Breath of the Spirit Reflection: A Eucharist Journey
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June 6th, 2021: The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus (Corpus Christi)
Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
Reflection by Richard Young
It’s Corpus Christi Sunday, and our gospel is Mark’s account of the last supper, Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. My “little boy” Eucharistic theology got started with lots of magical thinking, reinforced by severe reminders about receiving communion “worthily” so that there would be no chance of desecration. We went to confession on Saturday to be sure we were in a “state of grace” so we could go to communion the next day. God forbid that I go to mass and NOT get up with everyone else to kneel at the communion rail. People might think, “I wonder what he did.”
The magical thinking continued. I became an altar boy a few years later, and my older brother and I went with our parents every Wednesday evening for Fatima devotions, which, of course, included the Rosary. We were often the servers for this service, which always concluded with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. What a show! The big, consecrated host was put in a large, shiny enclosure called a monstrance. (Oh, the shine and the glory of it all! This must have something to do with how I developed my love of theatre.) At the right moment in the service, my brother and I would solemnly put a beautiful cape around the priest’s shoulders. He would dramatically wrap the ends of it around his hands and take the stem of the monstrance and wave the whole thing, including the host, over the congregation in the form of a cross, blessing everyone with the Eucharist. We would then say prayers of adoration in front of the monstrance and add prayers for the conversion of Russia. (Communism was on everybody’s mind in those days.) It was quite a spectacle for this little gay boy. I remember thinking that the consecrated host must have been very powerful. No wonder sister warned us not to touch it. I also thought the monstrance must have been really hot or electrically charged once it held that host. Otherwise, why would father need to wrap his hands before touching it? Magical thinking.
Eventually my faith matured, and I learned to dismiss much of that magical thinking. I came to love the Eucharist (as opposed to fearing it) in spite of going to a Catholic College and later to seminary. It’s a bit harsh, I suppose, to say “in spite of,” but there’s some truth in it. Most Catholics don’t spend a lot of time wondering about the so-called “real presence,” as if there were such a thing as a false presence, as if Jesus would fake being present. They can’t be bothered with that stuff. But unfortunately, unlike most Catholics, because of my training, I had to put up with esoteric academic reflections on “transubstantiation” and “trans-signification” and lectures about Aristotle’s concepts of accidental and substantial change to “explain” the mystery of going from “ordinary bread” to poof! “the Body and Blood of Christ.” More magical thinking. I entered a religious Order, devoted in a special way to the Blessed Sacrament. The Order’s founder was even known as “the apostle of the Blessed Sacrament.” Who the heck cares? In spite of it all and by the grace of God, I grew. I came to realize that Christ is present in numerous ways, when we come together in faith to break bread – numerous ways. We feel it. We experience it. And the undeniably, profoundly, eminently REAL presence of Christ is hardly limited to bread and wine.
Yet, as the years went by, I discovered how comforting and peaceful it could be just to sit quietly in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. As old-fashioned as that might sound, this was a step toward a richer appreciation of the Eucharist and became central to my personal prayer. Perhaps that was a holdover from some pre-Vatican II piety, but in tough times, and there were plenty of them, I was grateful to experience Jesus, who knew suffering too, staying with me in the darkness of the tabernacle in a cold church. Often over the years I unburdened my heart before tabernacles. But in time, I learned that the Eucharistic presence had meaning and power only insofar as I let it have meaning and power. This was not magic; it was faith. Sacraments, I began to see, DO give grace. But I can only encounter that grace, when I put my ego aside: when I let go of shiny monstrances and capes, neurotic thoughts of unworthiness and irrational fears of desecration, and all the Catholic fundamentalism that makes the Last Supper about something other than Christ’s presence. Only when I let go of all that psychic clutter and angst do I find grace. I have found amazing grace in the Eucharist, when I have stopped staring at the banquet (in some pseudo-adoration) and eat! – when I accept that this meal is given in totally unconditional love for me! I learned that this simple consecrated bread and wine (but more importantly the community of love it’s connected to, blessed by, and shared in) IS really the presence of Christ – the love of God for me. Nothing could possibly be more real than that. And I learned that this gift could make me that same gift for others, if I let it. You are what you eat. If you eat the Body of Christ, you ARE the Body of Christ. If you feed one another with the love that is God, then the divinity you have will shine for all to see.
Our earliest ancestors in the faith, the ones who were closest in time to Jesus, celebrated this simple ritual in a way that was often inclusive and non-patriarchal. Before there were too many rules, before there were splits in the Christian community, when Jesus’ followers still got along pretty well, believers broke bread in people’s homes. The head of the household took the lead. Nobody was ordained. If the head of the household was a widow, then she, a woman, presided at Eucharist. That’s how it was done before we got too organized. They kept things simple. They must have understood that, although someone said the Barukh (traditional blessing prayers) and remembered Jesus’ words, this was EVERYONE’S prayer. They saw the WHOLE experience as Eucharistic: the Scriptures and the prayers, the food and the fellowship. EVERYTHING was consecration, and they ALL participated. Everyone prayed, everyone consecrated, everyone made Eucharist happen. And they knew it was supposed to strengthen them to do what Jesus did: preach, teach, heal… “feed my sheep.” That’s our earliest Eucharistic tradition. It is for that reason that we try to do the same in many of our Dignity faith communities. In that sense, we are actually quite traditional in the way we celebrate the Eucharist.
Eucharist is a sacrament. Sacraments, I like to tell children, are like hugs from God. Hugs from people you love – and who love you back – leave you feeling good inside. You don’t have to think about it; they just do. Getting hugged regularly might make you feel good about yourself: valued, appreciated, treasured. You might end up being more self-confident. You’re more likely to excel at things…maybe less likely to be sad or sick. They bring out the best in you. Hugs are definitely good things. And they might make you want to hug others. Sacraments, such as the Eucharist, ideally, are like that. They offer grace, and grace is not a private matter. Grace begets grace as hugs beget hugs. Grace spills out to the hungry world beyond us.
A final point: in 1976, I read a truly remarkable little book by theologian Monika Hellwig, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World. In it, she teaches that Eucharist is a complete experience, only when it leads to service, to justice-making, to feeding others as we have been fed. The book details my own journey from Eucharistic fear to Eucharistic adoration to Eucharistic ministry. If you have made that same journey, say “thank you.” Afterall, that’s what Eucharist means.
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He co-chairs the Social Justice Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity chapters since the late 70s.
He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts.