See the readings for Mass here.
One of my closest friends is a priest in Northern Ireland. We taught together for nearly a decade at a seminary in New York, and although we have both gone our separate ways, we stay in contact through the Internet. I have been up to visit him a few times, and as he showed me around the Irish countryside, from time to time he would point out a large flat stone, and say, “That’s a Mass rock”. He explained to me that, during the 17th and 18th century, the English government persecuted Catholics very aggressively. Priests had to travel in disguise, and Mass could only be celebrated in remote locations in the countryside, so instead of altars, they found rocks that were large and flat enough to use. Even in these secret locations, some of the parishioners would have to keep watch to be sure they didn’t get caught. Many priests and lay people were martyred for presiding or helping at these clandestine Masses.
This kind of story is not unique to Ireland; Christians have faced similar situations in countries around the world right from the start, and up to this very day in some places. For someone who is not Catholic, it could seem strange that people would risk their lives to hold a religious service. Can’t they just pray at home in secret on Sunday, without a priest? Why is the Mass so important? Today’s liturgical celebration helps explain why.
Today is the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, that is to say, the day we celebrate the Eucharist. As we heard in the Gospel reading, Jesus Christ at the Last Supper blessed bread and wine and gave it to His disciples, saying, “This is My Body” and “This is My Blood.” He had prepared His apostles for this moment throughout His ministry. By changing water to wine, He had shown that He could change one thing into another. By the multiplication of bread and fish, He had shown that He could take something limited and multiply it until it was abundant, even more than needed. Shortly thereafter, in His discourse recorded in the Gospel according to John, chapter 6, He called Himself the Bread of Life, come down from Heaven, that gives eternal life. He takes special pains to emphasize that He will give us His flesh and blood, against the protests of many of those who heard Him, by saying, “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”
So, when Jesus gave His apostles what still looked like bread and wine, they knew it was His Body and Blood, the True Presence of Christ Himself. When He told them to “do this in memory of Me”, they understood that they, as priests of the New Covenant, were enabled to repeat this life-giving miracle. The early Church quickly substituted Sunday Mass for the Jewish sabbath observances. It was the anchor of their spiritual lives, the center of their worship, an essential part of their identity.
In the words of the Catechism (1324-5), “The Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life.” “The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself […]” The Eucharist both shows and builds the unity of those who receive it; it binds us together as members of the one Mystical Body of Christ. “[…] It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.”
That is certainly something worth celebrating! How amazingly blessed we are, that Christ has given us Himself, His real life-giving Presence, in such an accessible way. How thankful we should be that we can celebrate Mass freely and openly! And with what reverence and preparation should we receive the Most Holy Sacrament. If we knew that the Pope were coming to visit our Church, we’d all be working to be sure it was perfectly clean, repainted, and in tip-top condition. God Himself, our Lord and Creator, is coming to our souls; how much more should we be sure our souls are clean from all sin, by our efforts to live a holy life and by going frequently to the Sacrament of Reconciliation!
So as we receive Holy Communion today, let’s try to do it with that sense of wonder and joy that we see in children when they make their First Holy Communion. When the priest or Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion says “The Body of Christ” or “The Blood of Christ”, let’s respond with a firm “Amen”, which is a way of saying, “yes, I believe, so be it”. And when we return to our pew, and then to our homes, let us remember Who it is that we have received, and continue our internal prayer of love and thanksgiving for so great a gift.