People crammed into the Gillis Centre in Edinburgh yesterday for our Day for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The event reinforced the centre and summit of our faith: The Eucharist. Here, in an abridged version of his talk, Father Jeremy Milne sets out Catholic teaching to give us a "renewed sense of wonder at the mystery of the Eucharist".
Good morning. Some of you know me already but for those who don’t I’m Fr Jeremy Milne and I’m the Parish Priest of St John the Baptist & St Kentigern in Edinburgh West.
I’m delighted to be here with you this morning as we seek to be drawn closer to our Eucharistic Lord.
I’m sure we can all remember turning on the news on 15th April last year and watching in horror as the great Cathedral of Notre Dame was engulfed in flames (see video, above).
In the aftermath of it all, the story of Fr Jean-Marc Fournier, Chaplain of the firefighters of Paris, emerged. In an interview he explained:
“As I was on duty, I was called on the scene, and right away two things must absolutely be done: save this unfathomable treasure that is the crown of thorns, and of course our Lord present in the Blessed Sacrament. When I entered into the cathedral, the spire had already collapsed. At any moment, the nave could cave in...a rain of fire was falling without pause from the roof. We found the keys. I retrieved Jesus. And with the Blessed Sacrament, I blessed the Cathedral. It was an act of faith. I asked Jesus – Who I believe is truly present in the hosts – to fight the flames and to preserve the building dedicated to His Mother. The benediction coincided with the beginning of the fire in the north tower – and also with its extinction! This was surely Providence … The two bell towers were saved.”
What extraordinary courage! What a great witness to the power of faith!
Another example: Just minutes before the 180-year-old church collapsed from the earthquake’s aftershock, responders, including pastor Fr. Melvin Díaz and Peñuelas resident Fr. Orlando Rivera, rescued the Eucharist and tabernacle.
To the faithless mind it makes no sense at all. To risk or give your life for the sake of bread?
It sounds crazy.But the truth is something different. The actions of these people and countless others through history bear witness to the tremendous Catholic faith that, housed in the Tabernacle of every church great and small, from the wonder of Notre Dame to the humble places of somewhere like Puerto Rico, is not bread but the Lord Jesus Christ himself.
The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ really and truly present. This is the sacred mystery of the Real Presence, the Eucharistic Lord.
Fr Jean-Marc from Notre Dame put it like this:
“Everybody understands that the Crown of Thorns is an absolutely unique and extraordinary relic, but the Blessed Sacrament is our Lord, really present in his body, soul, divinity and humanity and you understand that it is hard to see someone you love perish in the blaze. As firefighters we often see casualties from fire and we know its effects, this is why I sought to preserve above all the real presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In a recent survey carried out in the USA, nearly 70% of the Catholics asked said they believed that the bread and wine during the Mass are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus.
— Crux (@Crux) August 9, 2019
Now, the answers that people give in these kinds of surveys depend a lot on how the questions are framed and also the degree of participation in the life of the Church of the respondents. Nevertheless, such a finding is cause for concern because the Eucharistic Lord ‘truly, really and substantially’ (Council of Trent) present is the essential heart of our faith and it really matters that we believe this.
Many decades before that Pew Survey, Flannery O’Connor, the celebrated American Catholic author was invited to a literary gathering.
“Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defence I was capable of but I realise now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the centre of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
The Centre of Existence
In that phrase, “[the Eucharist] is the centre of existence for me”, Flannery O’Connor captured the profound mystery of the Sacrament of Sacraments, the source and summit of the Catholic faith.
When we celebrate Mass and the priest consecrates the bread and wine, only the appearances of bread and wine remain. What they are is changed. They become the Eucharistic Lord: the crucified, risen and ascended Lord Jesus really and truly present to us here and now.
In this way the risen Lord remains truly with us always as he promised, feeds us with himself as he promised and gathers us into participation in the life of heaven as he promised.
The Eucharistic Lord present on the altar is the centre of all existence because He is the meeting point of heaven and earth, reality invisible and reality visible joined as one. In the Eucharist, heaven is present on earth and earth is gathered into heaven with only the thinnest veil of the appearance of bread and wine between them.
The Real Presence
So now the Lord, the Lamb of God, united to our human nature, having entered the Holy of Holies, stands before God, interceding on our behalf with the blood of his sacrifice. But he said before he ascended there, “I will be with you, always, even to the end of time”. He promised not to leave us orphans. But how?
Matthew 26: 26-29
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."
