Corpus Christi – C • June 19, 2022 at St. Luke’s

Happy Feast of Corpus Christi! This is not a church feast day in honor of a city in Texas; no, this is the feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ! Corpus Christi of course is Latin for body of Christ. Being able to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood is such a great gift that the Church celebrates it in a special way with today’s feast.
 
But unfortunately, it can become all too easy to kind of take the Eucharist for granted. In his goodness, Jesus shares his Body and Blood with us at every Mass, but just like with our prayer, receiving communion can become kind of routine. We can become accustomed to getting up at communion time when everyone else gets up and getting in line to come up and receive the Blessed Sacrament.
 
This is not at all unusual, and it is very commonplace, so we should remind ourselves every time we come to Mass of what is happening here and who it is we are receiving. In fact, so much of our faith really comes down to just remembering or reminding ourselves again and again of what God has done for us and continues to do for us. If we were to do that, I am confident that we would really grow in our faith.
 
Our readings today remind us of this incredible and indeed miraculous gift that God shares with us. In our second reading taken from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we hear one of four accounts from the New Testament of how Jesus instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Three of these accounts come from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the fourth one comes is from this letter to the Corinthians which we heard from today. (The account of the Last Supper from the Gospel of John instead relates Jesus’ washing of the apostles’ feet.) And the four accounts from the New Testament of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper are all very similar. They all include the sequence of these verbs: “take”, “give thanks” (“bless”), “break”, and then the Gospels include a fourth verb, “give”, which of course is implied in St. Paul’s account. So: take, bless, break, and give.
 
Where else do we hear the sequence of these four verbs? In the account of Jesus’ miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and the fish, or the feeding of the five thousand as it is also called, which we heard in our Gospel reading today. The Gospel clearly says, “Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” This is not a coincidence! The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is a clear and direct foreshadowing of the Eucharist.
 
And at every Mass, the priest repeats this formula of taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking, and giving it. In doing this, he is obeying the command that Jesus gave at the Last Supper to “do this in remembrance of me.” And the Church has consistently from the very beginning believed that the bread and the wine that the priest prays over become Jesus’ very own Body and Blood. Not of course through the priest’s own power: we do not have the power to change bread and wine into Jesus’ Body and Blood on our own. When Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fish and then fed the five thousand, he had the apostles first collect them and give them to Jesus, who took them, prayed over them, broke the bread, and then gave to his disciples to distribute to the crowd. That is the role of the priest as well: we act in the name of Jesus Christ, the true high priest, and in his name and through the power of the Holy Spirit – not our own power – bread and wine become Jesus’ Body and Blood. And we do this because he commanded us to do so at his Last Supper.
 
When Jesus fed the five thousand, the disciples admitted to Jesus that they didn’t have enough food to feed the crowds themselves. It was Jesus who fed them. But he had his apostles give the multiplied loaves and fish to the crowds. We know that it was the apostles because they collected twelve baskets of leftovers. But the food came from Jesus. That’s because no human being can satisfy our hunger; it is Jesus alone who can do so.
 
And we are all hungry. When we feel physical hunger, we have something to eat, and we feel satisfied: our hunger is gone. But only for a while: it won’t be long before we start to feel hungry again. But we human beings don’t just hunger for food. We hunger for or desire all kinds of things. And whatever we hunger for we perceive to be some kind of good. Whether it is or not though is another question, but at least when we desire something, on a purely human level we perceive it as a good thing. And of course, everything God created he saw to be good. But because of our fallen human nature, our desire for the good things of the world can and does sometimes get distorted and disordered. Our desire for just about anything, no matter how good it is in and of itself, can become disordered. We can develop unhealthy attachments and desires for created things. We can lose self-discipline and self-control. And then the things that we desire can start to control us and make us behave in more and more unhealthy and even inhuman ways.
 
The point is, God created all of us with hearts that desire, that seek fulfillment, that seek peace. And we often look for the fulfillment of our desires in the created things around us, whether they be people or things. But only God Himself is capable of fulfilling our deepest desires. Everything else will sooner or later leave us wanting more. Just like with our last meal, maybe it was good and enjoyable while it lasted, but sooner or later we’re going to want and need another one. Or our last vacation: no matter how enjoyable or restful it was, it won’t be long after it’s over that we’ll start thinking about the next one.
 
These desires can only be completely and ultimately fulfilled by God. Everything else will fall short. So, in order to fulfill our desires, God sent His Son Jesus Christ to become one of us, and while here on earth, to give us His very own Body and Blood, which is the Eucharist we receive at Mass. But if only God can truly satisfy us, why is that we don’t feel complete fulfillment after receiving communion? Why is it that we can receive communion and still not feel or act any differently?
 
