It is a joy to celebrate this solemnity of Corpus Christi with you, especially as it comes just a day after the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the sacred priesthood. Last night, as I celebrated at dinner with Father Chrismer and a few friends, I realized that I’ve probably offered over 2,000 Holy Masses; most of them at the parish, some in remote parts of the US, some in historic places in Europe. But what keeps coming back to me is something I saw when I offered Mass at a local religious community. In the sacristy, there was a plaque that read,
“Priest of God, offer this Mass as if it were your first Mass; as if it were your last Mass; as if it were your only Mass.”
That’s a pretty amazing sentiment, actually. I remember my First Mass: there was excitement, there were tears, a longing to do things right, a profound reverence, and a total amazement at the realization that, while I held bread and wine in my hands, it was miraculously changing by God’s grace into His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. “Priest of God, offer this Mass as if it were your first Mass...”—yeah, that would make me more attentive at this Mass today.
And what if this was my last Mass? First, may God see that day many years from now—but, if this were my last Mass, there would be greater devotion, a greater sorrow for sin, and a more fervent prayer for heaven, I think.
And if this was my only Mass?—my one and only Eucharist, ever—well, I would do everything in my power to have my heart open to receive everything and everything of God’s grace that I could. I would be so focused, so attentive—I would want to remember it all.
Yes, I think those sentiments are good. And not only for the priest, but for all of us: receive Holy Communion today as if it were your first, your last, and your only. That would change things a little, wouldn’t it?
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Yet, I think the question should be asked: why is such a plaque necessary in the vesting area of the priests?
The reality is that even priests face difficulties of faith.
It is so easy, especially after 2,000 Masses, to take things for granted; to become lukewarm by routine. It’s even easy to question—because, after all, there is so much hardship out there in the world and, Lord, are you here? Are you hearing my prayers? The temptation to become discouraged and to doubt is so real. Even priests need strong reminders to spurn on their hearts and their faith.
Today, I wish to give you a little more to help our faith. Good sentiments are nice. But, it also helps our faith when there are solid, intellectual reasons. Faith, after all, is not blindness—it isn’t a “leap in the dark.” There are reasons. So, I wish to give you some of the more heady reasons today—reasons to keep on believing. Admittedly, these may not make a lot of sense here. But, chew on them a little. Give them some time and some reflection.
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When it comes to describing what a thing is, Catholic philosophers use words such as “substance” and “accident.” Accident is not like a car-crash; rather, accident simply means those things that we can see and sense. So, you’ll notice that I have a book here. It’s Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. (He was a daily communicant and came up with something called Lembas Bread as an allusion to the Eucharist. I digress). Anyway, here is a book—its accidents are that it is white, it is a little torn on the spine, and when I smell it… it smells old. Those are its accidents. It’s substance is that it IS a book.
So, the substance is what a thing IS; the accidents are what we sense about that thing.
Ok, so let’s presume that I drop this book into a fire. (I know, philosophy comes up with all sorts of weird situations). But let’s say I drop this book into a fire. The book will quickly burn up. And everything about it will change. It will no longer be white, but black; it will no longer smell old, but of fire (if it smells at all); and so on. In other words, the accidents of the book will have changed.
And if the book burns for quite some time, then even its substance will change. No longer will it be a book, it will be simply a pile of ashes. Someone passing by won’t recognize that it ever was a book—only ash. That’s called a substantial change.
The reason why I mention all of this is because, when things change dramatically, we are used to seeing them change in both accident and substance. When the substance of a book changes into the substance of ash, all the accidents change with it. Rarely do we see something change in its substance without seeing its accidents change too.
But when it comes to the Eucharist, substances change while that accidents do not. This is called “transubstantiation”: the substance of wine, for example, changes into Jesus Himself; but the accidents of wine remain the same. In other words, what’s in the chalice still smells like wine, it still looks like wine, it still tastes like wine—all of its accidents still are wine—but the substance has changed into Jesus, God Himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity.
