18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Fr. Joseph Levine; August 2, 2020
Readings: Is 55:1-3, Ps 145:8-9, 15-18; Rm 8:35,37-39; Mt 14:13-21
In 304 AD, during the persecution of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, 49 Christians of Abitina in modern day Tunisia, led by the priest St. Saturninus, were accused of illegally partaking of Sunday worship. Asked why they had violated the Emperor’s command, one of them responded, Sine dominico non possumus vivere. The literal meaning is: “We cannot live without the Lord’s Day.” The sustenance of life, the bread of life they were accustomed to receive on the Lords’ Day was of course the Body of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Their hunger for Jesus Christ in the Eucharist cost them their lives in this world, but won them life eternal and the crown of martyrdom.
Today’s 1st reading gives us a prophecy of a banquet provided by God; in the Gospel we heard of one of two times in which Jesus provided a banquet for the people through the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fish. Though it was a real miracle and a real banquet in which all of them, 5,000 men not counting women and children, ate and were satisfied, it is also a prophetic banquet.
The prophecy of Isaiah, together with the other ‘banquet prophecies’ of the Old Testament, and prophecy of the miracle, together with Jesus’ own ‘banquet parables’ have a two-fold fulfilment: the banquet of Jesus’ Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist and the banquet of the vision of the most Holy Trinity in heaven. Jesus, who is himself the living Bread come down from heaven to give life to the world (cf. Jn 6:33,51) connects the communion of his Body and Blood with eternal life: Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (Jn 6:53-55)
One of the possible symptoms of Covid is the loss of the sense of taste. When someone suffers the loss of the sense of taste eating becomes a laborious burden. Of course, people sometimes get sick and suffer a loss of appetite, another dangerous situation. Food is necessary to maintain a healthy physical life and both hunger and taste make it possible and pleasant for us to acquire adequate nourishment.
Well, the Christian must have a hunger and a taste for Jesus, the Bread of Life, in Holy Communion. Without this essential nourishment the spiritual life, the life of the soul, the life of grace is in danger.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was born and raised in the United States as an Episcopalian. She traveled to Italy with her businessman husband, who died while they were in Italy. The young widow and mother found during that time great care and support in an Italian Catholic family that had befriended her. This began to draw her to the Catholic faith. When she returned to New York City, however, she began to hunger for the Body of Christ in Holy Communion. This is what led to her conversion.
When Jesus walked the earth, someone might have heard about him, come to believe in him, and longed to meet him (like Zacchaeus, the tax collector), but if he had never met Jesus personally and someone asked him, “Do you know, Jesus of Nazareth?” he would have to reply, “I have heard about him, but I do not know him.”
Since Jesus’ ascension into heaven, his ‘physical’ presence on earth is through the Holy Eucharist. In that light we could ask, is it truly possible for someone to know Jesus without knowing him in the Holy Eucharist?
When I put the matter this way that brings to light the great disaster we suffered when for a month or two almost the entire Catholic world, except for priests, were deprived of the Holy Eucharist.
I am afraid to say this, because I wouldn’t want to give anyone in authority any bad ideas, but imagine if in order to prevent the spread of Covid it were decreed that husbands, wives, and children must live apart and have no contact with one another. That is effectively what happened on a spiritual level (and in places is still happening) due to the suspension of public worship.
In those circumstances the Catholic faithful were instructed to make ‘spiritual communions’. That is very good, but spiritual communion is not the same as the real thing; spiritual communion begins with a real hunger for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, for a real sacramental communion. Where that hunger is lacking there can be no real spiritual communion.
Now, over the years I have had occasion to learn, from personal testimonies, that many people who for one reason or another stopped going to Mass, then started drifting away from God – God was no longer so present to their mind – and then they began falling into various sins, which they ended up regretting. This reveals how much their strength to live an upright and godly life came from Jesus in the Eucharist.
The same sort of thing routinely happens here during the harvest season: there are people who go to Mass all year around, but during the harvest season are caught up in the work and unable to go to Mass. They then drift away also from God and fall into various sins.