The first and most basic reason is because of, once again, our fallen human nature. The Eucharist is not a magic pill that automatically changes us. We have a role to play when we receive communion: we must prepare ourselves spiritually, otherwise its effect on us will be limited or perhaps even completely negligible. We have to prepare ourselves to receive communion throughout the rest of the week, by taking time each day to pray, by focusing less on ourselves and always looking for ways to love and serve others, and through little acts of fasting or denying ourselves from time to time even of good, legitimate things. We also have to prepare ourselves by avoiding sin as best we can, by striving to remain in a state of grace. And we ought to be in a state of grace when we receive communion; that is, if we have committed a serious or mortal sin, we must first go to confession before receiving communion. As St. Paul says a few verses later in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.” In other words, we must examine ourselves before receiving the Eucharist: am I right with God? Do I have any serious, unconfessed sins on my soul? If so, Jesus gives us a remedy for that in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
 
And the second reason why we don’t feel ultimate fulfillment after having received communion is because we are still living in this world, still living in the shadow of sin and death. Jesus gave himself to us in the Eucharist as our food for the journey through this life to the next, to give us the strength to make it through this often perilous life all the way to our true heavenly home in the next life. In heaven, we will be completely united with God; we will be completely filled with Him, and there will be no more need for the Eucharist, for God will be all in all.
 
So let us renew our appreciation for this incredible gift of the Eucharist, which none of us are truly worthy to receive. And let us give thanks to the Lord, who has the power to make us worthy, and in his great love and mercy for us, gives us his own flesh and blood for our spiritual nourishment and sanctification.

Pentecost – C • June 5, 2022 at St. Luke’s

Last week I mentioned that with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the age of the Church here on earth began, that the Church now serves to carry on the mission Jesus began here on earth. And that mission is specifically to spread the Good News of salvation: that Jesus suffered and died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins, and then rose from the dead three days later. So the mission of the Church is at its most fundamental the salvation of souls. Everything else, including all the good works, all the charitable activities, and so on, is subservient to this ultimate mission of the salvation of souls. In other words, the Church exists to get people into heaven.
 
I also mentioned last Sunday that the Acts of the Apostles ends very abruptly with St. Paul the Apostle in Rome where he has travelled to make his case before the emperor. The Jewish authorities in Jerusalem have accused him treason because of his faith in Christ and, as a Roman citizen, Paul has certain rights which he intends to assert in his defense before the emperor. But as the historical tradition tells us, he was ultimately unsuccessful, and was martyred for his faith in Christ. Well, unsuccessful in the eyes of the world, but from a Christian perspective, Paul enjoyed the ultimate triumph, given that he is now a saint in heaven with Our Lord.
 
The Acts of the Apostles recounts the life of the early Church, and as I mentioned last week, it mirrors the life of Christ: the life of the Church begins with Jesus’ Ascension into heaven; the Church then begins her mission of preaching, teaching, and healing; the Church experiences persecution and suffering – all just like Jesus. However, unlike the life of Christ, the Acts of the Apostles does not end with a death and resurrection. Rather, it’s almost like the story ends in the middle of a chapter. And I think this is very fitting, because in a sense the Acts of the Apostles has not yet come to an end: we continue to live it out even to this day. It’s like the Acts of the Apostles has continued for the last 2000 years and the story still continues; it is not yet over, nor do we know exactly when the story of the Church here on earth will come to an end. But we do know how this story will end: the Church will face great persecution to the extent that one could say it will be like a crucifixion. It will even seem that the Church herself will have been destroyed, but then at that moment, at the darkest hour, Jesus will return to earth in triumph, and he will then have the final victory over the powers of sin and darkness and death. This is what all human history is heading towards, and in the meantime we all have our own small roles to play in the life of the Church. We all have a mission, if we choose to accept it, which is Christ’s mission of proclaiming the Gospel message of salvation for the forgiveness of sins.
 
Of course, what our own individual missions look like vary from person to person. This is where the word “vocation” comes into the picture. Each one of us has a calling or vocation from God to carry on His work in the world: some are called to serve as priests, and we rejoice that this weekend three young men have been ordained to serve as priests in our diocese; some are called to serve as religious sisters or brothers, or as consecrated virgins – and perhaps I could include all those who never marry in this category, even though they may not be called to live out that vocation in a formal way, that is, making vows as part of a specific community; and the majority are called to live out this mission as married men and women, mothers and fathers, bringing new life into the world and raising their children in the faith.
 
