August 1; 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

18th OT2 20 21Sir, give us this bread always

Last week, we took a break from our marathon reading of Saint Mark’s gospel as we read St John’s version of the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and the feeding of the multitude. This week we continue with the first instalment of the discourse on the Bread of Life which is unique to the Fourth Gospel. Like the other discourses in Saint John’s gospel, we see our Lord expounding a theological truth in the course of a dialogue - a back and forth exchange with His audience. And like other exchanges, we can’t help but smile at how the message of our Lord flies over the heads of His audience.
After having heard our Lord say that it was not Moses who gave their ancestors bread from heaven but it was His Father who is the real source of that live-giving bread, the crowd immediately demands a share in this wondrous food: “Sir give us that bread always.” In response to their request, our Lord gives this enigmatic answer, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst.” The irony of this story is that this crowd who had pursued our Lord with such eagerness to get more of Him, would turn their backs on Him after He had done explaining the true meaning of these words.

In both the first reading as well as in the gospel, we see people acting out of a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude. The Israelites complained to Moses about their lack of food. They had forgotten that it was God who had liberated them from the misery of slavery. Strangely, God in His mercy rewarded them by raining down manna from heaven. Similarly, the crowds in the gospel demand that our Lord gives them this “bread of God … which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” despite having feasted on a sumptuous meal of miraculously multiplied bread and fish. Instead of reprimanding them for their greed and sense of entitlement, our Lord provides them with this life-saving truth of the Bread of Life - our Lord Himself is that very Bread of Life. Yes, our Lord is truly, really and substantially present in the Eucharist today, the true bread of heaven that gives life to the world.

In these past few months where many of you have been forced to observe intermittent fasting from the Eucharist due to the lockdowns, I hope that you have had the opportunity to reflect deeply on the mystery of the Eucharist and the privilege of receiving Holy Communion. In the past, when Masses and Holy Communion were readily available, and many took it for granted because of its unobstructed accessibility, many may have unknowingly suffered a loss of the sense of the sacredness for this sacrament. As the adage goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

We often forget that receiving our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is a privilege rather than a right. If it is a right, then God and the Church owes us a duty to dispense it to us without questioning our motives or disposition. But if it is a privilege, then the Eucharist is a pouring forth of God’s beneficent grace to the undeserving, a privilege which we should never take lightly. And this is why we pray this at every Mass before receiving Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” This sense of unworthiness is also reflected in one of the two prayers said by the priest quietly before he receives the body and blood of Christ: “May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgment and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy.”

The teaching and practice of the Church is rather clear. We receive Holy Communion only when we are in communion with God and His Church. In order to receive Holy Communion, a Catholic must be in a state of grace, meaning that no mortal sins have been committed. If one is in a state of mortal sin, then it is necessary to have those sins forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance before receiving Holy Communion. That discipline is based on the clear teaching of Saint Paul, who says that to receive the Eucharist unworthily is to invite condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:29). Saint Paul was encouraging the church to live the faith authentically, entirely and with integrity.

We who profess the faith of the Church, must live as the church commands us because through His Church, Jesus Christ calls us to repentance, forgiveness and holiness. To approach the Eucharist otherwise is to condemn ourselves at the altar of the Lord. That is why we say that the Holy Eucharist, both offers us “a healing remedy” for those who are properly disposed, but can be poisonous for those who are not. This risk comes with our freedom to live lives that are coherent or incoherent; lives that are consistent with God’s truth or not. To approach the Eucharist casually and without the fear of possible condemnation is to risk one’s eternal salvation. That is why when the Church trivialises the danger of an unworthy reception of the Eucharist, she fails to properly love those who continue to jeopardise their souls.

To modern ears, the above may sound unmerciful and unloving. Yes, love is indeed merciful, but authentic love is also truthful. Our Lord in His ministry gives us many examples: Saint Peter and the apostles, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus, and the Samaritan woman. Love acknowledges that condemnation is within reach. It recognises that how we approach the altar and the reception of the Eucharist requires a sense of the sacred which is preceded by a healthy fear of the Lord.

The Eucharist is a gift, not an entitlement, and the sanctity of that gift is only diminished by unworthy reception. While it is likely that too many receive the Eucharist in a state that is objectively separated from God without having made a good confession, this is no reason to lower the bar. Low expectations lead to mediocrity not spiritual excellence, and the path to hell is pathed by spiritual sloth. This is not an issue of equity or equality but of sanctity. We are all called and challenged to imitate the Saints, which is to say to imitate Christ. None of us are perfect, as no saint is perfect from birth save for the Blessed Virgin Mary, which means that we are constantly called to repent, amend our ways and deepen our communion with God before we receive Holy Communion in a worthy fashion. Only then can we utter with true conviction, humility and gratitude, these words: “Lord, give us that bread (the Eucharist) always.”