The most recent polls from Gallup and Center for Applied Research at Georgetown University show only 30% of practicing Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That is a startling statistic, but it should not surprise us because the history of this Feast we celebrate today has its history in the very struggle to make sense of this doctrine. According to “The Catholic Company” an organization dedicated to fostering Catholic faith and belief this feast had two significant events which led to its creation by Pope Urban IV in the thirteenth century.
Why would any of us doubt that what we receive is the very presence of Jesus – body and blood. Jesus himself speaking to his followers said, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (jn.6:53-56).
Jesus in that statement lays out for us the entire doctrine of the Eucharist; it is his flesh and it is his blood. It is not symbolic; it is not bread and wine; it is the very presence of Jesus. If you have any doubts just pay attention to those who were there listening to him on that day. Many of those who heard him said, “…this is a difficult statement who can listen to it? As a result of this many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him any more” (Jn. 6:60,66).
Many disciples left because he said eat my flesh and drink my blood. If Jesus had been talking symbolically it would not have been a hard thing to accept. You also have to remember this entire conversation happened because they wanted proof to believe in him. They wanted a sign to convince them he was the Son of God. So here we are in 2018 and we say we believe in him but 70% of practicing Catholics do not believe what we receive is the very presence of Jesus.
The early Church fathers were accused by the Roman authorities of being cannibals because they not only believed the bread and wine they received although retaining its appearance were actually something very different; the very presence of Jesus and they were willing to publicly defend that belief in their daily life and in their writings.
Yet many doubt who Jesus is, doubt that by his death and resurrection we have been feed from sin, doubt that he definitively told us if we believe we would have life. Nothing is required of us but to believe, Yet we fail to believe and thus miss out on the transforming power of his presence in our lives.
I said this feast started because of the doubt in this doctrine. Its history can be traced back to a priest – Peter of Prague. During a pilgrimage to Rome, he stopped in Bolsena, Italy to celebrate mass at the church of St. Christina. His doubt about the real presence was fueled by the debate among Catholic theologians who began to openly challenge the doctrine of the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. As. Fr. Peter recited the prayers of consecration, blood began to seep from the elevated host onto the corporal and the altar. This event was reported by Fr. Peter to Pope Urban who happened to be staying in nearby Orvieto, Italy.
Pope Urban, sent a delegation to the event and ordered that the blood stained corporal be brought back to Orvieto where it remains today in the Cathedral of Orvieto. Prior to this happening Pope Urban was being urged by a mystic nun (Sr. Juliana) to declare a Feast of Corpus Christi. The evidence was clear to Pope Urban and he declared this feast for the Universal Church in 1264. Pope Urban also commissioned a young Dominican Friar by the name of Thomas Aquinas to write the prayers recited during the mass and office for this feast.
Fr Peter had a sign that was powerful and most likely frightening. We have not seen blood dripping from a host, nor have any of us tasted anything that would be close to blood or flesh as we consume the body and blood of Christ. How can we communicate the fact this doctrine is not just something we do to set us apart from other faiths? Why because it was first voiced by Jesus himself because of the doubts of the disciples asking for a sign.
The only way we can respond to a question like that is to go beck to the signs and wonders God performed for us to read and understand the desire God has for us to be not only one with him but to have the very life he desires us to have now and after our death.
Our readings today from the Old Testament and from the gospel go back to the very thing that removed the barrier separating us from God – sin. The blood of the Passover lamb painted on the lintels and door frames of their homes. That night the angel of death came to visit the homes of everyone in Egypt but not to those homes marked with the blood of the sacrificial lamb. They were freed from the bondage of slavery and we have been freed from the bondage of sin by the very shed blood of the Lamb of God.
Every time we stand and witness the transforming power of the Holy Spirit changing bread and wind into the body and blood of Christ we need to remember how the barrier that separates us from the embrace of a loving God has been removed by the sacrifice, the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ.
I do not need blood to be dripping from an elevated host during the consecration rite to believe it has become the body and blood of Jesus. In fact, I would find it abhorrent and most likely would not want to consume such a host. Yet instead of focusing on needing some sign to believe all I have to do is to look beyond the elevated host to the broken body of Jesus on the cross, It is in that image I see not only his shed blood but his love for me.
I see what he did for me and what he is offering me – life – if I only believe and acknowledge that belief when my amen is said as that host in place in my hands and eat it as he directed.