But what does all this have to do with Pentecost, the great feast which we celebrate today? Well, once again it’s time for a little history. Pentecost of course was when the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus’ disciples who were all gathered together in one place in Jerusalem. Prior to that, they had been going to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship the Lord, but after receiving the Holy Spirit, they immediately began to go out into the streets of Jerusalem and proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus Christ to everyone. And at that time there were in the city lots of Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism who had come from all parts of the Roman Empire – wherever there was a Jewish community – for the Jewish feast of Pentecost. That’s right, before there was a Christian feast of Pentecost, there was a Jewish one! The Jewish feast originally was a feast of thanksgiving to the Lord for the first fruits of the wheat harvest. Later it became associated with when the Lord gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. And to celebrate this feast, Jews would travel from even very far away to worship in the Temple. So there would have probably been thousands and thousands of Jewish and Gentile visitors to the city at that time, when Jesus’ disciples first began to proclaim the Gospel.
 
Coming from many different parts of the Roman Empire, these visitors would have spoken many different languages. And yet, regardless of their language, they all were able to understand what the disciples said. Whatever language they spoke, that’s the language they heard Jesus’ disciples speaking. This is of course the opposite of what happened at the Tower of Babel way back in Genesis, when the people started to build a tower to heaven out of human pride and so against God’s will, and He suddenly confounded their ability to understand one another. At Pentecost, when everyone could suddenly understand the disciples regardless of what language they spoke, we hear how God is beginning to restore and reunite humanity, repairing the divisions that sin had introduced into the world.
 
Jesus’ disciples were able to communicate to the people in Jerusalem in all these different languages through the power of the Holy Spirit which had just come upon them. This is the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised he would send them, to give them the grace and the strength they would need to carry on his mission. And it is this same Holy Spirit that we receive at baptism and at confirmation. And just like with the disciples on Pentecost, Jesus gives us his Spirit so that we too might be able to fulfill his mission for us here on earth. And he gives us his Spirit so that we might have the strength even to follow him and to obey his commandments.
 
But it’s not usually as dramatic as it was on that feast of Pentecost almost 2,000 years ago. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not always accompanied by a rushing wind and tongues of fire. And we don’t always start doing incredible things. That’s not to say that the Holy Spirit cannot or does not work in incredible ways. Even in our own age, there are people who have had very powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. Perhaps they are rare, but miraculous healings still can and do happen. Many people have had their lives transformed in powerful and incredible ways through the power of the Holy Spirit.
 
But I think more often, the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in our hearts is much more subtle. Usually it is the quiet, day-to-day of faithfully living out our vocations even when they are dull, onerous, and troublesome, to keep going even when we derive no satisfaction. It is picking ourselves back up when we have fallen into sin once again, returning to the Lord, and striving to keep following Him even though we feel we don’t have the strength to do so. And the Holy Spirit manifests Himself as well in peace, a quiet sense of peace, not of wild euphoria.
 
And of course, the Lord doesn’t usually force Himself on us. Perhaps most of us here were baptized and so received the Holy Spirit for the first time as infants, the greatest gift our parents can give us along with the gift of life itself. But as we get older, we also have to dispose ourselves or open ourselves to the Holy Spirit – we have to cooperate with God’s grace. We can receive Communion week after week, which is wonderful, but if we are not actively trying to cooperate with God’s grace, then the Spirit’s ability to act within us is much more limited. And if we receive Communion when we are not in a state of grace, then we are actually doing greater harm to ourselves. So how do we cooperate with God’s grace? Through the usual means: prayer, fasting, almsgiving, acts of charity and mercy. Learning more about our faith, reading the Bible, good spiritual reading, and then reflecting on what we have learned or read. It’s not rocket science as they say. God doesn’t make it complicated for us; more likely, we make it complicated for ourselves.
 
And Jesus has also taught us that we can and should ask for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So as we rejoice on this feast of Pentecost, let us ask Him with confidence and with perseverance that He continue to fill us with His life-giving Spirit.

Ascension – C • May 29, 2022 at St. Luke’s

As we all know, the season of Lent is a period of 40 days which recalls, among other things, the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for his public ministry. At the end of those 40 days in the desert, he went to the Jordan River where he was baptized by John the Baptist. And the 40 days of Lent lead up to the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead on Easter, which we celebrate in a particular way not just on a single day, but throughout this whole season of Easter.
 
As Luke tells us in our first reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus remained on earth for 40 days after his resurrection, appearing to his disciples, eating meals with them, and above all “speaking to them about the Kingdom of God.” And then at the end of those 40 days, he departed from them, ascending into heaven. And the feast of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven is what we celebrate today.
 
