This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Although it would take several decades for the feast to be universally celebrated, the development of the feast begins with a young woman named Juliana, who had a great devotion to the Eucharist. She began seeing a vision of a full moon with a dark spot on it. After having this vision repeatedly, she heard from Christ in prayer that this moon represented the life of the Church, with the dark spot revealing the missing feast on the Church calendar: a feast to honor the Eucharist.
While we remember and celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on the great feast of Holy Thursday, that feast falls during the Triduum, which is a more somber time in the Church calendar. This was to be a feast particularly to celebrate the Eucharist with all the pomp and festivity and thankfulness we can muster. Its aim was to strengthen belief in the Real Presence, it encourage people to draw close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and it to make reparation for sacrilege committed against the Eucharist.
So while every Mass is a celebration of this great gift of Our Lord’s Body and Blood, we set aside this day in particular to thank God for the mystery, to ask for a renewal in our faith, and to make reparation for the times the Eucharist has been desecrated or received unworthily.
Belief in the Real Presence – that after the words of consecration at the hands of a priest, what once was bread and wine is now the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, come down on the altar to be received by me, an unworthy sinner – is a hard teaching. And the difficulty is nothing new – it’s been grappled with since the beginning. It’s a time in the Gospel that we specifically see Jesus losing followers over something he taught. Certainly, many of the things he said were scandalous to his listeners. His assertion of his own divinity was an outrage to them. But John particularly details how Jesus’ teaching on His Real Presence confused and angered people. They grumble, they question, and they finally leave. “After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66).
We need to pray for the gift of faith in the face of the mystery of transubstantiation. We should also pray for protection against becoming jaded to the mystery. Do we receive the Eucharist out of routine, absent-mindedly making our way through Mass and approaching the altar without much thought? Do we take the mystery and the gift for granted?
Whether we need to pray for God to strengthen our faith and rid us of doubt, or we need the Spirit to increase our zeal and gratitude, I find it helpful to turn to the Fathers of the Church. These early teachers received the Faith from the Apostles and their earliest successors. Their teaching on the Eucharist can remind us to enter back into the great mystery. Allow their words to provide fodder from your meditation and mental prayer this weekend.
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (St. Justin Martyr, A.D. 151).
“The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ. Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the body and blood of Christ. . . . [Since you are] fully convinced that the apparent bread is not bread, even though it is sensible to the taste, but the body of Christ, and that the apparent wine is not wine, even though the taste would have it so, . . . partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul” (Cyril of Jerusalem, A.D. 350).