special reasons to make that kind of prayer, we mustn’t let it end there. Rather, what we do in Eucharistic liturgy should inspire us to live always in gratitude. It’s really so easy and natural; it makes life so much happier and more peaceful for ourselves and those whose lives are connected to our own.


We don’t get theological technicalities from Jesus; he speaks plainly, most often in simple stories whose meanings are clear.  From that consistent style of his, we can be sure that he had no obscure theology in mind on the night before his death when with bread and wine he made the simple parting gesture of love, in which he said, “Remember me. And don’t ever forget that I’ll be with you always.”

The essence of that gesture, which has become our Eucharist, is undoubtedly presence: Jesus’ desire and his plan to be with us in a unique way.

Friends and lovers can be present to each other not only when they are face to face, body to body. They can be thousands of miles apart and be really present to each other in many ways.  The sound of a melody, the remembrance of a shared experience, a card or a letter taken from a drawer, a photograph, are but a few examples of how human beings can be present to each other even though they are physically apart.

We Catholics maintain that there is a personal presence of Jesus in Eucharist – not merely in the transformed bread and wine, but in the entire Eucharistic event.

It seems to me that it is no more useful to dissect and analyze this mystery than to analyze any act of genuine love.  Some things are so sacred, so precious, so profoundly personal, that to subject them to microscopic examination is to guarantee that they will not be appreciated.  The words “Body and Blood” are, of course, anatomical in their normal usage.  But in the context of the Eucharist I understand them to mean simply real – real not in the sense of physicality, but real in the sense of sacrament.

When we do this sacred action together week after week, this fluid action called Eucharist, Jesus is uniquely present.  Unseen, yes, but as intentionally and really present to us as he was to his original disciples and apostles, minus the physical, or bodily, elements.

We must content ourselves with that alone and not be distracted by the scrutinizing that goes on in our theological laboratories, which can only do further violence to the uncomplicated plan of Jesus to remain with us, not merely in memory, but in here & now sacramental presence.

I am not aware of Jesus ever asking to be adored, but only to be welcomed and loved in return for his own unconditional love of us.  He invites us to follow him with trust and to accept the gifts he offers.

Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ — the remarkable, nearly unbelievable, fact that God, as St. John so graphically put it, has pitched a tent in our midst and made it the dwelling place of Jesus.  This is not God up and out above the clouds; nor is this a deus ex machina, a divinity that enters the human situation occasionally, whimsically, to fix things.  This is the divine presence in the thicket of humanity, scratched and bruised with us, always present, always giving life and hope and peace in the midst of trouble.

When our Catholic lives are over, and while we still have the presence of mind to reflect on their most precious treasures, I believe that we are going to appreciate as never before what our regular encounter with Jesus through Eucharist has given us.  We will understand more clearly than ever before what a source of strength and guiding wisdom it has been for us all along.  We will understand with unprecedented gratitude what he meant when he said he would be with us always.

Corpus Christi — Body of Christ – himself — us.  How else would he have arranged the journey?



Is it possible that we are making too much of the Eucharist?  I must admit that the thought crosses my mind quite often these days.  Am I losing my faith, I ask myself, or is it that I am coming to understand better the message and the meaning of Jesus? I pray, I hope, I read, I consult – and return to prayer once more.  And then the certainty, the absence of doubt, the clarity of mind and firmness of belief with which I want to compose the homily at hand —–once again elude me, and I am left to bare my soul once more as the struggle to believe continues.

I don’t mean that I doubt the real and sacramental presence of Jesus in the sacrament.  I hold to that firmly, as I always have, even though my concept of that presence has evolved over the long years of my faith life.  I believe that Jesus, before his excruciating death, did direct that a meal of remembrance of him be celebrated for all time by those who believed in him as the revealer of God in our midst.  I do believe that when we engage in that sacred and social event he is with us in an unparalleled oneness of spirit in which we pledge, publicly and solemnly, to represent him as fully as we possibly can in every circumstance of our ordinary lives – his love, his forgiveness, his compassion, his hope, his peace, his integrity, his joy.

