Airports, alas. My obligations with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops necessitate my spending much more time in airports than I like. I have taught myself to make the best of it, catching up on reading, answering emails, sketching out homily thoughts.
And then there is a frequent airport sight that I always enjoy: the reunion of folks who have been apart and are overjoyed to be back in each other’s presence. Some of you know that joy of a spouse or parent at a soldier’s safe return from Afghanistan, or simply a student’s arrival home from college. We count the days in anticipation of a reunion with a close friend coming to visit from thousands of miles away. When we love someone, we long more than anything to be in that person’s presence.
So much of life is presence: presence at the side of a hospital bed, presence of sponsor and catechumen to each other in RCIA, presence to mourners at a wake, presence of bride, groom and family at the exchange of marriage vows.
The Eucharist is all about presence, Christ’s real presence to us, and ours in Him to each other and to the world.
Let me share a fond memory from my days as a college chaplain when I accompanied a group of students on a trip to Mexico…no, not spring break in Cancun, but a “third world retreat” near Cuernavaca. We stayed in a convent of Mexican sisters whose apostolate was to educate visitors from the first world to the living conditions of some of the poorest of the poor living in a nearby barrio.
One afternoon we visited an area inhabited by 10,000 people who lived in small tin huts with dirt floors. One pipe supplied water for the entire village. People stood in line every day to get buckets of water.
We were welcomed by one small family -- a mother, grandmother and two children -- into their little hut. They shared with us the little food they had, recounting their struggles and hopes. Then they wanted to show me something. The mother led me through a maze of alleys to a simple cinderblock building, not much larger than the hut they lived in. She told me to look through a small window in the door. As I did, I could see a burning candle, a few flowers in a vase and, next to it, a wooden tabernacle in which the Blessed Sacrament was reserved. When I turned to look at the woman, her smiling face was radiant with happiness. “Father can’t come for Mass every week,” she said. “But Jesus is here with us all the time. In the Eucharist, he is always present with us. That’s how much he loves us. And his presence gives us strength to go on and courage to make things better.”
Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist is the enduring sign of his love for us. It is why, as St. Paul reported in I Corinthians 11, Jesus “took bread and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me…this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’”
The Eucharist is the living presence of Jesus Christ in our midst. The celebration of the Eucharist is the very heartbeat of the Church’s life, its source and summit, as Vatican II taught.
It is Jesus’s gift of his very life…a share in the saving grace of his death and resurrection. When we receive holy Communion, it is the Risen Christ whom we receive. As Jesus fed the five thousand with bread and fish, he goes infinitely further and feeds us with his very own divine life. What a gift! Thus it is that the priest, holding up the Body and Blood of Christ for all to see, says “This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” and then adds “Happy are those who are called to his supper.” Happy are we who are called to his supper!
We are created to live in communion with God. Jesus shows us and gives us the way to live that communion. And we are drawn most deeply into that relationship as we receive holy Communion.
To receive Holy Communion is also to become united with one another. Benedict XVI wrote in Deus Caritas Est: “I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can only belong to him in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own.” The Eucharist, then, makes the Church.
It is good to remind ourselves of the importance of preparing well to receive Communion: to fast for one hour from all food and drink except water and medicine; to participate actively and thoughtfully in the Mass; and most importantly, to seek forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of Penance if we know ourselves to have committed grave sin…including the sin of missing Sunday Mass without a valid reason.
Lastly, holy Communion sends us out on mission. As the U.S. Bishops have written, “we should be filled with a truly Christ-like love for our neighbor that takes us beyond a narrow concern for ourselves and moves us to promote the common good and to uphold the…dignity of every human person.” Christ’s presence to us in Communion summons us to be present to others, to bring his presence to others, to see his presence in others. Pope Benedict in a homily for Corpus Christi put this beautifully: “This treasure … destined for the baptized does not exhaust its radius of action in the context of the Church … In every time and in every place, he wants to meet human beings and bring them the life of God.”
May we always approach this holy mystery with due reverence and awe and love for the Holy One of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is in our midst and who comes to abide within us, making us holy as he himself is holy.
-Most Rev. Richard J. Malone