At the Last Supper Jesus unites this meal of bread and wine with his sacrificial death and in commanding the apostles to “do this in memory of me” institutes the Sacrament of the Eucharist whereby he gathers us to take part in the eternal offering of himself to God and communicates his divine life to us by giving his body and blood in sacramental form to us.
At the altar, through his words spoken by the priest, ‘this is my body, this is my blood’, his body and blood replace the entire substance of the bread and wine while the appearances remain. The bread and wine really and truly become his body and blood; the sacrificial body and blood who stands before God interceding for us
How can we imagine what is happening here? Well words are not enough of course. We cannot fully capture this mystery in words. The mystery is too great.
On the feast of St. Nicholas [in 1273, Aquinas] was celebrating Mass when he received a revelation that so affected him that he wrote and dictated no more, leaving his great work the Summa Theologiae unfinished.
To Brother Reginald’s (his secretary and friend) expostulations he replied, “The end of my labours has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” When later asked by Reginald to return to writing, Aquinas said, “I can write no more. I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
What we believe
How can we imagine our Eucharistic Lord, present to us under the appearance of bread and wine? Does Jesus come down and sort of get inside the bread and wine? No, because then bread and wine would remain coexisting with the Lord and that’s not what we believe.
We believe that after the consecration the bread and wine cease to exist. And anyway if we imagine the risen Lord coming down into each consecrated host and chalice there’s a danger of us imagining either that the Lord is somehow divided up and we only receive part of him or that he is multiplied with copies of him present here and there.
Great to see so many at our Day for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. pic.twitter.com/D8ICBMA19l
— Archbishop Leo Cushley (@leocushley) February 8, 2020
Perhaps a better way to imagine it is that through the words of consecration given us by Our Lord, This is my Body, This is my Blood, the elements of bread and wine are gathered into the reality of the crucified, risen and glorified Lord who stands now before the throne of God and are transformed to become the Body and Blood of that crucified, risen, glorified Lord while continuing to appear as bread and wine (Fr James T. O’Connor, The Hidden Manna, p291).
At the Consecration of the liturgy, the heavenly King touches these elements directly by and through the power of his Spirit. He touches them so mightily that – if we may put it this way – he extracts from them their very reality, dominating it and attracting it (forcefully pulling it even) toward himself, so subjecting it to himself that its own true being is lost to it as it becomes the very Lord who has mastered it
This reminds us that the Eucharistic Lord, the Lamb that was slain, is eternally before God as the one pure sacrifice by which all of creation is being drawn into union with God.
The mystical nature of what we have said may lead us to a heightened sense of our unworthiness before so deep a mystery.
Are we unworthy? Yes, of course we are, we all are. But our Lord would not want us to be paralysed by our sense of unworthiness. He calls us in spite of our unworthiness.
Remember St Peter’s reaction when Jesus told him to “put out into the deep and let your nets down for a catch”. On seeing the miraculous haul of fish, Peter fell down on his knees at Jesus’ feet and cried “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus’ reply was “Do not be afraid. Follow me.”
Again, in the Gospel of John, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter says, “You shall never wash my feet!” Jesus replies, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
From the depth of his humility our Lord and Master invites us in love to be ministers of his presence. The Lord in his intimacy invites us to touch, feel, hold and consume him that his holiness might ‘rub off on us’ as it were. The Eucharistic Lord invites us to abide with him that he, and only he, may make us worthy of his promises to us.
In handling the Lord we might think that we have taken him into our unworthy hands. Instead we should think that he has placed himself into our unworthy hands. In reality, by handling him and consuming him, actually we are placing ourselves into his hands in the most complete way possible.
So, in handling and consuming the Lord, we are never casual, always reverent. But neither, I suggest, should we feign gesture of exaggerated piety such that we would throw our body over a spilled drop of the Precious Blood or something. Above all, our relationship to our Eucharistic Lord should be loving.
It is in love that due reverence and the natural, calm intimacy of familiarity find their proper balance.
I hope you now have a renewed sense of wonder at the mystery of the Eucharist:
- By which we are drawn into the real presence of the great and glorious, crucified and risen Lord who stands in the Holy of Holies before the throne of God interceding for us;
- By which God fulfils his plan to unite all things in heaven and on earth and draw them to himself;
In which our Eucharistic Lord, gentle and humble towards us, invites us to ‘take and eat’ so that we too may be drawn into the perfect communion of heaven.
This is an abridged version of Fr Milne's talk at the Gillis Centre, Saturday 08 January, 2020. Read the full version here