Brief synopsis of the readings: We begin in Exodus where Moses spoke to the people shortly after receiving the Ten Commandments. He told them they must follow all God’s commands. He then ordered the sacrifice of bulls, collected the blood, and sprinkled it on the altar to seal the Covenant. Mark’s Gospel recounts the Last Supper where he blessed bread and wine and told the 12 gathered that they were now his body and blood, the new covenant.
In my experience if I ask a longtime Catholic about the most important part of his or her faith I will soon hear about the Eucharist. I’m never surprised by that: our seven sacraments provide the foundation of the practice of our faith to this day. As a refresher, they are: Baptism, Reconciliation (Confession) Eucharist (Communion), Confirmation, Matrimony, Holy Orders (Ordination), and Anointing (Sacrament of the Sick).
Definitions of the Sacraments tend to elude us, but I like to think of them as “Windows on the Divine” (and no, I didn’t originate that). The barrier between God and us often feels insurmountable and Sacraments can give us a glimpse of what await us, both to give us hope and energy.
And Eucharist holds a specific place for most of us. In 1910 St. Pius X decreed that children should be allowed access to Eucharist from the age of reason (commonly thought of as age 7) and many of us remember our First Communion as our first “church event.” Some sacraments are celebrated only once (Baptism, Confirmation, and Orders) while we expect others only once, or a few times (Matrimony, Anointing). Reconciliation varies widely; some celebrate it weekly, some annually, others rarely. But most of us celebrate Eucharist much more often. Whenever we attend mass, weekly or daily, we can’t imagine not receiving the Eucharist.
We even call Eucharist the “Blessed Sacrament,” not because it’s the most important, but perhaps because it’s the one that touches us most often. In some circles it’s also become an experience of contraversy and that’s unfortunate.
All faiths want the best for their followers and nearly all spell out rules, norms, and expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that but sometimes we dangle sacraments as a way of demanding or manipulating behavior. We insist that parents who present their children for Baptism prove they regularly attend church. We express horror and disappointment when we find that couples preparing for Matrimony are living together and we demand that one of them moves out with little regard for their circumstances.
And since we receive Eucharist as often as we do, it sometimes becomes a tool for just that. Young married couples from the 1960s remember well struggling with the balance of Eucharist and artificial birth control while being told by celibate men that their choice was stark and simple.
Even today politicians and ordinary citizens feel pressure on the issue of abortion, that any moderation or even willingness to listen should block us from Eucharist.
I recognize that not everybody agrees with me on this, but I think we need to think about Eucharist apart from using it to control behavior. Many justify this as a way to prevent the sin of scandal. We commit scandal when we say or do something so disturbing that it calls others to question their faith. In other words if we allow the reception of Eucharist to those who merely struggle with the issue of abortion, we cause scandal.
I don’t think that’s accurate. A politician who favors capital punishment (against church teaching) is seen as pro life and a Catholic who cheats his employees/customers/stockholders can attend mass weekly and receive the Eucharist without anyone noticing.
In 2013 Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation called Evagelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel. In that letter he wrote this about Eucharist: The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.
If there is anything we can all agree on it’s our weakness and need for strength from God. If we see Eucharist as a prize for the perfect we have set ourselves up for failure because on our own we can never reach it. But if Eucharist is medicine and nourishment it allows us to find our way to perfection.
None of us is good enough for any of the sacraments, but that’s not the point. When couples marry they (hopefully) recognize that their marriage needs to grow to survive. And every good priest I know recognizes that ordination does not end the journey, but begins an entirely new and wonderful chapter.
In our history as a Church we have made incredible strides in our beliefs. Slavery used to be part of God’s hierarchy and forcing Native populations to embrace Christianity fulfilled God’s command to evangelize. If we are horrified by this it means we’re getting the message.
In my own life I’ve had several spirited and sometimes painful discussions with friends on the sanctity of life. I don’t know if I changed any minds and I didn’t think myself particularly clever. But I like to think that the Eucharist made me better, gave me strength, and allowed me to present myself as someone whose commitment to life comes from a place of integrity.
If we believe that the Blessed Sacrament is a window into the divine then we get a peek at a place where all life is sacred and we all matter. It’s a place where we don’t have to decide which lives matter because all do. It’s place where we no longer have to compete with others or fear that there won’t be enough for us.
As we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ let it be not only a window into the divine but a game plan for the life we live now.