It is a longstanding tradition that, before being put to death, a prisoner is given a last meal. It is a way of reminding the executioner that, despite the evil the prisoner may have committed, he is still a man to be treated with dignity and respect. The last meal is also seen as a gesture of reconciliation between the condemned man and his executioner who is simply acting as an agent of the state.
Unfortunately, the death penalty is still carried out in some parts of the world, including the United States. Last year, an inmate named Kenneth Williams was asked what he would like for his last meal before being put to death by lethal injection. In an incredible gesture, he replied that he would like to receive the Eucharist. Whereas a last meal is typically seen as an act of reconciliation between the prisoner and the executioner, Mr Williams made it also an act of reconciliation between himself and Jesus.
We must remember that Kenneth Williams found himself on death row because of several heinous crimes he committed. While driving a getaway car, he struck and killed a man. In another incident, he murdered a college girl. Finally, while trying to escape prison, he killed a deputy prison warden. However, despite the many crimes he committed, he found mercy in Jesus Christ. And, having been reconciled to Christ, he wanted his last act on earth to be communion with the Lord who spilled His blood for our salvation.
In today’s second reading from the Book of Hebrews, we read: “...Christ...entered the sanctuary...with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption…” Later on we read: “...the blood of Christ [will] cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.” The blood shed by Jesus on the cross has the power to save us from our sins. It is the very love and mercy of God poured out for us. No sin we commit is so great that it cannot be covered by the blood of Jesus. No sinner is so corrupt and depraved that the mercy of God cannot reach his soul. It is true for Kenneth Williams who experienced the love of God on death row. It is true for us no matter what sins we have committed and no matter how corrupt we believe we have become.
Jesus also had a last meal before He was executed. We read about His “Last Supper” in today’s gospel. Rather than approach this last meal as a time to indulge Himself, He used it as an opportunity to give even more of Himself to His disciples and to us. Offering thanks to the Father, He blessed ordinary bread and wine, transforming them into His Body and Blood. He also commanded the apostles to do this in His memory, so that the gift of His loving mercy could be extended down through the centuries.
Today, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. While every Sunday is a celebration of the Eucharist, we turn with particular focus to the love of Jesus made manifest in this great mystery. It has been the continuous, unchanged and firm belief of Christians from the apostles on down that the bread and wine we offer at Mass truly become the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is not merely a symbol of Jesus’ continued presence among us but the reality of His presence. It is not merely a memorial of His love but the reality of His love renewed for us again and again. Today’s feast is an opportunity for us to affirm our own faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and to recommit ourselves to worshiping Him and receiving Him worthily every Sunday and, if possible, every day.
Today’s readings, in particular, challenge us to focus on the Blood of Jesus. For practical reasons, it is more customary to receive the Eucharist in the form of bread. We offer the chalice less frequently to avoid spilling the Precious Blood or even sometimes for health reasons. However, whether we receive Holy Communion in the form of bread or in the form of wine, we always receive the entire Risen Lord.
When we focus on the blood of Christ, however, we are focusing on His loving mercy and the power of forgiveness made manifest through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. As we say during Mass, “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.” At every celebration of the Eucharist, the saving graces of the cross are made present to us, including the forgiveness of sins.
Of course, for us to receive that forgiveness, we have to show that we are sorry. We do that by changing our lives. If we approach this great sacrament of Jesus’ merciful love without sorrow for our sins and a sincere attempt to bring our choices into line with God’s will for us, we would be receiving the Eucharist in vain. We would still be receiving Jesus but it would not have as powerful a transformative effect in our heart.
Imagine a friend hurts you and asks for your forgiveness. How would you feel if she then went and continued the same behavior that hurt you in the first place? How could your relationship be restored if she continued to hurt you no matter how many times she said she was sorry? Just the same, if we receive Jesus’ mercy without working on putting to an end the sinful behaviour that hurt Him in the first place, our intimacy with God cannot be restored.
Jesus showed His love for us by dying on the cross to save us. He spilled His blood for our salvation. In this Blessed Sacrament of Holy Communion, we receive that merciful love. Jesus’ desire to have a personal relationship with us is on full display in this great sacrament. For our part, we must change our hearts and our lives. When we have serious sin on our conscience, we should go to confession as quickly as possible so that we can receive Jesus worthily in the Blessed Sacrament. If we are in a situation that keeps us from being able to receive communion, we should meet with a deacon or priest as soon as possible to get the circumstances resolved so that we can approach the table of God’s healing mercy. What could be more important than receiving Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament? We should all be striving to receive the Eucharist worthily every Sunday if not every day if it is the last thing we do.