John 6: 51-58
Feast Day Reflection by Sister Maureen Lomax, SNDdeN
Memories of my First Communion Day at St Luke’s RC Church (Liverpool Archdiocese, England) seventy years ago: wearing a white dress (mine was homemade of parachute silk…post-war bonus!) and a plain white net veil; gathering with other same-age girls in the front benches (boys on the other side in their smart white shirts and trousers) while family were elsewhere in the church; feeling nervous about receiving Holy Communion and worrying in case I fainted (fasting from midnight); having a group photograph taken outside church by an official photographer (no instant cameras, videos or phone cameras then!); enjoying a celebration breakfast in school; walking in the Blessed Sacrament Procession, followed by Benediction, in the late afternoon. It was a great occasion.
I know I was well-prepared, having had instructions in school and at Sunday School every week. Having made my First Confession, I accepted that in Holy Communion I was receiving the Body of Christ, that I had to maintain a reverential and prayerful attitude, and that in some way I had entered more fully into the life of the Church. But I have no memories of what I understood at a deeper level.
Fast forward to Vatican 2, after which the liturgical reformers brought together the Feasts of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) and the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The latter had been in the General Calendar from 1848-1969 as a separate feast, but it was thought that ‘the Precious Blood of Jesus’ was already venerated in the Solemnities of the Passion, Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The revision of the liturgy also introduced the three-year cycle of scripture readings for Sundays and Solemnities. Hence the Gospel Reading given for Year A/1 (Jn 6:51-58).
I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.
Anyone who eats this bread will live forever,
and the bread that I shall give is my flesh,
for the life of the world. (Jn 6:51-53)
This is plain language, startling to those listening, but echoing ‘I will give you living water…whoever drinks this water…will never thirst…will live forever’(Jn4) promised to the woman at the well. But this is not the temporal bread (manna) which did not last. Jesus, the Son of Man, embodies ‘the living father’ by whom he was sent. Jesus claims his divinity and promises ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’, not of the Old Testament animal sacrifices, but his own body. Jesus the Lamb of God, through his own death and resurrection, replaces the sacrificial lamb of the First Passover, recalled annually by the Jewish people even today (Jn 1:36).
Just before this discourse, the miracle of the loaves and fishes (Jn 6:22-24) is recounted, after which another sign is demanded (Jn 6:30-31) by those who cannot see beyond their immediate needs. The post-resurrection theology of this gospel reiterates through many ‘signs’, that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence and power. The Passover has become the Paschal Feast. The Last Supper, recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (also 1Cor 11:23-26), presents us with the context of Jesus’ final sacrifice, John’s Gospel provides us with the meaning: Jesus, the true Paschal Lamb, was sacrificed for the sinfulness of humankind by dying and rising again from the dead by his own divine power.
In the Eucharist, ‘Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death’ (1Cor 2:26). Acts 2:41-42/47 records that from its earliest days, the first Christians ‘continued steadfastly’ to pray together and shared ‘the breaking of bread’. Celebrating the Eucharist (Sacrifice of the Mass) as ‘the victory and triumph of his (Christ’s) death …again made present’ (Council of Trent: Session 23;) has been at the heart of the Church’s practice and teaching.
The ‘Decree on the Eucharist’ from Vatican 2 reiterated the central eucharistic theology but restored a fuller understanding of Christ’s presence within the Church. ‘He is present in the Sacrifice of the Mass not only in the person of His minister…but especially in the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments…in the word (sacred scriptures) …when the Church prays and sings, for He has promised ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them Mt 18:20). Every ‘full act of public worship is performed by the Mystical body of Christ, that is, by the Head and his members’. The presence of at least one lay person is required at the celebration of Eucharist/Mass (Canons 904/906) ‘unless there is a good and reasonable cause’ for proceeding alone. Together in the Eucharist, priest and people, are drawn into Christ who is their ‘source’ and reach beyond themselves to the ‘summit’ of unity in Christ: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him…Anyone who eats this bread shall live forever.’ (Jn 6:56/58).
Reflection: 1) Am I a ‘life-giver’, to myself and to others?
2) Do I believe that I am Christ’s presence in our world?
3) Reflect on the positive, thanking God for all the ‘signs’ of life and goodness.
Postscript: Celebrating the Eucharist in Coronavirus lockdown!
Since 20th March 2020, when we all went into ‘coronavirus lockdown’ in the UK, full physical participation in the Eucharist has been out of the question for most of us! At that time, I discovered that many on-line Masses were already available, especially in Ireland. These had been set up for housebound parishioners. Some masses were streamed and were recorded so that access was available at any time, others were ‘of the moment’ and were only available in ‘real time’.
Some of the online Celebrants ‘invited participants’ to celebrate Mass, others spoke of ‘viewers watching’, several truly dialogued with their unseen congregation and a few, sometimes with their back to the people, were aloof and ‘very private’ in their delivery. So easy to become an ‘audience’ not a co-celebrant!
A recent article by Sara Parvis, a lay theologian in ‘The Tablet’(2 May 2020) expressed something of the ‘starkness’ of the online Masses without ‘lay participation’, the ‘maleness’ of the context and questioned the meaning of the ‘Spiritual Communion Prayer’ (St Alphonsus Ligouri) which was suggested for those online. The surprise to me (and to Sara) was that St Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica III.80.1) regarded spiritual communion as equivalent to receiving the consecrated host itself!
That stirred up a few thoughts, some probably heretical: Did I really attend Mass online? I did not attend physically, but as a committed believer I prayed the prayers, listened and responded to the readings, was united as a member of the mystical body, ‘received’ Christ spiritually etc. Social media has proved itself to be a ‘unifier’ during the pandemic, as people have exchanged ideas and activities that matter to them. For religious groups it has enabled them to share, worship and pray together. It cannot be ignored. What will the future be for the Church?
Jesus said to the crowds: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
The Gospel of the Lord