by: DOUGLAS MCMANAMAN
I’ve been teaching high school for 20 years now, and reflecting back on those years, I can say that the easiest moments in teaching, the times when students were the most quiet and well behaved, were those times when I was teaching on the Eucharist.
“If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” Jn 6, 53-55
I’ve been teaching high school for 20 years now, and reflecting back on those years, I can say that the easiest moments in teaching, the times when students were the most quiet and well behaved, were those times when I was teaching on the Eucharist. I recall the day I became aware of that rather strange phenomenon, and needless to say, I’d always look forward to the two or three days I’d spend on the Eucharist with my grade nines or tens.
Generally speaking, young Catholics are under the impression that the Eucharist is merely a symbol of Christ’s body and blood. This of course is false. Church teaching has always been that the Eucharist is really and truly the substance of Christ’s body and blood, that when we receive the Eucharist we actually receive, down our throats, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Perhaps that is what my students found most fascinating, the idea that thinking Catholics actually believe this.
A priest friend of mine was once asked by a group of his classmates—who were all from various denominations, from Baptist, Lutheran, to Anglican, etc,—whether they could all celebrate the end of the semester with a Mass and social. He, of course, had to explain that Catholics are not permitted to engage in interdenominational communion, but they continued to pressure him nonetheless, arguing that they are all pursuing the same end, the building up of the kingdom of God, Christ, etc.,.. And so my friend consented, saying that he’d do it, but on one condition, that “when I raise up the host and say ‘this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world’, and when I genuflect on one knee, you too will genuflect and adore the Eucharist with me.”
Of course, they could not agree to the condition, because, as they said, they don’t believe that what he holds in his hands is actually the Lamb of God. Rather, they believe it is merely a symbol of Christ.
But not Catholics. We believe that to be ordained a priest is to be given the power to change ordinary bread and wine into the very substance of Christ’s body and blood. We believe that after consecration, the substance is no longer bread, but the substance of Christ, although the attributes of the bread and the wine, their affective qualities, i.e., color, taste, texture, etc., remain the same. And that is why we genuflect before it, for if it were only a piece of bread, we’d be committing idolatry every time we genuflect before the tabernacle.
But it was the second day of teaching that would be especially characterized by an eerie silence; for it was on the second day that I’d talk about the Sacrifice of the Mass. What happens on the altar is the very same thing that happened two thousand years ago on Calvary : “Take this all of you and eat it, this is my body which will be given up for you.” We receive, in communion, the body that Christ gave up for us. We receive his sacrifice, the sacrifice of the cross, into our bodies. In other words , to be present at an ordi nary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were, two thousand years ago. In other words, Calvary is not something that has disappeared into the past; rather, it is through the Mass that the sacrifice of Calvary is made present throughout history. And these students, each one of whom had a relatively short attention span and were not the most self-disciplined, would be as quiet as Rhodes Scholars when hearing this for the first time.
Consider the implications of the Catholic doctrine of the real, physical, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Years ago I overheard a student in my class say to his friends: “If only Jesus would just come down once in a while and just, you know, chill with us.” That comment became our class discussion for the day. Because the fact is, he does come down to us and actually waits for us to chill with him, in the school chapel, which has a tabernacle that contains the Eucharist.
Christ is present in a chapel containing the Eucharist in a way that he is not present anywhere else. Indeed, God is present everywhere, but he’s present everywhere naturally, as the First Existential cause of whatever has being. But in a chapel or Church containing the Eucharist, He is present supernaturally and sacramentally, in his physical substance, under the ordinary and unexciting appearance of bread.
Consider how vulnerable Christ makes himself in choosing to make himself present in the Eucharist. Very recently, I received the name of a young person in the adolescent mental health unit of the hospital in which I minister. I’m always thrilled to get the opportunity to visit a teenager, especially one suffering from some sort of psychiatric problem; for it is rare for anyone on the child and adolescent mental health unit to request a visit from a chaplain. I went there immediately and spoke to the nurse, who was surprised that this young person would request a visit from a chaplain. I then knew that it was probably the parent who'd added the name to our list. The nurse said to me that the patient was asleep, but that when she wakes up, she’d ask her whether or not she'd like to visit with me.
I remember not wanting to go back there, to stand at the door and press the buzzer, only to have a nurse walk down the long corridor, open the door and tell me that the patient had no interest in visiting with me.