The forty days that Jesus spent with his disciples, then, recall his own 40 days of preparation in the desert. Of course, the time Jesus spent in the desert before he began his public ministry were difficult ones because he engaged in a strict fast and was strongly tempted by the devil. By contrast, the 40 days Jesus spent with his disciples after his resurrection were a time of great joy: it was not a time of fasting and deprivation but no doubt a time of celebration. Nevertheless, this was a time of preparation for the disciples: Jesus was using this time to prepare them, and most especially his apostles, for his departure, and for the mission that he was entrusting to them.
 
Jesus was preparing them because he would soon be ascending into heaven. And when this happened, the age of the Church began. Once Jesus ascended into heaven, a new era was begun here on earth. What Jesus had begun in his ministry here on earth would now be carried on by the Church that he had established. Whereas it was Jesus himself during his life here on earth who traveled around Galilee and Judea, proclaiming the Gospel, healing the sick, and casting out demons, after his ascension into heaven, it would be the responsibility of his Church to do what he did and carry on his mission. Or rather, Jesus would continue to carry on his mission here on earth, but acting through his Church. I think it was St. Teresa of Avila who has said that now it is we who act as Jesus’ hands and feet here on earth.
 
So this is what Jesus was preparing his disciples for: to carry on his work. And he shared with them what their mission was to be: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He is instructing them to be witnesses of everything that they have seen and heard from him, and to proclaim this to the whole world.
 
Our first reading comes from the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, which was written by Luke the Evangelist, who had also written the Gospel of Luke. So the Acts of the Apostles is in a sense part two of the story that had begun in Luke’s Gospel, or one could say that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles together form one longer book, the first half of which recounts the life of Christ, and the second half of which recounts the beginning of the early Church. And the life of Christ is mirrored in the life of the early Church: both had the 40-day period of preparation, after which Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The Church, for her part, was baptized in the Spirit, as Jesus had promised, when the Holy Spirit descended upon his disciples at Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. After his baptism, Jesus began his public ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. The first words of his ministry as recorded in Mark’s Gospel were, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” And in his final words to his apostles in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus said that “repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations.” And after they were baptized in the Spirit at Pentecost, they began to fulfill his instruction to them, going out first into the streets of Jerusalem, and then to the surrounding region, but then even beyond, preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
 
By the end of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how Christian communities have sprung up throughout the eastern Mediterranean region, even down to Ethiopia, and to Rome. And just as Jesus faced persecution in his lifetime, so too did the Church. Paul of course went to Rome because he had been arrested for his evangelizing activity and so went to Rome to defend himself as a Roman citizen before the emperor. And this is where the Acts of the Apostles somewhat abruptly ends. We do not hear how in Acts how Paul’s case before the emperor went, but the constant tradition of the Church since then has been that he ended up being martyred for his faith in Christ shortly after. But by that point, the Church had already been established in Rome. And while the Roman Empire is now long gone, long since consigned to the pages of history, the Church herself remains.
 
So the chief responsibility of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: that because Jesus, the Son of God, suffered and died for us, our sins can and will be forgiven if we repent. However, more about that next week!
 
But going back to what we celebrate today: Jesus’ ascension into heaven. My initial feeling is that Jesus’ disciples would have been very sad. He had died, which was a devastating blow for them, but then three days later he was alive again and they were reunited with him! But then forty days later he leaves them again, and this time for good. However, our readings tell us that afterwards, rather than being sad, they returned rejoicing to Jerusalem. Even though Jesus had departed from them, he didn’t die – death no longer had any power of him, and instead they watched him go in glory. They saw him rise into the heavens until he was hidden by a cloud. This recalls the cloud that came down from heaven when Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor – the presence of God of the Father. The apostles were filled with awe at this manifestation of the Divine.
 
And further, Jesus had already made some important promises to them: one was that where he was going, they would one day follow. That he had to go to prepare a place for them in heaven. Two, that he would be with them always, even until the end of the world. And indeed he is, in prayer, in the Church, when two or more are gathered in his name, and most especially, in the Eucharist, which we find in every tabernacle in every Catholic (and Orthodox) church throughout the world. Three, that he would send his Holy Spirit upon them, to give them the grace and the strength they would need to fulfill his will for them and to carry on his mission.
 
So Jesus remains no longer here on earth as a human being as before. He reigns now in glory in heaven and for that reason we rejoice. And he remains with us, yet in a different way. And we also rejoice because of the promises that He has made to us: that where he has gone, we will one day follow, as long as we continue to seek forgiveness for our sins and strive to follow him every day that is left to us here on earth. We rejoice because of the hope that Jesus’ ascension into heaven gives us.