In the 19th century, the Flathead Indians of the Montana Rocky Mountains invited Fr. Pierre de Smet and the Jesuits to establish a mission in their midst and teach them the Catholic faith. The Jesuit missionaries discovered that they also needed to teach them to farm in order that their life might become more settled and regular, revolving around the Lord’s Day and the Holy Eucharist, because otherwise, whenever they went off on the hunt, they would return to their pagan ways.
I can assure you that during the time of the shutdown there are people whose prayer life, previously nourished by the reception of holy communion, was strong enough that they found the sustenance they needed. Nevertheless, there have been others who have drifted off in one way or another and who have committed sins they otherwise would not have committed.
At the present time everyone still effectively dispensed from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass. Nevertheless, someone who hungers for the Body of Christ will want to go to Mass and will not lightly dismiss or excuse himself from going when it is possible. Everyone is effectively dispensed from their obligation to attend Sunday Mass, which is a precept of the Church, but no one can ever be dispensed from the 3rd commandment, Keep holy the Lord’s Day. Hunger for the Body of Christ in holy communion, must in any case be part of the holiness of the Lord’s Day.
Indeed, whether we are able to attend Mass or not, we must live so as to be always able to receive holy communion. A Catholic should not find himself in the situation where he is at Mass and has to say to himself, “Drat. I have mortal sins that I haven’t confessed so I can’t go to communion.”
Here is the thing: physical hunger is natural; it doesn’t need to be cultivated. Spiritual hunger needs to be cultivated.
How do we cultivate our spiritual appetite for the Holy Eucharist?
We heard that Jesus cured the sick before the miracle of the multiplication of loaves. The sickness of the soul is sin; the first step towards holy communion must always to seek Jesus’ healing forgiveness. That is why prior to that confession of mortal sins and sacramental absolution is necessary. That is also why the Mass always begins with the penitential rite, because we also need to seek forgiveness for our venial sins.
In Mark’s account of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves we learn that first Jesus taught them many things. (Mk 6:34) In the alleluia verse today we heard, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” The Mass itself is structured so that the liturgy of the Word, instruction in the word of God comes before and prepares for the liturgy of the Eucharist, the offering of the sacrifice and the reception of communion.
This also shows us the pattern for our life: if we are to cultivate a true hunger for Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, we must first cultivate a hunger for instruction in the word of God. Right instruction in the word of God should lead us to Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. If someone knows sacred Scripture backwards and forwards, but does not know Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, he has not yet understood sacred Scripture. Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is, we could say, the hidden heart of the word of God.
Finally, we can consider a contrast between the words of today’s 1st reading come without paying and without cost and the Gospel parables we heard last week, in which the man who found the treasure in the field and the merchant who found the pearl of great price has to give everything they had to gain the treasure or the pearl.
So which is it, everything you have to give or no cost?
There are three ways to understand the ‘no cost’. First, there is no cost, because we must first accept the free gift of God, before we are capable of giving everything we have. Second, there is no cost because we do not have to look outside ourselves for the ‘everything’ that we need to give. Whether a man is a billionaire or homeless on the street he doesn’t have to worry about the ‘price’ because he has the ‘everything’ within himself, because what he must give is his very person, in its totality to God. Finally, there is ‘no cost’ because our giving of ourselves must not be compelled or coerced, but of our own free will.
We can make a comparison with a wedding. There can and should be all sorts of extrinsic and realistic considerations, including economic ones, that the man and woman make before they get married. Nevertheless, once the decision has been well made, on the day of the wedding, standing face to face before the altar of God and the priest, each one must freely, totally, and without holding anything back, give himself, expecting nothing in return – no cost. It is not “I love you on the condition that you love me”, but “I love you trusting that you will indeed love me.” That is love.
All the more, when we receive communion, we must freely give ourselves, totally and without reserve to the Lord – without consideration of the abundance we can expect to receive from him, but solely because it is “right and just” – and in exchange for the gift of our self, we receive him, given to us freely, totally, and without reserve. That is why we must first be united to his sacrifice, before we receive him in holy communion.