Tag Archives: Sacrament

We Are Not The Walking Dead

More than a few times I have heard Catholics and non-Catholics comment on the outward appearance of Catholics receiving Holy Communion.  The common theme is that Catholics appear to be too casual and unmoved by the experience of receiving the Blessed Sacrament.  This is probably true in some cases.

Catholics will often point out that, since we are receiving the greatest gift available to humanity, the Lord, God, Jesus Christ Himself, we should show a bit more enthusiasm and appreciation for what we are receiving.  Too often we shuffle up the aisle like zombies, or like people waiting in line at the supermarket to buy a pack of gum.  We need to appreciate what we have been freely given, and what it cost.  The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.  It is how God chooses to feed us and give us spiritual life.

Non-Catholics will often conclude that the doctrine of the Real Presence must be false.  After all, how could anyone approach and receive Jesus Christ Himself with a lack of enthusiasm?  Some will say, “If I believed what you Catholics supposedly believe, I would be at church every time the doors were opened falling on my face before Jesus!”  (Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t.  This could also be a veiled way of using lukewarm Catholics as an excuse to reject the doctrine.)  I recently heard a story about a non-Catholic man who was actively involved in a Catholic parish for many years because his wife was Catholic.  When asked why he never became Catholic he replied that Sunday after Sunday he saw people go to communion with long faces.  He didn’t see them being enthusiastic about what they were doing, so, he rejected the doctrine.

There are several reasons why people may seem unimpressed when receiving communion.  One reason is that many Catholics don’t really understand the truth of what they are doing.  American Catholics in particular have often been influenced by Protestant theologies that teach communion as merely symbolic.  Hence, many poorly catechized Catholics simply don’t understand and appreciate the reality of the Sacrament.

Some Catholics approach Holy Communion with reverence, humility and contemplation.  They may show little or no emotion externally, yet they are deeply moved and changed internally.  Only God knows the heart of a person.  As the Scripture says, “Man looks on the outward appearance, but God sees the heart.”

There are, of course, Catholics that have fallen into complacency and apathy.  They are like the Jews in the desert grumbling over the miraculous manna that God provided for food.  Initially, the manna was greeted with gratitude and enthusiasm.  After a while, human nature crept in and stole the joy.  As we see in John chapter 6, the Holy Eucharist is the flesh and blood of Christ who is the Bread of Life come down from Heaven.  He is the fulfillment of what the miraculous manna foreshadowed.  Unfortunately, like the Jews, Catholics can also succumb to human nature and complacency, even though the miracle is right before them.  Yet, just like the manna, their complacency does not negate the truth of the miracle which is the Blessed Sacrament.

There are also many Catholics that have reached a place of peace and serenity in their faith and, like the disciple Jesus loved, will simply lay their heads on Jesus and be at rest.  There is not necessarily any exuberant display of emotion observed when they receive communion.  They are calm, but not unimpressed.  There are charismatic Catholics as well.  Yet, we must never confuse emotion with Spirit.  Sometimes people mistakenly believe that the Holy Spirit is not at work unless someone is emotionally excited.

The bottom line is that truth cannot be determined by how people react to it emotionally, or by how many people believe it.  Truth is true because it is true.  There are indeed many Catholics that take for granted the gift they are offered.  There are also many that appreciate the Holy Eucharist for what it is.  To whom much is given, much will be required.  We all need to examine our own hearts and not be deterred by our perceptions of others.  Nor should we use any lack of emotional enthusiasm in others as an excuse for our own faithlessness.  Jesus waits for us.  The gift is there for all of us.  If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.

Visiting Where I Was Born Again.

This past weekend I was back in my hometown to celebrate a wedding and a birthday.  I needed to go to Church Sunday morning.  The default location was St. Ignatius, the Church I grew up in.  My parents still attend there, and it would be a chance to visit with them for a bit.  This time, however, I decided to do something different.  I was not baptized at St. Ignatius but at St. Clare, and my family attended there until I was in second grade.  Since I had not been there since I was a second grader, I thought it would be interesting to visit.

