During his trip to the Holy Land in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI had the opportunity to preside over a first communion Mass in Jordan. Many of the young children were refugees from Iraq. At such a tender age, they already know the ravages of war, the destruction it has wrought in their country and the deaths of many of their family members and friends. Also, as Christians in a predominantly Muslim country, they experience discrimination on a daily basis. But for that hour they felt the joy of receiving the Body of Christ from the hands of the Holy Father.
The Catholic News Service, in reporting the joyous occasion, quoted one young girl as saying, "I'm going to receive my first communion from the Pope. Wow! This is something really amazing. It's a dream come true!" Her brother who was also receiving his first communion told reporters, "Words cannot describe what I am feeling at receiving my first communion from the messenger of God, the messenger of peace."
The enthusiasm of these young people cannot help but remind us of our own first communion. Our parents dressed us in white suits and dresses symbolic of our innocence and purity. Up to that time, we had to sit in the pew while our parents and older brothers and sisters went up to communion. Now we would be able to join them in receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. No matter what problems we may have been facing at the time, each of us felt special for that one day because Jesus, our Lord and Savior, would be entering our bodies and souls for the very first time.
Today is a day for us to renew the innocence and joy of our first holy communion. While every Sunday is a celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Church sets aside this Sunday every year to focus and meditate in a special way on the gift that the Eucharist is to us as individuals and as a believing community. As the young boy who received communion from the Holy Father said so well, words cannot describe the wonderful reality of our God who gives us his very flesh and blood in the form of bread and wine. Since Jesus first instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper, as we read in today's gospel, to this very day, the Church has always believed that when the priest prays the words of consecration during Mass, the bread is no longer bread but really becomes the Body of Christ. In the same way, the wine is no longer wine, but the Blood of Christ. What we receive in the Eucharist is no mere symbol, but the real thing. Jesus, the Son of God, in his body, blood, soul and divinity becomes our food. When we say, "Amen", we are affirming that we believe that what we are receiving is Christ himself. In fact, the only words that are fitting in the face of such a mystery are the words, "I believe."
Today's gospel reading gives us the story of the very first communion. At the Last Supper, Jesus gathers his apostles together to celebrate the Passover meal. To commemorate how God delivered their people from slavery in Egypt, Jews have a meal with a roasted lamb, unleavened bread and wine. The blood of the lamb is taken and smeared on the door posts to commemorate how the angel of death passed by the homes of the Hebrew families sparing the lives of their first born sons. The gospel reading of the Last Supper tells us about the bread and the wine, but it doesn't mention that Jesus and the apostles had lamb. That is because Jesus himself was the lamb. He was the one who would be slain and whose blood would deliver us from our slavery to sin. He was the one who would take upon himself the punishment we deserved for our sins.
We recognize this at every Mass when we break the bread which has become Christ's body and say: "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us. Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace."
It is important for us to take advantage of this feast to reflect on the great mystery we celebrate every Sunday. It is important for us not to lose the wonder and joy we felt at our first communion when Jesus came to make his home within us. In the face of such a wondrous gift that is ours in the Eucharist, we must strive to keep our hearts innocent and pure so that we can receive Jesus' body and blood worthily. Jesus, the Lamb of God, suffered, died and rose again so that his flesh and blood could be the food for our journey. So then, let us prepare our hearts with joy and humility to receive him so that we can then bring him into a world that is starved for mercy and peace.