Over twelve hundred years ago, in the small Italian town of Lanciano, a monk was celebrating Mass in the parish of Saint Legontian. Having been a priest several years, he was beginning to struggle in his faith. Especially difficult for him was the Church’s teaching on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Does the bread and wine offered at Mass really become the Body and Blood of the Son of God? How is this possible? Is it not more reasonable to believe that they are only symbols?
With this doubt in his heart, he prepared the gifts on the altar and began to recite the Eucharistic prayer. As he repeated Jesus’ words, “This is my body...This is my blood.” something miraculous happened. The bread which he held in his hands turned into real human flesh and the wine turned into real blood in the chalice.
News of the miracle spread throughout the world. When the pope learned of it, he instituted the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ which we continue to celebrate every summer, two weeks after the feast of Pentecost.
The flesh and blood which appeared on the altar that day over twelve hundred years ago are still visible in that church in Lanciano. Although over twelve centuries have passed, the flesh and blood have not decayed. They are as fresh as the day they miraculously appeared.
Over the years, the flesh and blood have been tested by scientists the most recent being in 1971. Two professors from the University of Siena examined them and found that the flesh was human heart tissue and the blood was also human with the same blood type as the flesh. Both the heart tissue and the blood were determined to be as fresh as they would have been had they been just recently taken from a human body. After examining the chemical structure, they found no traces of preservatives such as formaldehyde to explain why the heart tissue and blood had no signs of decomposition. Finally, they concluded that there was no scientific explanation for the events that took place in Lanciano. Their findings were published in one of Italy’s foremost journals of medicine.
The miracle at Lanciano is only one of many eucharistic miracles that Jesus offers us to strengthen our faith in His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament. However, the fact is that a true miracle takes place every day on altars all over the world - simple bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God .
When we receive the Eucharist, we are truly receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. It is not just a symbol. It is not just a way of remembering all He did to save us. Rather it is the source and summit of our Christian life. It is our intimate union with our God and Savior. It is the promise of His real presence with His Church until the end of time.
It is very tempting for us in this age which is always looking for a scientific explanation for everything to doubt that the miracle of the Eucharist can take place. Like the monk in Lanciano, we want to reduce communion to a mere symbol and a simple remembrance of Jesus. However, that is not at all what Jesus taught. He told the apostles very plainly at the Last Supper, “This is my Body...This is my Blood.” Furthermore, none of the early Christians living in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death ever taught that the Eucharist was merely a symbol. All throughout the history of the Church, there was agreement that when we receive communion, we are receiving the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
Nonetheless, Jesus understands that this is a difficult teaching for many to grasp and comprehend. As we see in today’s gospel, in His own day many people rejected and were even repulsed by Jesus’ words that He would give them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. A quarrel even broke out as He was spelling it all out for them. Rather than tell them He was only speaking symbolically, he re-emphasizes his meaning: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”
If we find ourselves struggling with doubts about this teaching, it is time to turn to Jesus in prayer. Only by faith can we come to embrace this mystery. And faith only comes as a gift through Jesus. We cannot come to such faith only by thinking things through, though that also is important. The only way to come to not only believe but love Jesus present in the Eucharist is to take time in silent meditation before the tabernacle or, even better, before our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. Sitting in His presence, this wonderful truth becomes seared into our hearts and minds. We are touched and transformed in an invisible way by His presence. Experiencing the peace that only He can give, doubt melts away and it becomes clear to us that Jesus meant what He said when He told us, “This is my Body.... This is my blood.”
Jesus promised to be with us always until the end of the world. That promise is fulfilled in the mystery of the Eucharist. We have the honor today of receiving His Body. Let us ask Him to deepen our faith in this miracle so that we may receive it worthily and be transformed in love even as He has loved us.