While approaching the church and school buildings, it struck me how small everything appeared.  Things are magnified to a child’s eyes, and my memory was a child’s memory.  Then I noticed the front steps.  I recalled an old photograph of my family standing on those steps with a baby.  The baby was me at my baptism.  I haven’t seen that photo in years, but I remember it.  And I remember the steps.

Upon entering the church a flood of memories hit me.  It all started to come back.  Except for the scale of things, I felt like I was looking through my six-year-old eyes.  The sights, the sounds and the aroma were familiar and welcoming.  It was like a reunion with a long lost relative.  As I took in the details it occurred to me that more than forty years had left so much unchanged.  The corner stone read “1914.”  The building was almost one hundred years old.  I was baptized there near its mid-century period.  I ran my hand along the railing that I could barely reach as a child.

Meanwhile, I was helping my wife juggle two-year-old twins and trying not to disrupt the Mass.  I had to carry my daughter to the back of the church to settle her down.  I paced back and forth while she gradually fell asleep.  Then I noticed the statue of St. Clare off to the side.  I gazed at her for a while and my eyes were drawn to the focal point of the monstrance she was holding.  When the priest lifted up the Holy Eucharist, it really hit me.  All those years that statue had been standing there holding that monstrance.  I had left, but she had not.  Yet, it was only a fraction of the time that Christ had been steadfastly present in the tabernacle of that church and in every Catholic Church for two thousand years.  He stayed with us, like He stayed with the travelers on the road to Emmaus, present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Jesus said to my heart, “You were baptized here, Thomas.  This is where you became my own.  When you left My Church, I awaited your return with open arms.  I have always been here for you, even when you didn’t care.  Though you may leave me, I will never leave you nor forsake you.  I love you, and I am happy you finally came home to Me.”  Then, I felt the warmth of my daughter asleep in my arms, and I knew the same promise was for her and her brother.  “I will not leave you orphans.  I am with you until the end of the age.”

Let Me Entertain You

A few years ago a new church opened in my town.  I watched with interest as they converted an empty Walmart store into a church building.  They knocked a hole in one of the walls and installed a drive-through window for serving coffee.  They even had a catchy label above the window, but I can’t recall the exact words they used.  I think it was “Java for Jesus” or something like that.  One day, as I drove by the place, I noticed a new sign had been installed by the road and I had to do a double-take.  For a few seconds I thought I was looking at a sign for a new “gentlemen’s club.”  Then I realized it was the sign for the new church.

Well, I had to give them credit for at least trying to draw people to church.  The whole thing certainly got my attention.  About a year or two went by and I noticed that there didn’t seem to be as much activity.  The drive-up window didn’t have a sign anymore.  Today I decided to take a closer look and discovered that the building is boarded up and deserted.  Apparently, the church is gone.  I had not noticed it was gone because the sign is still mounted by the main road where I usually drive by.

I wondered if the church just moved to another building.  I looked them up online to see if they had a website.  They did.  The pastor even had a blog, but when I clicked on the link the blog was gone.  The website was from 2009, so I assume the church just never took off and had to close their doors.  Judging from their website and their sign they tried very hard to market themselves.  “Church like you’ve never seen it before!” The church was “not trying to be like the church next door.”  Gimmicks and marketing techniques were generously employed in an attempt to draw a crowd.  The website claimed that church attendance was at 2000.  It also stated a goal of reaching 12,000 with the Gospel (not sure why they would want to stop at that number).

I never attended the church and I’m just an outsider looking in, but it did get me thinking.  I have heard many Catholics say that the Church needs to do more to attract people, especially younger ones.  Perhaps, to a point.  The above church that is now boarded up seemingly did a lot of things to attract people, especially younger, “edgy” people.  Now they are gone.  It takes more than modern appeal, vibrant rock style entertainment and a celebrity type preacher to attract and keep people.  Lots of people even followed Jesus around in hopes of seeing him do a miracle.  To them it was entertainment.  As soon as Jesus placed demands on them such as, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you” they were gone.

