“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” A few years ago, in Boston, I was talking to a group of kids preparing for their first communion, and one of them asked me, “If we eat the body of Jesus, does that mean we’re cannibals?”
I thought it was a good question. What Jesus teaches us about the Eucharist is not easy to understand. In the Gospel, Jesus’ teaching provokes arguments and even causes some of his disciples to leave him. But he doesn’t back down. The Catholic Church, I’m happy to say, has also never backed down from the faith that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus. It’s not a prop in a play. It is not a mere symbolic reminder. It’s not a visual aid from before the days of PowerPoint. It may not look or taste like flesh and blood, but Jesus forces us to make a choice—do we believe our own senses or do we believe him? It’s the same choice required to believe in eternal life, which we have never seen. Do we trust his words? And if we do, does that make us cannibals?
Think about someone you know very well and love. If you heard his voice, would you recognize it? Certainly. If you saw her in the distance, would you recognize the way she walks? Probably. If it’s someone you love and know very well, you would recognize his laugh—and know the sort of things he finds funny, the jokes he tells or laughs it. You might know her favorite foods, the kind of gestures that she makes. You might even be able to recognize someone you know very well from the smell of the shampoo she uses.
Now another question. If it’s someone that you love and maybe lives far away, if you had a choice, would you rather send him an email or make a phone call or zoom or see him in person and spend time with him? I think all of us know it means so much more to spend time with someone we love in person, in the flesh. You can’t give a hug over zoom.
What’s missing in a text message or a zoom call? We could list a lot of things, those sorts of things I just mentioned—touch, our way of reacting to things, lots of little things, things it’s hard to describe exactly. Let’s put a word on all these things—our humanity.
A few weeks ago I mentioned José Granados’s fine new book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh. It’s full of interesting insights. Since I’m working on putting the final touches on my book about baptism of desire, one line that indirectly touches on the theme of desire stood out.
I often point out that our rituals are meant to form us. They shape us and make us into new beings, especially the sacraments of initiation. In this regard, Granados points out that rituals form our desires as well.
“For in our action there is always more than what we have put into it; and for that reason we desire, when we act, more than what we think we desire.” (309)
The action of the liturgy, in other words, implies desiring certain things and in a certain way. When we participate in the liturgy, therefore, those desires become our own. This insight gets at what makes the sacraments irreducible, why they cannot be replaced with just having the right ideas, and what makes baptism of desire such a difficult and fascinating topic.
Last month I had an interesting discussion with Jesuit scholastic David Inczauskis about the sacraments–what they are, why we have them, how they and the theology surrounding them developed through time, what are the challenges for sacramental theology today. David produces an in-depth podcast on liberation theology, so my general introduction to sacramental theology was the lead-in to some of his reflections on liberation theology and the sacraments, which are also included in the podcast. Here’s the Apple version of the episode:
The feast of Pentecost holds a special place in my heart because I presided at my first Mass on Pentecost Sunday. This year is the fifth anniversary of my ordination, so, for kicks, I dug up my homily from that Mass and thought I’d repost it here. A lot has happened since that day, yet in some ways it still feels like yesterday…
I’ll begin with homework. Today’s first reading from Acts 2 tells the story of Pentecost, but it’s just the beginning of the story of Pentecost. So on your i-Phones on the drive home, pull up Acts of the Apostles and read all of chapter 2. (Unless you’re driving.)
Now, since in my 22 years of formal education I have noted that occasionally students don’t do their homework, I will go ahead and tell you what happens in Acts 2. The part we heard this morning takes place after Jesus had risen from the dead, appeared to his disciples for 40 days, and then ascended into heaven. One thing I don’t think we realize when we talk about Easter is how disoriented the disciples were even after Jesus rose from the dead. The Resurrection doesn’t immediately bring understanding to the disciples. If you read all of John 20, the chapter from which today’s Gospel is taken (extra credit), you’ll note that even after the Resurrection there’s still disbelief, confusion, and fear. Mary Magdalene meets Jesus but mistakes him for a gardener. Then, when she realizes who it is, she won’t let go of him—to the point that Jesus has to tell her, “Stop holding on to me.” After the horror of the crucifixion, we can understand why the disciples would be fearful and why Mary Magdalene wouldn’t want to let Jesus go. But Jesus says he has to go to do something necessary for the disciples. He promises that when he has ascended to the Father, he, with the Father, will send the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
The conviction on which sacramental theology rests is nowhere better expressed than by St. Leo the Great in his sermon on the Ascension: after Jesus ascended into heaven, what was visible in his earthly life has passed over into the sacraments.
At Easter, beloved brethren, it was the Lord’s resurrection which was the cause of our joy; our present rejoicing is on account of his ascension into heaven. With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father…
And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments…
The truth is that the Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity…
Leo the Great, Sermo 2 de Ascensione, Office of Readings, Friday of the Sixth Week of Easter
For the sacramental theologian such as myself, there’s a deep lesson in the details of the journey. The Son of God’s Incarnation meant entering fully into the reality of human life, with all its diverse moments of suffering and disappointment, of hope and joy, of sometimes just getting by. The Passion narrative is the most vividly detailed part of the Gospels, and the Resurrection stories too, though reflecting the discombobulation of that utterly unprecedented event, also retain the sort of vivid details that stick out in one’s mind even when the world has just gone outside-in. Mary thinks Jesus is the gardener. Jesus eats a bit of fish. The sacraments depend on the details of the Lord’s life, too, on what he ate at his last meal.