That God gave his People manna from heaven is wonderful indeed but is it any more wonderful than that he gave them oxygen to breathe or sunlight to walk in?
We tend to classify the gifts of God according to how often he gives them and how accustomed we are to receiving them. Sunlight is always with us but is it less wonderful or less miraculous than water springing from a rock or the sea parting to let his People scramble through to freedom?
God begins by giving us the miracle of life and sustains us through an endless serious of miracles, great and small.
Today we celebrate a great miracle – the miracle by which ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ – which he then gives us to eat saying: Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.
In the desert God fed his People with manna. Twice we are told in today’s Gospel that this was unheard of. Moses called the People to remember it, and we do well to remember it also: ... he fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known ... in this wilderness fed you with manna that your fathers had not known.
The manna was totally unexpected, totally new, totally beyond human possibility; it kept the People alive in the desert. That’s why it was such a good image for Jesus to use when he spoke about himself. He was going to give the People of God a heavenly manna which was also totally unexpected, totally new, totally beyond human possibility, but with this added extra – anyone who ate this new manna would live forever.
Those who ate the manna in the desert died and so it was, in a sense, the bread of death. Jesus was claiming he had the bread of life.
At first the People shouted ‘Gimme, gimme, gimme! Let’s have some of this manna!’ If I’d been there I would have shouted too, maybe louder than most. I would have remembered that the day before he had worked the miracle of the loaves and fishes – he had fed five thousand men, not to mention the women and children. Now he was offering something even better.
…and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.
Oh dear, say the bystanders, did we hear him correctly? Did he just say … the bread that I shall give is my flesh…? Yes, he did, there’s no doubt about it. He wants us to eat his flesh!
We can almost hear one of the people there saying: ‘I can believe in the miracle of oxygen and sunlight. I can believe in the manna in the desert. I can even believe that he can change water into wine because I happened to be there among the guests at the wedding in Cana, and I did have some of that wonderful bread on the hill yesterday but … this … this is a bit too much.’
Then the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ they said.
It’s strange how, suddenly confronted with this proposal of Jesus, my mind feels like it’s back in a sort of lonely desert with not a single familiar landmark and not a single comforting footprint in the sand anywhere. I can well imagine why the Jews started arguing; there seems to be no line of continuity between the manna in the desert and the flesh and blood of Jesus. Certainly he is asking us to take a huge leap of faith and, apparently, not many have a faith agile enough to make that leap. Can you?
Do you believe that when you consume the small, white Host offered you by the priest as Holy Communion you are really receiving the flesh of Jesus, his Body? Do you really believe it?
Some people try to explain it away with varying novel interpretations. They say it’s only a symbol for his Body and Blood. It only represents the flesh of Jesus. They give it a name like transignification which means basically that when the words of consecration are said the bread and wine take on a different significance – without actually changing into the Body and Blood of Christ.
Well, we Catholics believe in transubstantiation which is a word given us by St Thomas Aquinas. It means that when the words of consecration are spoken the bread and wine retain all the elements of the appearance of bread and wine (smell, taste, look, etc) but the substance of the bread and wine is changed to the Body and Blood of Christ. To put it in a nutshell – the bread and wine IS Jesus – truly present in his body and blood, soul and divinity.
He is not more completely present in heaven than he is here on our altar and in our tabernacle. He will be seen or experienced more fully in heaven but he will be no more present then than he is today, here in this church.
Actually, this should help us respond to those strange people who say we don’t need to come to church to worship Jesus because ‘Jesus is everywhere.’ Yes, he is, spiritually. But in the fullness of his presence, body, blood, soul and divinity, he is present only in the tabernacle, or on the altar during Mass.
I want to mention a simple but often forgotten truth about receiving Holy Communion and that is that sometimes it can be very wrong to receive it.
Did you know that sometimes it is actually a very great sin, a sacrilege, to receive Holy Communion - that even though it is always good to come to Mass it is not always good to go to Holy Communion? Did you know that by receiving Holy Communion when we shouldn't we commit a very serious sin and we leave Mass in a worse condition than when we arrived?
If we are conscious of having committed a grave sin, what we call a mortal sin, we should definitely not go to Holy Communion until we have confessed this sin. If we do go we commit a sacrilegious communion and we need to confess that also.
Again we have the folks who will tell you to just make an act of sorrow, an act of contrition, and then you can go to Holy Communion. Please be clear about this: under normal circumstances, and I don’t have time to go into the details of the rare times when other rules apply, when it comes to a grave sin we absolutely must go to Confession before receiving Holy Communion.
When we receive Jesus himself, Lord of the Universe, Redeemer and Judge of all humanity, into ourselves, we must surely be prepared. A spotless soul, cleansed of all sin is the only place we should dare invite his presence, anything less and we dishonour and offend him.
I conclude with a word from Pope Benedict which he spoke only three days ago: We, Christians, kneel only before God, before the Most Holy Sacrament, because we know and believe that in it is present the one true God...