The worship of Catholicism is not about entertainment.  Nor is it about modern appeal, hip preachers or rocking music.  It is about worshiping Christ the way Christ said to worship 2000 years ago, through the Eucharist.  We live in a society that cannot seem to get enough media and entertainment.  Consequently, many churches feel they have to deliver what the people want instead of focusing on what the people need.  People need the written Word, and they need the living Word, Christ in the Eucharist.  That is how Jesus said he would feed his followers.

I’m not making fun of the above church or glorying in its demise.  I just wish they would use all that creativity and energy to help people discover the meal Christ has prepared for them.  I wish they understood the Eucharist.  I want our separated Christian brothers and sisters to come home and stop trying so hard to reinvent what Jesus has already established.

The Catholic Church has nothing against glorifying God through media.  The cathedrals, paintings, sculptures and music from the past centuries illustrate the importance of appealing to the senses to inspire awe and wonder for God.  The difference is that no matter how grand or how small an individual Catholic Church may be, the meal is the same.  The meal is what sustains the Church.  It cannot be improved upon.  Anyone, young or old, that is bored with the Catholic Mass simply does not understand it.  The meal is Christ himself.  Without the Eucharist, there would be no Church.

Are you following Jesus around hoping for some entertainment?  Or do you yearn for The Bread of Life?  One is fleeting and the other eternal.

Perfect Worship

I’ve been reflecting on different ways that Christians worship God.  Here are several that came to mind:

-Music

-Prayer

-Scripture reading

-Preaching

-Liturgy

-Giving and sacrificing of self (including money, material goods, time, gifts, talents, fasting, martyrdom, etc.)

Some of these things can be witnessed in any Christian church service.  Some of them are daily activities, such as the self-sacrifice godly parents give their children in service to God, or the work one does at a job with a godly attitude.  Some are more extreme than others.  All of them are good ways to worship God.  We offer all of them to God in worship.  All of them have one thing in common: they are blemished.  They are not perfectly spotless.

There is only one thing we can offer God that is perfectly spotless and without blemish: the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  That’s why a worship service filled with musical praise and inspirational preaching is good, but not perfect.  All of those things involve our hearts and our bodies.  All of those things are both spiritually and physically lifted up to God.  But, even at their best, they are still imperfect.

In the Catholic Mass, Christians are provided the opportunity to join our hearts, our bodies and our imperfect efforts in lifting up to God the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, perfectly spotless and without blemish.  We are not only to lift him up “in Spirit” but also “in the flesh,” for it is his flesh that he gives for the life of the world.  He gave us the Spirit partly so that we could have his flesh transubstantiated into the form of bread and wine and available to offer to God as the perfect worship.

Think about it this way.  Before Christ, all we could spiritually or physically offer God was imperfection.  Now we have a choice: our own physical and spiritual imperfection or the spiritual and physical perfection of Jesus Christ.

No matter how good the music is, no matter how inspiring or convicting the preaching is, no matter how good or blessed a worship service makes you “feel,” the worship is physically and spiritually blemished unless Jesus Christ himself is spiritually and physically (i.e. completely) lifted up to God.  That’s why Jesus instituted the Mass.  He gave us the Mass so that we could worship perfectly with our whole self joined physically and spiritually to him.  The Mass is the height of Christian worship.  “This is my body, this is my blood.”

Is The Bread Of Life’s Flesh Of No Avail?

Today’s Gospel reading is from John chapter 6:51-58.  It was great to hear our priest give a homily that affirmed the physical reality of Jesus in the Eucharist.  Many claim that Jesus was being metaphorical in saying that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life.  They use verse 64 to support the idea that Jesus was talking symbolically since he says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is of no avail.  My words are spirit and life.”