That’s what Sunday Mass is: A gathering in which we express our thanks —

  •  for having come to know and to follow Jesus as the ultimate standard of our lives;
  •  for having been blessed with the friendship and companionship of our families and friends and our fellow congregants, however we have come into association with each other;
  •  for life and love and all the priceless blessings with which both are filled;
  •  and for having heard and accepted Jesus’ conviction that life and love do not end at the grave, but instead are transformed into an entirely new way of living in God and sharing in God’s immortality.

Then why my concern about our possibly making too much of the Eucharist?  I think the reason is that we have been taught to objectify the sacrament: to regard it as a thing, no matter how sacred a thing.  We have been taught to adore the sacrament as the Real Presence of Jesus.  But, as far as I know, Jesus never asked for adoration; he invited us simply to follow him, to put into practice what he was teaching us by word and example, to learn to sense the presence of God in everyone and everything in our lives, and thus to live in union with the Creative Spirit in all the circumstances of our earthly existence.

We come then, not only to receive, but to DO Eucharist, a fluid ritual of personal commitment and common profession of faith.

The presiding priest wears this long white garment, the alb, which you see underneath this green chasuble I have on.  It represents the baptism of each and all of us.  In a way, as St. Paul expressed it, we “put on” the Risen Jesus when we were clothed with this robe at the reception of our first sacrament.  We are here at Mass to do what Christians have done for two millennia: no matter our state in life, our occupation, our financial situation, or our social standing, we eat and drink of him mostly by absorbing his words and trying to incorporate his values into our lives.  We receive him from each other in the course of our ordinary daily encounters.  We experience him in our midst when we gather to pray together.  He comes to us in sacramental reality in the sacred ritual of Eucharist.  Our Creator is not distant or remote.  God is with us in an endless variety of ways, but in none more intimately or intensely than in the person of Jesus, the nourishing, healing, life-giving bread of our lives.


Maybe you will agree that our frequent use of the word “salvation” in a religious context almost always refers to what we hope will happen at the end of our lives here on earth.   It’s a key word in the ultimate “insurance policy” we’ve bought into, whose pay-off comes at the moment of our death.  We usually qualify it with the adjective “eternal,” implying that it is an action of God that produces a state of life that will be infinitely and endlessly glorious beyond our present imagination.

I believe in life after death; I believe that we are all destined to share God’s own existence in a transformed state of being.  I understand Jesus to have certified that.  But I also recognize another meaning of salvation that we mustn’t allow to be overlooked in our zeal for a future of everlasting happiness.

Salvation for the ancient Jews and the earliest Christians was regarded as pertaining to this world, our life as a species here on Planet Earth.  To them it meant putting right all that was wrong in human society — everything that militated against a truly human life of love and peace, of collaboration and cooperation and plenty.  Their idea of salvation had primarily to do with the network of relationships by which they and others were oppressed in the present life – selfish and unholy alliances that keep the poor down, that cause anxiety and fear, that facilitate hostilities and war, leaving people profoundly dissatisfied, lonely, frustrated, cheated and hopeless.

It was from just such conditions and circumstances that our Judaic and Christian ancestors longed and waited to be saved.  That was the concrete salvation for which they yearned – deliverance, liberation, that only God’s anointed one, they believed, could accomplish.  It would be the work of the long-awaited Messiah.

It’s hard for us who inhabit the advanced nations of the world to realize, but for most of the world today those same horrible conditions still exist.  If we were to throw darts at a spinning world globe, the odds would be heavily against pinpointing a land in which there is not a people whose spirits cry out now for salvation – NOW.

In its understanding of Jesus, the earliest Christians saw him as the principle, or the agent, of reconciliation.  Only through union with him, they reasoned, could any opposing personal forces be resolved into mutual acceptance and peace.  This appears to be what St. Paul meant when he said that in the Risen Jesus there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither freeman nor slave, neither male nor female – in other words, whatever sets up the destructive differences between these opposites is conquered in the love of Jesus.

For four consecutive Sundays at this time in the liturgical year, today being the third of them, the church puts before us the image of Jesus presenting himself as the bread of life for all people.   Persons of faith, who are trying to live in harmony with all others, who want to be reconciled before God and with every other human being and with the circumstances of their own personal lives, go eagerly to the table of Eucharist to be nourished for that precise task. In that act they are pledging publicly to align themselves as closely as they can with Jesus, who, they remember, said, “The bread I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”