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|The Peace Pulpit: Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton|
special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company
is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies
given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI. Each homily is transcribed
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From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide
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NOTE: The homilies are available here five days after they are given, always on Friday. By signing up for our weekly e-mail, you will be notifed as soon as each is available. (See the upper right corner of this screen.)
Back in the late Middle Ages, there were many difficulties in the church-much corruption, a lot of bad teaching. And among those who were trying to reform the church was someone we all know of very well, Martin Luther. He was a priest of the Augustinian Order. And one of the things that he said and that he was so determined to try to do something about was the Holy Eucharist. He says, The church has turned an action into a thing. He was proclaiming a very important truth about what had gone wrong in the church.
The church turned an action into a thing. What could he mean by that?
Well, Im sure many of us are old enough to remember the Corpus Christi processions we used to have, where many parishes would walk outside, around the block carrying the Blessed Sacrament for everybody to look at. Or very often we would have benediction in church. Wed set the Blessed Sacrament up on top of the tabernacle for everybody to look at. It had become a thing. People were encouraged to spend time in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A thing.
Yes, we understood that under that form of the bread was really the body and blood of Jesus. But still it was worshiping something apart from the celebration of the Eucharist. And if we listen carefully to todays lesson, its really easy to see that the Eucharist was intended to be an action. An action, not simply a thing-even if it is a thing that brings to us the presence of God and Jesus. No, its an action.
In the first lesson today, which is seen as a foreshadowing of the Blessed Sacrament, we might focus mostly on the elements of bread and wine. Oh yes, of course that reminds you of the Holy Eucharist, doesnt it? But it was much more than that. It wasnt just bread and wine that Melchizedek brought to Abraham. It was an action whereby this priest and king of Jerusalem welcomed these foreigners and they celebrated a feast. It was an action of hospitality, of friendship, of love. And thats what we should remember as we listen to that first lesson. That it was more than just setting forth the elements of bread and wine. That it was an action of hospitality, of love.
And in the Gospel lesson, which is also a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, thousands of people...theyre hungry. So the disciples want to just send them away. Jesus says no. No, because heres a chance to show sharing and love. Again, hospitality. Draw everybody together into a beautiful meal where people enjoy one anothers company, where they share what they have and so everybody has what he or she needs. Its a beautiful example of action, or I should say, of love in action. And thats a foreshadowing of the Holy Eucharist.
Well, when you listen especially to what St. Paul says today, it becomes so very clear. Now, this was right at the beginning of the church. Some scripture commentators say that this was written down as early as the late 30s, so its one of the first letters. Probably closer to 50, but still very early. And Paul says, though, when he writes these, What I already handed on to you. So this is the tradition from the beginning. And he reminds them about how to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Again, and he makes it clear that its an action.
In fact, in this particular incident, we understand it better if we remind ourselves that Paul, in writing this to the church of Corinth, was very angry. He was upset because they were celebrating the Eucharist in a very bad way. People used to celebrate the Eucharist coming together in someones home. The Christian community would gather together in a house church, a small community. And when they did, they would first of all have a meal and then go on to do what Jesus did after he and the disciples celebrated the meal at the last supper. They would go on to repeat what Jesus had done.
But what had Paul so upset was that here, during the celebration of this action of the Eucharist, people had separated themselves according to who was rich or who was poor, and that some people had more than enough to eat, other people didnt have enough. Some people drank too much and were even drunk during the course of this action of the Eucharist. And so Paul says because he was angry with them, Eat and drink to your own judgment, because you have not discerned the body of Christ. Just before this passage, Paul had been talking about the church as the body of Christ. So everybody in that gathering was the church and was the body of Christ. And so when you treat some people badly during this action, youre denigrating Jesus himself. Youre putting him down, separating yourself from him. So, its a very serious mistake that those people were making.
But out of all these readings, then, you can see so clearly that the Eucharist is intended to be an action, an action where the whole community comes together and tries to repeat what happened at the last supper--and not just those special words that changed the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, but to repeat the love, the hospitality, the sharing. All becoming one body in Jesus where theres neither rich nor poor, Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Were all one body in Christ. And we celebrate that as we gather around the table where we go on to do what Jesus did at the last supper. We celebrate that we really are the body of Christ. And we strengthen ourselves in this bond of the body and blood of Jesus so that we become even more clearly and with greater strength, the very presence of Jesus in the world-the body of Christ.
When Martin Luther first made his complaints about the Eucharist, the church did try to listen and there were some changes, or at least discussion about changes that took place in the Council of Trent, which happened not too many years after Luther had brought up these concerns about what was happening to the Eucharist. But really the changes came during the Vatican council, forty years ago now.
Thats the reason we have the altar now at the center, instead of using the altar against the back wall. So that all of us can gather around the table and really be a community. And thats why we dont have so much emphasis on carrying the Blessed Sacrament through the church for everybody to look at. No, its much more important to realize that we are gathered together as Gods people and we celebrate this meal that becomes the very body and blood of Jesus to give us strength and love, to bond us together as Gods people.
And if we can really understand more clearly what the Holy Eucharist is, the body and blood of Jesus, that its an action, then a couple of things should happen. First of all, if we remember the words that Jesus uses when he consecrates the wine, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. This cup is the new covenant. Jesus has made a covenant with God whereby Jesus hands himself over for the benefit of all of us. And that covenant, as always, covenants were sealed in blood for the people of the Old Testament, so the covenant of Jesus was sealed in blood but then he shares that with every one of us.
And so when we receive the Eucharist, the bread, but especially the wine, we are saying by our action that we want to enter into the covenant of Jesus-this new covenant with God. That covenant means, as I said, Jesus hands himself over out of love for all of us. And so we are saying every time we eat that bread and drink that cup that were entering into that covenant and we are giving ourselves over to God, especially as we give ourselves over to one another and share whatever we have.
Theres been a lot of conversation and mention in the press and so on about using the Blessed Sacrament as a tool of punishment against people who supposedly are not living up to the full teaching of the church. And I think if we understand what this feast today through these scriptures is telling us, we would see how wrong that is. Jesus didnt push anybody away. He welcomed them, everyone. But each one of us, each one of us as we come forward to receive the Eucharist must discern for ourselves the body of Christ. Thats what Paul says--discern the body of Christ and commit ourselves, to hand ourselves over for that body of Christ.
Every time you receive the Eucharist you are renewing a covenant with God. It should never be done lightly, but it should never be used to deprive somebody of the opportunity to try to come forward once more and renew with the best intention and the greatest sincerity possible, my covenant with God. None of us can judge another.
When you come forward each of us has to try to make that discernment. Am I giving myself over fully to the body of Christ, willing to share what I have, to give of myself for all others? Which is what Jesus did.
And so rather than judge anyone else, each of us must look into our own heart and understand what were doing when we celebrate this action.
I have a friend who is a sponsor for a youngster at baptism, and the youngster was about to make his first holy communion. And this child had learned about the Blessed Sacrament and really came to a deep understanding in simple words, but theyre words that maybe all of us could remember. He said about bread, This is not just any bread, this is God bread. And it shows us that God loves us and that we must love one another. Thats the whole message. If we do the action of the Eucharist well, then we understand God loves us, but also that we must love one another.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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