Yet, Jesus did not say, “MY flesh is of no avail” but he said “THE flesh is of no avail.”  This was to contrast Spiritual truth with human inability to understand intellectually.  Certainly, the flesh of Jesus avails much because it is his flesh that he gives on the cross for the life of the world.  However, the flesh is our human frailty and lack of understanding, as in “The Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak,” or “You judge according to the flesh and not after God.”  The flesh indeed profits nothing!  Our human weakness cannot match the power of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, the word “Spirit” never means “symbolic” anywhere in Scripture.  The Spirit is very real and does not “symbolize” anything.  The Spirit is the power by which God makes calm weather out of storms, water into wine, life out of dust, creation out of nothingness, blind people see, deaf people hear and bread and wine into Christ’s own body and blood.  As God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (God’s words being Spirit and life), Jesus said, “Take and eat.  This is my body, this is my blood.”  That is Spirit and life in Jesus’ words, not metaphor!

If you are a Christian, when have you actually eaten Jesus’ flesh and drank his blood, thereby receiving the power and life of the Spirit the way Jesus prescribes?  Have you been partaking of a mere symbol?  We are called to believe the Spirit of Truth, by faith, not to understand with our fleshy brains.

(For even more on this topic, read this and this)

Knock Knock! Who’s There? It Ain’t The Pizza Guy!

As I reflect and prepare my heart for Mass tomorrow, the following verse comes to mind:

“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)

This verse has been depicted by artists with Jesus standing outside of a door that has no doorknob.  The door only opens from the inside.  This illustrates the idea that Jesus does not break down the door and force himself upon us.  We have to decide to invite Jesus in.

There is more to the story, however.  There is something not usually portrayed in the artwork.  After we decide to open the door to him, something else happens.  A meal takes place.  Jesus “comes into us” and “sups with us.”  He eats with us and we eat with him.  This is the Holy Eucharist.  This is the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.  This is the fulfillment of “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you.”  We receive Christ in Communion, in the Holy Eucharist.  We partake of the meal that gives eternal life because we have opened the door to him and he humbles himself and serves it to us.

This is the answer to the question that non-Catholic Christians often ask Catholics, which is, “Have you received Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”  The answer is, “Yes, every time I go to Mass I receive his body, blood, soul and divinity into me.  This happens because I have opened the door of my heart to him, and he provides the meal.”  Nothing is more personal than receiving Christ into your heart, your soul and your body.

Can’t Live Forever On Just Bread, Man

I was reflecting on how Jesus responded to Satan when the devil tempted him to slake his hunger by turning stones into bread.  Jesus said, “It is written, that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.”  I used to hear those words and think, “Ok, Jesus wants me to read the Bible.  The Bible is the Word of God.  That’s where eternal life is found, not in the material food (bread) that I eat.”  My return to Catholicism has caused me to reflect more deeply on those words of Christ.

The Bible is indeed the Word of God, but only the written part.  It is easy to hear the words “The Word of God” and think “Bible.”  However, Jesus is the Word made flesh.  He is God’s ultimate Word.  Everything God has to say to us he said in the person of Jesus Christ.  The Word of God is Jesus.  So, when Jesus says we don’t live by bread alone, but by every word of God, he means himself.  Eternal life comes through Jesus.

Another important connection that once escaped me is the Eucharistic implications of Christ’s words.  Bread alone is not Christ.  Christ alone gives eternal life.  A reading of John 6 shows Christ making a distinction between manna (material bread that you eat but eventually die) and him (the Bread of Life that we eat and receive eternal life from).  John 6 also shows how adamant Christ is about his followers actually (not symbolically) eating the Bread of Life.  A symbolic piece of bread is bread alone.  It is not actually Christ, but only representing Christ.  Such bread does not give eternal life.  It is like the manna.  The flesh that Jesus gave for the life of the world was his real flesh (not symbolic flesh).  Believers need the real Jesus to have eternal life (not a symbolic Jesus).  It is this real flesh Jesus commands his followers to eat (“my flesh is real food, my blood is real drink”) in order to have eternal life.

