Sermon: Living with a Heavenly Destiny
“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
For the past four weeks we’ve been taking in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel – the Bread of Life discourse. We have heard Christ tell us that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink, and that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have eternal life within us. Today, we seem to be interrupted by the Solemnity of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. In fact, the part that we’re missing today is really the best part of all, when Christ makes very explicit the literal sense of His flesh being true food – even using a Greek word that means “to gnaw on” for “eating.”
This joyful celebration of Mary’s assumption into Heaven is not an interruption, though. It’s actually the perfect complement to Her Son’s Bread of Life discourse. Her Assumption shows us what the Eucharist is really all about – a foretaste of Heaven. Elizabeth exclaims in today’s Gospel that Mary “believed that what was spoken to [Her] by the Lord would be fulfilled.” Today, Mary invites us as well to believe in the words spoken to us by the Lord that promise that, through the mystery of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist, we can follow where She has gone.
So what is the word that is spoken to us? Christ has told us that “this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.” It’s easy to hear those words and just let them wash over us. But wait a second – Christ said that if we eat His flesh and drink His blood – we will live forever. That’s huge!
The new life that Christ offers us in the Eucharist un-does the ancient punishment for sin. Adam and Eve were also meant to live forever, but they lost the gift of immortality when they sinned for the first time. And now we too suffer the punishment for original sin by being subject to death and pain. Of course, when He promises us that we will live forever, Christ doesn’t mean that we will still be living 1,000 years from now if we receive the Eucharist. That’s pretty obvious. So what does He mean? This immortality – this living forever – that He promises us is all about the Resurrection.
First, Christ’s Resurrection makes it possible for us – if we die in a state of grace and once we undergo the necessary purification in Purgatory – to live forever in Heaven. Second, Christ shares the grace of His Resurrection with us by promising that even the bodies of the righteous, at the end of time, will be raised to be with our souls in Heaven, just as His body and the body of His Blessed Mother already enjoy the perfection of Heaven as we celebrate today in the mystery of Her Assumption.
The Eucharist is not the dead body of Christ on the Cross. Rather, It is the living body of the Resurrected Christ. This means that the Eucharist brings new life to us as well, a life that is different than the life we lived before – as we heard about last week. We can partake of Christ’s Body and Blood because we are destined already for Heaven, and Holy Communion is a foretaste of what we will experience there one day.
To a Catholic, the Bread of Life discourse is obviously about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Others might not be as convinced, especially if they approach it with their own prejudices and biases, like the Protestants who still think Christ is referring to a symbolic eating of His Body. But this fact that the Eucharist requires a new way of life – a Heavenly way of life – that seems to me to be the best proof there is of the Church’s faith in the Real Presence. St. Paul, after all, tells us that to partake of the Body and the Blood unworthily is to eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. How could that possibly be the case if the Eucharist is just a symbol? How could partaking in a symbolic action bring condemnation upon anyone? No, only the Church’s perennial faith that the Eucharist is the true, resurrected, heavenly body of the Lord physically present to us under the appearance of bread of wine explains the fact that receiving the Eucharist requires that we be on the path to Heaven by being in a state of grace.
Another practical implication of the fact that the Eucharist make present the Resurrected, heavenly body of Christ, is that as beings destined for Heaven, we worship Jesus in the Eucharist in a Heavenly way. Though we cannot see them, all the angels and saints of Heaven gather around the altar to join in our one exultant chorus of praise. The Church place lyrics of heavenly music recorded in the Scriptures upon our lips: “Glory to God in the highest! … Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God of hosts.”
This is why Catholic worship is so different than that of our separate brethren who offer an imperfect and earthly chorus of praise to the Lord. No one should mistake the Heavenly worship of the New Jerusalem – the Church – for a rock concert and a TED Talk. This is why we don’t have a coffee shop in the entryway, why we don’t project the lyrics to the chants on screens, and why we don’t show YouTube clips during our sermons. None of these things are the way they are because of the pastor’s personal preferences. I love coffee, I have been known to sing karaoke, and I use a lot of videos when I teach in our religious education classes. We worship the way we do not because that’s the way Father likes it, but because we are Catholic, and we are partaking of the liturgy of Heaven, where Christ has risen in glory and where the Blessed Mother was assumed in accord with the perfection given to Her by God.
As partakers of the Eucharist, then, we are beings destined for immortality. Everything within us cries out for that time when death, the last enemy, will be destroyed. The difficult part, though, is that it’s too easy to lose sight of what that desire for immortality is meant for – heaven.
These days, we have a lot of false attempts at immortality that distract us from the true immortality of Heaven. Have you ever been scrolling through your Facebook / Instagram / Snapchat / Whatever feed and thought to yourself, “Why would that person post that? Don’t they know that photo will be online forever?” Well yeah, that’s the point. If we’re not focused on true immortality – on living for the immortality of Heaven – we have to create our own immortality on earth – the 15 seconds of fame that has likely now replaced the 15 minutes of years past. People post pictures of themselves online – even embarrassing pictures – because they are secretly striving to live forever.
Years from now, I’m convinced that the icon of our age will be the selfie. People used to buy cameras to take pictures of the beautiful things created by God – mountains, sunsets, children, loved ones. Then they started putting cameras on phones, and we could share pictures with people far away in real time, which was great. Then they started putting cameras on the front of phones, and now we mostly take poor quality pictures of ourselves.
Any objective assessment of this situation would tell us that the false immortality offered by the age of the selfie is boring and empty. It glitters and attracts us, but in the end it just leaves us bored, like the wasted hours of doom scrolling.
Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and Mary’s assumption – body and soul – into Heaven affirm the radical goodness of the human body. Rather than a life of sin and boredom, our bodies were made to be vessels of eternal life, destined for heavenly greatness and nurtured on the way to that greatness by the spiritual food of Christ’s real body and blood in the Eucharist. The world delivers on its shallow promises of pleasure – false immortality – in short order, but the fulfillment of Christ’s much greater promises – the true immortality of Heaven – requires that we wait in patient hope.
Living with the longing and yearning for Heaven rather than the easy fulfillment of cheap desire is not easy. That is why the Church rejoices today to celebrate that our waiting is not in vain. Mary’s Assumption body and soul into Heaven is a sign of hope, that the fairest flower of our race has already received the reward promised to all of Christ’s faithful disciples. Today we remember as well that Mary is the Mother of the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is the physical body and blood of Her Son, made present to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. She beholds in glory what we worship in mystery, and from Heaven, She intercedes for us, so that we might have the strength to persevere in this earthly life, strengthened by the foretaste of the heavenly banquet that Her Son shares with us today.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, A.D. MMXXI