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Someone might ask: But how do we know that? If I can’t see it change, then how do I know the substance has changed? Great question.
If a person is blind, how does she remain on a path? Not by her sense of sight; rather, she lets someone lead her. She must trust. So, the real question is: when it comes to the Eucharist, who should we trust?
Enter the Gospel today.
In the Gospel, we see Jesus changing five loaves of bread into food enough to feed five thousand. That’s pretty impressive. Miraculous, really. If we keep on reading the story (as found in the Gospel of John, chapter 6), we see that Jesus does another miracle: he walks on water. Now, when Jesus does a miracle, there is often a teaching attached to it (He does the miracle to prove to people that He can be trusted and His teaching believed). So, here Jesus is doing two of His most iconic miracles. The question for all of us is: what is the teaching in which He wants us to believe?
Well, after the multiplication of the loaves and the walking on the water, Jesus gives His teaching when He says:
“The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).
There it is.
The Eucharist is no longer bread but Jesus because Jesus Himself says so. And we can trust that.
Paul and the early Catholic Church bears witness to this when in his First Letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes:
“whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”
Of sinning?! If the Eucharist is just a symbol, what does it matter if we eat it in an unworthy manner? But, if it is Jesus—well, then that’s a whole ‘nother matter!
Yes, at every Holy Mass, God miraculously changes bread and wine into Jesus. And this is something we can believe in-- for isn't Jesus and the testimony of His saints trustworthy?
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Of course, Jesus knows that we struggle to trust. He knows that we want to see for ourselves. This is actually the basis of today’s solemnity of Corpus Christi.
Way back in the 1200s, there was a priest that was struggling to believe that Jesus was really present in the Eucharist. The priest was at the altar in the usual way. And in the usual way, the bread and wine were miraculously changing into Jesus, And just like at every Mass, the priest couldn’t see the change. The substance had changed, but not the accidents.
Until, that is, the priest elevated the host. At that moment, God also changed the accidents: the priest could see that it was no longer bread, but the very body and blood of Jesus. And as the priest was holding the host, blood started to pour from the host, onto the priest’s hands, and onto the linens on the altar.
This miracle was verified by many and inspired the Pope at the time to institute this special celebration of Corpus Christi-- the Body of Christ. Some of the prayers and music that we have today were composed by St. Thomas Aquinas specifically for this solemnity.
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But, I know that there are still some skeptics out there who say, “Yeah, but that’s not scientifically provable. That’s a nice story and all, but you can’t prove that it happened.”
Well, I’m glad that you’ve said that (mwa ha ha), because way back in the 800s, another similar miracle happened. There was another priest who, you guessed it, doubted that Jesus was there in the Eucharist. And so, during the Mass, not only did the substance of bread and wine change, but so did the accidents. As the priest held the host, everyone could see that it was flesh; and in the chalice, it was obvious that it was blood. The priest and the people did not consume this Eucharist, but placed it in glass for all to see.
Now, I know what you’re saying—that was over 1200 years ago, so clearly it's not real.
Until we realize that in 1971 and again in 1981 scientists themselves examined these elements (still miraculously intact after all those years, mind you) and declared that the flesh was clearly human flesh and, specifically, from the wall of the human heart. They could not explain how this was possible.
In fact, you can still go to Lanciano, Italy, and see for yourself. ... I have.
But, I remember our Lord’s last words to Thomas, when Our Savior said,
“Thomas, you believe because you have seen. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:29).
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If we ever should struggle with faith, let us be consoled by these good reasons to believe; let us consider the words of our Lord Himself; let us trust in His testimony, backed by His miracles, and by the witness of the saints.
And if we should be lukewarm, let us be generous in our acts of faith so as to spur us on: make a devoted sign of the Cross and a profound genuflection; spend much time in the adoration chapel and don’t be hasty; receive our Lord today as if it were your first communion, your last communion, your only communion.
Because, after all, how would this Mass be different for you if you were certain Jesus was here and that you were receiving Him?
Wouldn’t that change things?—and not only the bread and the wine?