So, man does not live by bread alone but by every word of God.  We need the Bible (The Word of God), and we need Christ (The Word of God made flesh).  Christ says he is The Bread of Life we must eat to have eternal life.  Eating symbolic bread is eating bread alone, not Christ, The Bread of Life.  Christians are not meant to live on bread alone.  That is why Jesus gave us the Eucharist at the Last Supper.  The Word of God made flesh spoke the words of God, “This is my body, this is my blood” and it became, not bread alone, but the reality of The Word of God for us to eat and have eternal life within us.  What Jesus speaks, happens.  He cannot lie or deceive.  He is The Word.

This is also why Catholics have daily Mass wherever possible.  “Give us this day our daily bread.”  Who doesn’t need Jesus every day?

“If You Love Me”…A Knight’s Tale

One of my favorite movies is A Knight’s Tale with Heath Ledger.  There is a part of the story where the knight’s love interest asks him to prove his love for her by intentionally losing the jousting tournament, a tournament he desperately wants to win.  He begrudgingly acquiesces to her request.  Just as he is about to lose the tournament she changes her request and demands that he win to prove his love, which he does.  When the knight’s sidekick remarks on the things one does for love the knight says, “Yes, but now I hate her!”

Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  I used to think of his words as being like the knight’s love interest.  In other words, I had to make a concerted effort through my behaviors to “prove” to Jesus and to everyone else that I love him, in some cases, begrudgingly.  It is true that love is an act of the will that is not always “easy.”  Yet, if loving Christ results in a begrudging attitude, something is amiss.  Resentment and love don’t go well together.  For example, Jesus tells us to love our enemies.  He does not mean that we approach our enemies like school children being forced to begrudgingly apologize to each other after a fight on the playground.  He means love them the way he loves them, as souls that he died for.

Eventually, I learned to hear the words, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” in a different way.  At first, it was, “You will do certain things and say certain things to demonstrate that your love for me is genuine.”  Now I hear the words of Jesus saying to me, “A genuine love for me will transform you into a new creature that naturally desires to keep my commandments.”  An analogy might be, “If you are a woodpecker, you will peck wood.”  “If you are a fish, you will swim in and breathe water.”  “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” because doing so will be a natural result of who you have become.

Christians do not always love Jesus.  That is what sin is all about.  Concupiscence is that part of us that does not completely go away with the new birth.  It is the tendency to revert back to our non-transformed state of being and refuse to keep Christ’s commandments.  That’s what sin is.  It is non-love for Christ, others and self.  But, when we love Christ, we are not sinning, we are keeping his commandments.  Repentance and conversion do not happen in one moment.  They happen over a lifetime and only reach completeness when we are in Heaven with God who is love.  We need the Sacraments to sustain us and restore us.  We need the Holy Scriptures and the teaching authority of the Church to guide us by the Holy Spirit.

Hearing the words of Christ in a new way refreshed my Christian walk.  It helped me to focus less on my performance (a self-centered perspective) and more on loving Jesus (a Christ-centered and other-centered perspective).  I’m far from perfect at it, but I’m grateful for the new perspective.  I want to love Christ and to be naturally and continually transformed by him.  That’s what makes following his commandments an “easy yoke” and a “light burden.”

Today Is The Feast Of St. Thomas (My Namesake)

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, the Apostle, and the saint my parents named me after.  He is famous for being the doubter.  He was absent when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the rest of the Apostles, and he would not believe them when they told him they had seen Christ.  “I will not believe it until I put my hands in his wounds,” he said.  When Jesus appeared again, Thomas was there.  Jesus invited Thomas to touch his wounds and Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me.  Blessed are those who have not seen and believe!”

