Back in the day, the 1980s to be exact, there was a year in which my job required me to spend a lot of time as a road warrior in support of our clients. There are approximately 250 working days in a year. I spent about 200 of them in a hotel. At first it was kinda’ fun. There was someone who cleaned your room every day, you got to eat out at the restaurant of your choice, you could drop your laundry off at the front desk and it would show up in your room at the end of the day. What’s not to like, right? By the second week, the thrill was gone and now all that was left was HBO. Remember this was 40 years ago, a hotel that had HBO had a serious leg up on the competition. But here’s the thing. HBO did not have a lot of choices that interested me. And now we are at week three.
Once the work day was done there were a limited number of options – especially where my clients were located. The choices were HBO, bowling, a bar, and a whole possibility of poor choices. Of course, you could also stay put and read. For reasons that elude me, a friend gave me a book that he thought would interest me. It was a collection of essays on Scripture in honor of a retiring professor or president of Georgetown University. I don’t remember the title and my friend doesn’t remember giving it to me.
Move the clock ahead 20 years and there were lots of nights not bowling, but reading Scripture and books about Scripture. And I am studying in seminary and, to my good fortune, had read many of the books that were part of our course work. Move the clock ahead 20 years and here I am with you. Perhaps you’d like a book report of all my reading? Just kidding.
This week, one of the daily gospels was St. Matthew’s version of the sower and the seed. You know the one in which seed lands on the well-trod path, in the place with only a thin layer of topsoil, among the weeds and thorns, and some lands on deep rich soil. As I was thinking about what to give as a short reflection, I remember reading a commentary that offered an explanation that understanding and joy were necessary for the seeds to produce grain. The seed on the pathway had neither and was soon carried away by the birds. The seed in the thin topsoil started out with both, but the joy was burned away by the heat of the day. The seed among the thorns’ understanding was redirected towards concerns of the world and they found joy in other things. Only the last batch of seed found the environment that allowed flourishing and growth of understanding and joy turned toward God.
Beginning this Sunday and for the following four weeks, we are taking a break from the Gospel of Mark and proclaiming Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John – called the Bread of Life Discourse. While St. John does not have an account of the institution of the Eucharist, no other Gospel writer has such a long flowing discourse on the Eucharist. Perhaps our gospels come at an appropriate time when civil and religious discourse on the Eucharist has reached a level of prominence unusual in my lifetime. There are conversations on the worthiness of public figures to receive Eucharist. There are conversations on surveys about the Catholic faithful’s understanding of Eucharist. There are conversations about the way to best celebrate the Eucharist as part of the Mass – English or Latin, facing east or facing the people, and should we return altar rails. Eucharistic adoration, exposition, and benediction. Transubstantiation or Real Presence. There are lots of conversations these days. I have been thinking about the conversations: the people involved, the tone, and most importantly the presence of understanding and joy.
Admittedly, understanding is a tough one. Afterall, we hold the Eucharist to be a mystery, which by definition rather precludes an understanding, or at least a complete understanding. Is the Eucharist a symbol? Yes, because like all symbols it points to something beyond itself. It points to the love of Christ for us. The love that He would give up his life for our sake and salvation. The love that invites us into the inner life of the Trinity. The love that…the symbolic pointers are many. So, yes the Eucharist is a symbol, but not only symbol.
Is the Eucharist real? That depends on who is asking. If the question comes from someone whose thinking is scientific and modern, then they might be asking if it is observable, measurable, can be quantitatively described and categorized in a consistent and repeatable way such that a theory can be formed and experimentally proven. When the answer comes back, “well… not really, but I believe” then the response is likely, “I am happy for you, but it’s not real… it’s spiritual.”
But if you ask someone in love, if love is real, the answer is an emphatic, joyful “Yes” even though it cannot be consistently and repeatedly measured or categorized. It is so real that one searches for it, finds the other and changes their life, and would die for the one loved. That’s about as real as it gets. Is love real? Yes. Is love spiritual? Yes…. How can it be both? Such is the nature and power of love. Something we understand – at least in a lived and experiential way. Something that brings us joy.
Is the Eucharist real? It is right there at the nexus of real and spiritual. Right in the place of the rich soil where we can be nourished and flourish. Right in the place where Christ is fully present to us in body and soul, humanity and divinity – arms open wide on the cross, waiting for us to accept His gift of love without bounds.
The seed sown by the sower is the Word of God. It is God’s love letter to us. A letter which reveals God’s self to us and invites us into the nexus of real and spiritual. Invites us to the Eucharistic banquet just like the two people on the road to Emmaus. Their hearts were burning when hearing the Scriptures, but they only fully recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread. At last they understood and they ran back to Jerusalem in great joy.
How about you? When you think about coming here this morning, what’s there in the swirl of your life. Duty and obligation? Routine? Habit? Anticipation? How about understanding and joy? Where are you planted: pathway, thin topsoil, among the thorns, or in rich soil?
I look back over these 40 years that have led me to this point and when I think about recurring themes in Scripture, I come back to understanding and experiencing joy as that which keeps the story moving ahead. Ever pointing to the person of Jesus Christ who for a while was with us in life and is forever with us in Eucharist.
Over these coming weeks consider your understanding about Eucharist – and, in time, seek to know more. Over these coming weeks consider the joy received in the Eucharist and whether it is lived out in your life. But for today, when you come forward to receive the Eucharist let your “Amen” be that commitment to know what can be known and borrowing words from Jesus: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)