Unless You Eat
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Aug. 19, 2012 (20B)
By Fr. Phil Bloom
Podcast of the Sunday Readings
Sunday Bible Study Questions
Lecturas y Comentarios
New American Bible
Prayer of the Hours
Bottom line: Jesus teaches that salvation involves baptism and reception of his Body and Blood - in a state of grace.
Perhaps someone has asked you the question, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" In other words, do you know what is necessary for salvation? We get some help in today's Gospel. Before presenting what Jesus teaches, let me make a clarification: I am not addressing whether non-Christians can be saved. It is a complex matter and Christians have always wondered about the fate of the non-baptized. For example in the fourteenth century, Dante Alighieri wrote a poem called the "Divine Comedy" where he visits hell, purgatory and paradise. In each level the question comes up whether non-Christians can in some way be saved.
Dante does not give a definitive answer and neither can we. When one turns to Bible, it becomes clear that baptism is essential for salvation. For example, Jesus says, "Unless a man is born again by water and the Holy Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of heaven." (John 3:5) If you read the New Testament attentively, you will notice that almost every book speaks about baptism. Early Christian writers unhesitatingly taught the necessity of the sacrament. The Catechism sums up the constant tradition this way: "The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude." (#1257)
Why is baptism so essential? Well, it launches our relationship with Christ. You cannot receive any other sacrament without being baptized. It is the first step in our initiation into Christ. Initiation begins with baptism - but it culminates in the Eucharist, the reception of Jesus' Body and Blood. For that reason, Jesus tells us today: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you."
I think you can see why baptism and Eucharist (Communion) are necessary for salvation. Heaven is nothing more - and nothing less - than a relationship with Christ. Jesus has established a means to that relationship - baptism which leads to reception of Communion. He says it quite directly in this Sunday: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day."*
If Communion sustains our relationship to Christ - for time and eternity - how then should we approach Communion? That is the theme of my fourth instruction. Last Sunday I spoke about reverence and how we express it externally: by making a deep bow as the person ahead receives Communion, by receiving directly on the tongue or making a throne with one's hands in the form of a cross, by clearly responding "Amen," and by remembering that for a few minutes your body is a tabernacle for the Blessed Sacrament. Today I would like to address something even more important: the interior preparation of your soul, that is, being in the state of grace.
The state of grace means that a baptized person is free from mortal ("grave") sin. You can see the importance of this when you read the inside cover of our missalette - the "Guidelines for the Reception of Communion." The bishops (that is, the modern successors of the Apostles) state that a communicant "should not be conscious of grave sin." A person who has committed a mortal sin is (quote) "not to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord without prior sacramental confession."
I know the question many of you have: What is a mortal (or grave) sin? A few years ago the U.S. Bishops wrote a document titled, "Happy Are Those Called to His Supper." In it they gave some concrete examples of things that "entail grave sinful matter." I will print their list in next week's bulletin, but for the sake of clarity, I will mention some of the most common things that constitute grave matter:
• Failing to worship God by missing Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation
without a serious reason, such as sickness or the absence of a priest.
• Acting in serious disobedience against proper authority; dishonoring one’s parents by
neglecting them in their need and infirmity.
• Committing murder, including abortion and euthanasia; harboring deliberate hatred of
others; sexual abuse of another, especially of a minor or vulnerable adult; physical or
verbal abuse of others that causes grave physical or psychological harm.
• Engaging in sexual activity outside the bonds of a valid marriage.
• Speaking maliciously or slandering people in a way that seriously undermines their
• Producing, marketing, or indulging in pornography.
• Engaging in envy that leads one to wish grave harm to someone else.
I do not want to impose a guilt trip on anyone, but at the same time we need to recognize that certain behaviors are seriously wrong. That's the bad news. But I have some good news. There is a remedy for mortal sin: the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To receive sacramental forgiveness, you do not need to prepare a life story. No, say it simply: I disobeyed my parents twice; I committed fornication or masturbation or homosexual acts; I missed Sunday Mass three times; I defamed someone; I indulged in pornography five times, I had an abortion or encouraged someone to have one. It need take only a minute - and I will not give you a lecture, but a simple penance so you can return to Communion.**
This is vital. St Paul says that if a person receives the Body of the Lord unworthily, they will bring condemnation upon themself. (I Cor 11: 28-29) On the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Sequence has these verses written by St. Thomas:
The good and the wicked alike receive him, but with the unlike destiny of life or death.
To the wicked it is death, but life to the good.
See how different is the result, though each receives the same.
Before receiving Communion the priest says this prayer: "Lord Jesus Christ, with faith in your love and mercy I eat your body and drink your blood. Let it not bring me condemnation, but health in mind and body." To receive the Lord's Body and Blood should make one tremble - but it should also inspire trust in his mercy, which is without limit.
As we approach Jesus in Communion, we must avoid scrupulosity: the feeling of moral failure and reproach - that no matter what I do, it's not enough. Scrupulosity can attack us all, especially as we grow older. Confession may help a person get through bouts of scrupulosity, but I should emphasize that - by its nature - Confession is geared toward youth. Youth is when a person defines himself - what he will do with his life. Will he give God first place? Will he choose God or some lesser good - like comfort or pleasure or autonomy?*** The devil works hard on a young person to derail him, to get him off the tracks. For that reason he or she often needs Confession - not always because of serious sin, but for help in the spiritual battle. Being in the state of grace means making that decision to put God first. For sure one can fall from a state of grace, for example, by choosing not to attend Sunday Mass or commiting some other grave sin. In that case we need sacramental confession before we receive Jesus in Communion.
I hope you understand why this is the most important of the five instructions on participation in the Mass. Your internal, spiritual preparation enables you to receive Communion with benefit. If someone asks you if you are certain that you will go to heaven if you die tonight you can say: I have been baptized and today I received Communion in the state of grace. I have followed what Jesus says in the Bible - and I have faith that he will raise me up on the last day.
We can join other Christian in affirming that we are saved by faith - but not by faith alone. Faith must lead to baptism and then to full initiation into Christ, by eating his Body and drinking his Blood - with proper disposition. What a marvellous gift Jesus gives us - and what a privilege to invite others to share that gift! It is nothing less than salvation, eternal life: "For my flesh is real food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him...whoever eats this bread will live forever."