I’m thankful for Thomas.  He allows us to see that God is patient with our doubts.  In fact, Jesus used the doubt of Thomas to encourage you and me in our “unseeing” faith.  We can’t see Christ standing before us or touch his wounds, yet we can believe he lives.  We see only bread and wine, yet we can believe that it is actually the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ we receive in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.  We can’t see Heaven, but we can believe Jesus has prepared a place for us because he said so.  We can’t always see the good that comes from our obedience to the Faith, but we know God does.

People are often hard on Thomas for his doubt, but Jesus wasn’t.  Jesus takes our crooked ways and makes them strait if we let him.  The lesson from Thomas isn’t that we should demand visible evidence for our belief.  The lesson is that the doubt of Thomas was God’s tool to encourage us in our faith.  “We walk by faith, not by sight.”  My own name reminds me of this daily.

God Is Everywhere. So, Why Go To Church On Sunday?

Since God is everywhere, why can’t I worship him anywhere?  I can.  I can worship God anywhere, anytime.  I can pray to God whenever I want to.  I can even be with God, as one Facebooker said, “At Wal-Mart.”  However, there’s more than one kind of worship and there’s more than one kind of prayer.

For non Catholic Christians, the primary purpose of going to church is generally to hear preaching and to fellowship with each other.  Indeed, scripture does tell Christians to ” not forsake the gathering of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10: 25).  Nevertheless, going to church for many Christians is considered highly recommended but not obligatory.  If the preaching is boring and nobody feels inspired then there is a sense that they didn’t really “have church.” If the sermon or the singing is inspiring, then people may leave the service feeling as though they ” really had church.” In any case, communing with each other while hearing preaching and singing together is the bottom line.  So, while it is true that God is everywhere, one can only worship communally where the community is.  Hence, one good reason for going to church on Sunday.  It’s not about where God is located, it’s about where you are located.  Are you with the community of believers or are you off being an individualistic Christian?  There is worship and then there is communal worship.  For 2000 years the community of believers has met for communal worship on the first day of the week, Sunday.

Catholic Christians (the 2000 year old Church) also meet on Sunday to hear scripture and preaching and singing and prayer and to fellowship with each other.  However, although Catholics acknowledge that God is everywhere, they also recognize that Jesus is present in a unique way during the Catholic Mass.  During the Catholic Mass Jesus is present physically, not just spiritually.  Consequently, Catholic Christians are communing with each other and with God in a unique way as they receive into themselves the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.  This they do as Christ instructed at the Last Supper and in the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John chapter six.  There is no higher form of worship or prayer than this as it is a partaking of the supreme sacrifice of Christ himself.  Therein lies the second good reason for going to church on Sunday.  The Mass happens at church.  If the preaching or the music is lackluster ” church” has still taken place because Jesus has been physically and spiritually present regardless of how anyone feels about it.  His presence is an objective reality not a subjective experience of the believer.  There is a certain grace that is only accessible in this Eucharistic banquet.

Having said all of this, isn’t the fact that God wants us to worship together on Sunday enough of a reason to go to church?  I have not been able to find anything in scripture to suggest that any Christian should be content with a ” Jesus and me” Christianity.  Christianity is about community.  Having a personal relationship with Christ and being saved is a starting point.  A Christian is born again into a family of believers.  Family meal time happens at specific times and in specific places.  A Christian who says, ” I don’t have to eat with my family” is like the adolescent that is only interested in ” doing my own thing.” The parents have to say, ” You are part of the family.  Eat with us.” This is akin to the Catholic Church declaring a Sunday obligation for attending Mass (except for valid reasons for missing).  It is also the reason many preachers can be heard to say, ” There’s no such thing as a lone ranger Christian.”

So, if you’re a Christian, don’t miss church on Sunday without a valid reason.  Not because I said so, but because Jesus himself invited you.  Why turn down such an invitation?  You can go with me if you want to!