Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Precious Blood

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, fought passionately on behalf of the poor. To serve the needy, she founded hospitality centers throughout the country which would give shelter to the homeless and provide meals for the hungry. Her concern, however, did not end with the bodily needs of those she ministered to. She also sought to meet their spiritual needs by offering retreats and daily Mass at her hospitality centers.

One morning, a young priest arrived to say Mass at her center in New York. Thinking he would make the Mass more relevant for those attending, he asked Dorothy for a coffee cup and proceeded to use it instead of a chalice to consecrate the blood of Christ. After Mass, Dorothy took the cup and buried it in the backyard. She understood that now that the cup had held the precious blood of our Savior, it could no longer be used for any other purpose. The young priest also got the message and went back to using a chalice for Mass.

At every Mass we use special gold and silver vessels for both the bread and the wine because something precious takes place in them. The bread and wine we offer become the Body and Blood of Jesus our Savior. They are not merely symbols but the real thing. So we set aside the finest vessels we can provide because of the love and reverence we have for our Lord’s Body and Blood.

Though we offer both bread and wine at every Mass, we typically only receive the bread. However in both the bread and the wine, the entire body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus is contained. So when we receive just the consecrated bread, we are receiving the whole sacrament. If it were to happen that at communion we were to run out of hosts, we could offer the cup of His Blood and we would still be receiving the whole Sacrament. When we receive the Eucharist, we are not just receiving pieces of Jesus. Rather He gives His whole self to us in the form of bread and wine.

Today's readings focus on the blood of Christ given to us in the form of wine.
In the Old Testament, blood was understood to be where our life force and energy resided. When you take the blood away from a person or animal, you also take away their life. In the same way, to shed one's blood was to give one's life. So when Jesus tells the apostles at the Last Supper that the cup He is giving them is His blood, they would have understood that it was His life that they were receiving.

In the same way, when we receive the Eucharist, it is the life of Christ that enters us. Communion is like a blood transfusion that we receive from Jesus replacing that which is lacking in our human life - namely, the ability to love and forgive unconditionally - and reviving our anemic spirit.

That is why Jesus tells us in John's gospel that unless we eat His Body and drink His Blood we will have no life in us. There is nowhere else to get the divine life that Jesus is offering us than through the Eucharist. Nothing else this world can offer can replace the very Body and Blood of Jesus. Nothing else can give us the life of our Savior. So we should never fail to come to this table as often as we can to share communion with our Lord who died to save us.

It is also significant that when we do receive the Blood of Christ, we receive it from a cup or a chalice. Drinking from a cup is part of the symbolic act we make in receiving the Blood of Christ. In Jesus' time, to drink from the cup meant sharing someone's destiny or fate. For instance, if a king offered you his cup, he was offering you a share in his kingdom, his wealth and his power. Just so, when James and John ask Jesus to sit at His right and left hand in the Kingdom of God, He asks them if they can drink the same cup of suffering He will drink. For Jesus, the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is to share the cup of unconditional love - a love that is willing to endure death, a love that He showed us by dying on the cross.

Whenever we drink from the chalice of Jesus' blood, then, we are sharing in His self-giving love. We remember His words, "If anyone would follow me, he must deny himself and pick up his cross." When we receive communion, we are not getting a handout but making a commitment to love our enemies, forgive those who hurt us and give to those in need just as He did. We also remember Jesus words, "If anyone would save his life he must lose it." When we receive Jesus' Body and Blood in the Eucharist we acknowledge that we must empty ourselves of our own lives, desires, plans and will to make room for the love, joy and power He wants to pour out into us.

When we gather for communion, then, we are doing much more than meeting an obligation or going through a monotonous routine. We are receiving Jesus, Himself. And we are saying "Amen" to His presence among us and, in particular, to His presence in the least of our brothers and sisters whom we must love and serve. Dorothy Day once said, "The real atheist is the one who cannot see God in his fellow human being." We cannot bow to Jesus on Sunday and refuse to help our sister or brother on Monday. By eating this bread and drinking this cup we proclaim that Jesus has died for us and for all. Now it is up to us to live the reality we celebrate until all the world is charged with the healing and saving presence of God.

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