It turned out the patient was dismissed the day before, so it was all for nothing. But it was that fear of rejection that came over me that I find instructive. Christ makes himself present sacramentally in the Eucharist, and because of that, it is possible that he be ignored. It is possible that not one teacher or one student at our school will have stopped by the chapel to visit the Blessed Sacrament during the day, or worse, during the week. That’s the love that we can contemplate in the Eucharistic presence, a love so powerful it is willing to make itself vulnerable to insult, all for the sake of being present among us, for our sake.
Dan Rather once interviewed Mother Theresa. It was always a delight to watch cynical journalists interview Mother Theresa, because she would invariably make them look like fools. He asked Mother Theresa about prayer:
"What do you say to God when you pray," he inquired. "Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "I just listen." "What does God say to you?" he responded, rather derisively. "Nothing," replied Mother Theresa. "He just listens."
That's what prayer before the Blessed Sacrament can become. We are still, silent, and we listen to God listening to us. And the more time we spend before the Blessed Sacrament in silence, the more we will begin to hear God listen, the more aware we will become of his presence in our lives.
Ever since I spent a week in the hospital back in the fall of 2003, I’ve been fascinated with the idea of ‘presence’. I became acutely aware of the silent presence of the nurses as they walked in at night to check the IV, and I was always disappointed that they’d immediately leave after checking it. I know that nurses do not have the time to stay, because they have so many other duties, but I experienced what a difference a simple presence makes. The nights were difficult, and the mornings were a relief, because in the morning there would be greater personal presence: nurses would arrive and stay longer, family would arrive, etc.
I recall the time when I taught in the Jane and Finch area; a priest friend of mine was the chaplain. Teachers would often ask him: “What do you do here anyways?” And he’d always say: “I just hang out”. And I remember how good it felt knowing that he was there, in the building, just hanging out. The very fact that he was present made such a difference in my day-to-day life as a teacher, and it made a difference to many students who knew he was there. This is an example of the power of being present.
And Christ has remained present to us. He’s present, not merely spiritually, but tangibly, visibly, sacramentally, in the real food of the Eucharist, and He is there for us to receive as food, and to visit and keep company with.
Now it might feel that there is no point to just sitting down in front of the Blessed Sacrament, doing apparently nothing, but doing so is really the most fruitful of actions. Consider how many people love to sit in the sun. What possible effect can sitting in the sun have on a person? But if a person sits in the sun for a time, it will soon be obvious just by looking at him. He or she will have acquired a healthy and beautiful countenance.
By sitting in front of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sun of Justice, the Son of God, the soul becomes more beautiful, and because the human person is a unity of spirit and matter, a beautiful spirit will manifest in the body and in the countenance.
People who sit in the sun will, after a time, feel more rested, and that too will become obvious just by looking at them. Similarly, spending time in front of the Blessed Sacrament brings rest to the soul: “Come, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest”.
Consider what happens when things are left in the sun, such as cassettes, CDs, chocolate, or crayons, etc. The sun disposes their matter, making them more malleable. Cassettes will warp, and crayons will melt. So too, spending time before the Blessed Sacrament disposes us and makes us more malleable towards the will of God, the more easily are we molded to the shape that God intends for us.
Objects that are exposed to the sun become very warm, and they retain their warmth for a while. So too, when we are exposed to the Blessed Sacrament, we bring the warmth of the divine love that is here right into the heart of our families and into the workplace. Consider what people mean when they refer to a nurse, or a doctor, or a teacher, as cold and distant, and consider all the good that a warm gesture can do for a person, as well as the feeling of alienation and emptiness that a cold gesture leaves in others.
Spending time under the Sun of Justice will heat us up and without our being aware of it, we will bring the warmth of the Holy Spirit into the cold and suffering lives of others. And so it is the Holy Hour that is going to heal the world. It is the Holy Hour that is going to heal families and marriages.
Consider too the link between vitamin D and the sun, as well as the link between depression and the lack of sunlight. It is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament that is going to heal our own lives, filling our lives with the joy and peace that Christ said the world cannot give. It will heal our addictions, it will heal us of loneliness, and it will bring us the light that we need to make the decisions that God calls us to make every day. Being filled with the light of the Son will enable us to readily discern God’s will for us. Amen.