Friday, May 15, 2009

Updating Part Two: The Eucharist

Continuing my updating from my last post, I wanted to share some of the highlights from a talk I went to a little over a week ago.

A little background: last year the Diocese of Lexington began a series called the Bishop's Cathedral Lecture Series. Over the course of four years, they are planning a series of four talks in each year that will address the four pillars of the Church. Last year's lectures were on the Creed and this year the focus is on the sacraments. The next two years will tackle the other two main sections of the Catechism. So, the Second Annual Bishop's Series began with a talk in April by the Bishop on the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. In May the talk was on the Eucharist and Fr. Robert Barron from the Archdiocese of Chicago gave this lecture. So now we've covered the three Sacraments of Initiation. Two more lectures are left to cover the other four sacraments: The Sacraments of Healing (Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick) and the Sacraments of Service (Marriage and Holy Orders).

So with that background, I have to share some of the wonderful stuff I heard when I attended Fr. Barron's lecture on the Eucharist. I found it a very enlightening discussion!! I've been to a lot of talks on the Eucharist, I have read a lot on it, and I very much believe in the concepts of transubstantiation and the Real Presence. And yet, I was completely captivated by this discussion and learned a lot.

So Fr. Barron started out by telling us that he was going to discuss the Eucharist through three means: 1. Meal, 2. Sacrifice, and 3. Real Presence.

In terms of meal, he looked at the concept of "meal" from a cultural perspective from the beginning of Genesis through Jesus' time. The first major meal that had an effect on all of civilization is the fruit in the Garden of Eden. By that one act, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and sin entered the world. When Jesus instituted the Eucharist we were given the opportunity to share in the ultimate sacred meal. Fr. Barron called the scene with Adam and Eve the "meal gone bad." From there we had Israel in the desert receiving manna from heaven to sustain them. Throughout the rest of the Bible, according to Fr. Barron, God is trying to bring us back to the divine banquet. There is no question that food and meals are very important throughout the Bible. Even today we organize practically any gathering around food. Many of Jesus' miracles involve food of one form or another: the wedding at Cana, the multiplication of loaves, gathering in someone's house around food, and the most important of all: Jesus' establishment of the Sacred Meal at the Last Supper.

Second, Fr. Barron discussed Sacrifice. What an amazing sacrifice Jesus made for us!! There is no doubt, all Christians agree that Jesus sacrificed his life for our sins. A truly amazing thing and really quite unique in the history of religions. In no other religion does that religion's god put himself into a position to sacrifice himself for the people of the world. It's a very extraordinary thing!! And the idea of sacrifice is integral to our faith. We as followers of Christ often have to sacrifice things for our faith and beliefs. Jesus even told us that we would sacrifice our lives (and there are many martyred saints). He asked people to sell all their possessions and follow Him. He asked people to leave their family and friends to follow Him. In addition, the Eucharist is an amazing sacrifice. In addition to allowing Himself to be killed on the cross for us, the ultimate sacrifice, He also gave us the Eucharist and told us to do this in remembrance of Him. So we do, in the Catholic Church we do it every day, we celebrate His sacrifice at every Mass.

I apologize if that previous paragraph seems a bit unorganized. Fr. Barron also said that in a world gone wrong sacrifice is necessary to bring about community. He told us that he was talking to his sister one day and she was telling him that many people were starting to leave the Catholic parish he had grown up in. She said many of them were joining a nearby Evangelical church because it felt more friendly and welcoming and not much was asked of them. It was easier. There was a little more to the story, but this part of it was interesting in terms of sacrifice. I have heard many people complain about the hour they have to spend in church on Sundays and they especially complain when mass goes a little long. I am always amazed at that!! Jesus sacrifices his life for our sins and we can't take an hour a week to spend time in Mass thanking him for this sacrifice. We need to be prepared to sacrifice just a little of our time, whether it is an hour or an hour and a half. Is that really a lot to ask?? Somehow I don't think so.

In addition, Fr. Barron discussed the concept of the "Lamb of God," a common title we use to describe Jesus. Lambs were often the animal of choice for sacrifices to God; interesting that this is the title we use to describe Jesus. Also, in terms of the Mass, he emphasized that the Mass is a re-presentation (read those as two words: re and presentation) of what Jesus gave to us. We do it not because God needs it (God doesn't need anything) but because we need it. We need the sacrifice of the Mass.

[By the way, I am currently reading The Lamb's Supper by Scott Hahn. So far it is an amazing book, as most of Hahn's books are. For more on the Mass, why we use the title Lamb, and how the Mass can explain the Book of Revelation, I highly recommend reading this! Hahn always has an amazing perspective as a former Protestant minister now Catholic theologian.]

Finally, we moved to Fr. Barron's third point: the Real Presence. The story he told about his sister mentioning to him that so many people were leaving his home parish included him asking her about the Eucharist. He asked her if these people miss the Real Presence in the Eucharist. She told him that many people probably don't understand what that means. This is so sad. As Catholics we believe (whether you know it or not) that the Real Presence of Jesus is in the Eucharist upon the consecration of it during the Mass. This is the source and summit of our Catholic faith.

So another story: most people have heard of the author Flannery O'Connor, who was a practicing and faithful Catholic. She was also a shy person. She was at a dinner once with Mary McCarthy, a lapsed Catholic. Trying to draw Ms. O'Connor into the conversation she remarked that the Eucharist was a beautiful symbol. O'Connor's famous response was, "If it's only a symbol, then the hell with it." How true!! We don't believe in the Eucharist as just a symbol, it is so much more!! It is the living Christ!!

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is in chapter 6 in the Gospel of John starting around vs. 22 through the end of the chapter. When you read this you notice that many of the disciples following Jesus leave at this teaching. Now, Jesus talked in parables a lot in the Gospels. In this passage he is being literal, and when given the chance to explain himself he doesn't say, well, what I really meant was ... No, he emphasizes his words even more, saying in John 6:53: "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you." And he goes on repeating himself many, many times. Then the disciples say, this is a hard teaching (vs. 60). Yes, this is hard and is still dividing Christians today. At the end of this chapter in John, many of the disciples leave him because they can not accept this teaching. If Jesus was only speaking in parables, he would have called them back, explained that he was speaking only symbolically. But he doesn't, he lets them go.

For me, this is where the idea of sacrifice and the Real Presence come together. It is also where our faith is most tested. Fr, Barron explained that the scene in John 6 would have been shocking to Jews of Jesus' time, it would have been appalling, actually.

One of the hardest things to understand in this idea that the Real Presence is there in the materials of bread and wine is the teaching of transubstantiation. Fr. Barron explained that the substance changes during the consecration even while the appearance does not. To help explain this further, he said that appearance and reality are often not the same. Take the stars in the sky. When we look into the sky and see the stars, what we are really seeing is how the stars were many hundreds of thousands of years ago. Some of the "stars" we see are no longer there because of how long the light takes to travel from where that star once was to where we are today. Appearances are one thing, reality can often be another.

This was one of the best talks I've been to in the Bishop's series. We went to three of the the four talks during last year's First Annual Series and have been to both of this year's. There are two more left this year and I'm looking forward to hearing more. Fr. Barron was an incredible speaker, he didn't use any notes and was so incredibly knowledgeable. I came away from this talk with an even deeper appreciation for the mystery of the Eucharist.

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