Sermon: Preparing to Receive the Eucharist
Last Sunday, we heard about the infinite hunger that is inside each one of us. Like the little children whose parents are limited in their ability to satisfy them with the things of this world, we are infinitely needy. Not in the sense of being in infinite need of finite things, but that we have one need that can only be satisfied by something that is infinite. We were made for something greater than the things of this world – we were made for God.
Many things in this world can distract us from the infinite hunger in our hearts: Pleasure, technology, careers, sports, relationships, etc. Many people think that the answer to this dilemma is to think of the things of this world as evil, and to leave the world behind in order to focus on God alone. Since this seems too difficult for most people, we tend to despair of being holy. Turning our back completely on the bread of the world in order to focus on God might seem too difficult. I would propose, though, that it’s actually too easy.
What Christ actually wants from us is not to leave the world behind, but to recognize his signs within the world around us. Some people, certainly, experience a higher calling to leave the world behind as contemplative religious. But that does not mean that the rest of us who live in the world aren’t called to be saints as well. The obstacles to a right relationship with God are not the physical things of the world, but the disorders of the human heart.
The greatest obstacle in your life, the biggest barrier to having the relationship with God to which He invites you, the stumbling block on the road to holiness, is not society. It isn’t technology. It isn’t another person. It isn’t money or possessions. It’s sin. Sin is the disorder of the human heart that leads us to desire the finite goods of the world, to fill our hearts with the “food that perishes” rather than the infinite food for which we long. It’s not something outside that is holding you back, but something within.
As we mentioned last week, in these next few Sundays we are exploring Christ’s “Bread of Life Discourse” in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel. In this part of the Gospel, Christ explains how He is the true nourishment symbolized by the manna that fed the Israelites as they wandered through the desert, and the bread that will not leave them hungry again at the next mealtime.
Before explaining how it is that He will give them the “true bread from Heaven,” Christ calls the Jewish crowds to a change of perspective and a change of heart. He encourages them to “work … for the food that endures for eternal life.” We hear this call echoed by St. Paul today in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You must no longer live as the Gentiles do … you should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth.”
A Catholic who had drifted away from the Faith once remarked to me that, “Catholics make this really big deal out of Holy Communion, that Jesus is really present there. I just never saw how it made much of a difference. All those people receiving Communion every Sunday didn’t seem any better than all the people who weren’t. And I didn’t seem any better because I was there.”
On the one hand, this objection is guilty of a common error, of seeing religion along overly moralistic lines. That is, many people believe that religion is about becoming better people and making the world a better place. Those might be consequences of what we believe, but they’re not what the Faith is really all about. We don’t come here primarily to become better people and to change the world together. We’re here first and foremost to worship God. It’s only through doing that that any real change can begin to happen in our hearts and in the world.
But on the other hand, there is something to this objection. Unless our reception of the Eucharist actually reflects an inner conversion, a turning away from sin, we will be those people who come week after week and don’t seem to be any different for it. The obstacle to that is sin.
When the Scriptures talk about “sin” they use a Greek word that means “to miss the mark.” Outside of the supervillains in Marvel comic movies, no one wakes up in the morning with the desire to do evil. People are generally trying to do the right thing. Even when we do something that we know is sinful, there is some good we are aiming at (pleasure, affection, enjoyment, etc.).
Sometimes we miss the mark in little ways. We call these venial sins. These smaller sins don’t totally close us off to the power of God’s grace, but they weaken our relationship with Him and leave us vulnerable to greater temptations. They can be the beginnings of a pattern of sin that leads to greater damage. Most importantly, venial sin makes us indifferent to God. When we choose to sin, when we miss the mark, we limit the areas in which we allow God’s grace to enter our lives. We don’t limit God, of course, but we do limit ourselves. Each sin is a wound in the heart that wants to be enflamed by the love that Christ brings us in the Eucharist.
Other times, though, we can miss the mark in bigger ways. These are mortal sins, and rather than harming our relationship with the Lord, when we commit a mortal sin, we totally re-direct our life away from God. A person who has committed a mortal sin and has not yet received the Lord’s forgiveness in Confession has a heart that is closed to the grace that Christ wants to offer. Again, God is not limited in His power to give His abundant grace where He wills, but we can choose to limit our own hearts’ ability to receive him.
A sin is mortal when it is something that the Church teaches to be objectively grave, the person knows it to be such, and he or she freely chooses to commit that sin. Sometimes, if we seem to be “stuck” in our relationship with God, if we seem to be one of those people who are coming week after week and not leaving any different than we came, it could be because you’ve been holding back one of those mortal sins, maybe even from a long time ago, not confessing it out of fear. Or, it could be because you have not yet “put away the old self of your former way of life,” having become too comfortable with patterns of sin that seem inevitable but can be conquered with God’s grace.
The fountain of grace that is the Eucharist heals and restores our hearts. It forgives venial sins and gives us the strength to resist sin in the future. In order to receive this grace, though, we need a vessel that is adequately prepared. The soul in a state of mortal sin is not prepared for the immense torrent of God’s grace in the Eucharist until she has been restored to a state of grace in the sacrament of confession, which is why St. Paul tells us that those who receive the Eucharist unworthily receive not the gift of life, but rather eat and drink their own condemnation.
When the Church, as custodian of the gift of the Eucharist, instructs us on the preparation we should make for this immense gift, she does so not out of desire to limit access to Eucharist, but to help us to receive this gift in such a way that it is able to bear fruit in our lives, so that we aren’t coming here week after week and remaining unchanged. She shares with us the good news that no sin is too grave to be forgiven, that the Lord’s mercy is infinite if only we come to ask it of Him in the manner He has established through the Church’s sacraments.
Most of the time, sin is a private reality, and readiness for Holy Communion is discerned in the intimacy of one’s own heart and in dialogue in Confession. Sometimes, though, there are public sins to which the Church must respond. In recent weeks, there has been a good deal of controversy regarding a document that the Bishops of the United States have decided to prepare regarding “Eucharistic coherence” – the coherence that ought to exist between the reception of the Eucharist and the way we live outside the walls of the Church, following St. Paul’s admonition to “put on the new self.” We do not know exactly what this document will say, because it has yet to be written, but that has not stopped many people both inside and outside the Church from criticizing this initiative. The Bishops, some have alleged, plan to weaponized the Eucharist.
This is the furthest thing from what is happening. The Church’s law states that those who publically manifest their own sinfulness – for example, by declaring their support for intrinsic evils and worse yet by promoting those intrinsic evils through their political office – must not only repent of their sins in private but also must make a public declaration that they no longer support or promote these intrinsic evils. The harm that is public must be repaired in a public way. To insist upon this coherence between the mystery of the Eucharist that we receive and adherence to Christ’s body the Church – not only receiving the Lord’s body but conforming our lives to the full implications of the mystery that we celebrate – is not to weaponize the Eucharist or to place one class of Christians above another. It is a fulfillment of the Church’s mission to be a custodian of the mysteries that She celebrates.
In giving us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Most Holy Eucharist, Christ gives us the remedy to our infinite neediness. In order to receive this great gift our hearts should be made ready through the forgiveness of our sins. Receiving the Eucharist is a sign of our conforming our lives to Christ and being remade in His image. With hearts prepared for the outpouring of His grace, the Eucharist makes us the new person who will never hunger and thirst again.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVIII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXI