Friday, May 31, 2013

A Reflection on the Eucharist

As I listen to the psalmist announce the readings for the mass I hear him say “we must receive the Eucharist to have eternal life.” This caused me to ask myself; didn’t John say something about us only needing to believe in Jesus to have eternal life? That seemed like a contradiction to me so I set out to resolve the apparent conflict when I got home.

John’s passage goes like this: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (Jn. 3:16) John continues, “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (Jn. 3:18)

It seems very clear to me that the condition for eternal life is to believe in the Son of God, and his name, Jesus Christ. There is no mention anywhere in this specific dialogue that refers to needing to receive the Eucharist for eternal life; and I don’t think John forgot to mention it.

There is no doubt however that most, if not all, Catholics do believe there is no salvation without receiving the Eucharist. Though I am Catholic, this belief deserves question. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand my disposition towards the Eucharist; I for one am fervently devoted to the belief in the Eucharist, my book is inspired by my reverence for it. It is the quintessential sacrament of all the sacraments, so much so that to me it is more than just a sacrament. Unfortunately, if the specific elements of one’s belief in the Eucharist are mistaken than its real significance becomes shrouded.

The following reflection is based on the Gospel readings from the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Sundays of the Roman calendar, cycle B. The entire Gospel story is from John 6: 22-71, and the passages read were: Jn. 6: 24-35; Jn. 6: 41-51; Jn. 6: 51-58; and Jn. 6: 60-69.  Please read!

The text used for citations is The New American Bible, and the specific passages from the readings that will be referred to in this reflection are:

(1) “It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail.” (Jn. 6: 63)

(2) “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” (Jn. 6: 48-50)

(3) “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him… It is written in the prophets: ‘They shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” (Jn. 6: 44-45)

(4) “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.” (Jn. 6: 53)

(5) “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” (Jn. 6: 57)

The Reflection:
By examining the whole dialogue from the four consecutive Sundays that discusses the bread of life discourse, one could surmise there are two different perspectives that Jesus is speaking from, present and future. In the present sense he is referring to his own presence on earth, as the manifestation of God’s word made flesh; and in the future sense he is referring to his own flesh, which he was going to sacrifice for the life of the world. These two senses refer to two different bases upon which to found one’s faith in the Lord, each yielding two distinctly different fruits.

For their present instruction the listening audience had the potential to realize, through John’s Gospel proclamation that Jesus is “the word made flesh” (Jn. 1:14), by listening to Jesus speak they were hearing the words of God. In the temptation of Christ we also learn, “It is written; ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’” (Mt. 4:4) This first sense; founding one’s faith on belief in Jesus as being the word of God, involves listening to his words and founding one’s life on what one derives from their hearing. This is a legitimate basis for understanding ‘eating the bread of life,’ by simply listening to the words of Jesus to hear the words of God. It yields the fruits of clearly understanding the spiritual dimension of eternal life, and the fruitlessness of flesh based motivations for living (1). This is further supported in James: “He willed to give us birth by the word of truth that we may be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. Therefore, put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” (Jas. 1: 18-21)

For their future instruction the listening audience was also being challenged to enter into a new basis for having a relationship with God. They had previously understood the dimension of hearing the word of God, but now were being presented with a new way to receive that word of God, via direct consumption likened to eating the manna in the desert (2). In this second sense; founding one’s faith on the belief in Jesus' body as food, known today as the Eucharist (not just a commemorative ceremony), those whom the Father calls are drawn into an even deeper relationship with him (3). This is the Catholic (universal) gift from God to all humanity that yields the spiritual means for becoming children of God in the fullest possible way. It is the only means established for receiving that eternal spirit of life, for living (4); and those who receive his spirit for living have the potential to experience a life in this world that will never end (2), but will carry over into eternity. It yields the fruits associated with realizing he is more than the word of God made flesh, he is the life; coming to him equals receiving his spirit of life that enables one to live one’s own life as he lived his life, with eating his body providing the only means for receiving "his" spirit.

Whether one founds their faith in him solely on his words or the continued offering of his flesh, I propose both souls will be raised up on the last day because both require the condition of a faith based belief to be fulfilled. Perhaps they will be raised up to differing realizations of the one eternal truth corresponding to their degree of closeness sought in relationship to God who alone can judge. Following a similar theme; where it is completely plausible for the infinite being of God to necessitate multiple relationships with his finite creatures due to our limitations; everyone responds to the call of salvation in the manner that satisfies the degree of closeness he or she desires to have with the Lord. Some will respond to both senses, simultaneously, yielding the closest relationship of all.

The purpose common to both cases is introducing the concept that life originates from spirit, (5) not flesh. Jesus is trying to communicate that the things of the flesh are useless when applied to the reality of life, because life is spirit. This is why it is not enough to simply conform to the moral ideals proposed by Christianity. Though such conformity is truly necessary, this conformity does not accomplish the spirit of life that will be eternal. Whereas receiving his eternal spirit for living accomplishes our moral conformity for us when we surrender ourselves to it.

It would be remiss of me not to mention, there is also the issue concerning the authenticity of the Eucharist offered by other Christian denominations! Some Christian creeds do not believe there is a real change of the bread and wine into his body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ as we Catholics do (Transubstantiation). For them it is just a ceremonial remembrance. Some may not even observe this aspect of Christianity at all. Some denominations also believe in the transformation of the Eucharist, but also believe it remains bread and wine (Consubstantiation).  Unfortunately, because of excommunication, the subsequent suspension of faculties by the Catholic Church, and the discontinuation of the apostolic succession, their ministers and successors are not believed to have received the faculties necessary for accomplishing the transformation.

I have no desire to enter into the argument of who does and who does not possess the faculties for transforming the bread and wine into the real body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ. I will only point out that it was while we were yet sinners that Christ offered his body in sacrifice for our sins. No one qualified for his sacrifice, and yet it was still offered freely to all. To perpetuate Jesus Christ’s spirit by which he sacrificed himself, his body and blood should be offered to all with only two conditions - repentance and belief. He said, "The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel." (Mk. 1:15)  If the Father has drawn someone to him, how could a mere human being justifiably prevent that person from receiving him? Maybe receiving him in the Eucharist is what that soul needs to find its way back to full communion with Christ, which is completed by the sacrament of Confirmation.

Concluding statement:
I know how we Catholics have been taught that we need to receive the Eucharist in order to obtain eternal life; a belief I fully accepted for most of my Catholic life as well. Unfortunately, that inevitably leads Catholics to the subsequent belief; we are the only one’s who will obtain eternal life.  However, if you have listened to the faith testimonies of non-Catholic Christians like I have you have to know that simply can’t be true.

I do believe the Eucharist is necessary, I just question if that necessity is as a condition for obtaining eternal life after one dies. The Eucharist is the sole means for receiving Christ's eternal spirit for life, whether we embrace it to live our present lives by or not. It is therefore necessary to receive the Eucharist in order to discover, while confined to this state of space and time, Christ's own eternal spirit for living until we eventually pass through death to the resurrection unto eternal life. Though one may believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ, without receiving the Eucharist (eating his body and drinking his blood) his eternal living spirit can not dwell within that soul.  He said, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink His blood you have no life within you." (Jn. 6:53)  Consequently, that soul does not know the eternal spirit for life, even if the conditions of faith, repentance and belief have been met.

Friday, May 24, 2013

"A Layman's Journey: In Search of Spirituality"

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Michael Warrick
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