Cardinal Tobin’s Eucharistic Congress Homily

(The following homily is from the Eucharistic Congress at the Arhcdiocese of Atlanta on June 17)

As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

How to make love stay?

Years ago I read a novel that began with a provocative promise. The author vowed that the story I was about to read would teach me how to make love stay. An interesting proposition but, as I reached the end of the tale, I thought, “I don’t get it.” The author must have known that dullards like me would read his book because, on the inside back cover, was printed in the author’s own handwriting, something like this:

You probably missed my point. How do you make love stay? Remember two things, and the second is the more important of the two. First, it is never too late to have a happy childhood. Secondly, it is the mystery. Once you believe that your beloved was actually your due in life, once you think you know everything about her and are certain that you can predicate everything she will think or say, once he becomes like the furniture in your living room, except he moves around occasionally, your love will begin to die because the mystery is gone.

Do you think that Jesus might have written something similar? After all, didn’t he say: unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 18, 3)?

Of course, Jesus does not hold up the child as a model for the disciples because of any supposed innocence of children, but because of their complete dependence on and trust in their parents. So must the disciples be, in respect to God.

It is never too late to have a happy childhood. It will be helpful if we are able to “turn and become like children” this morning, for we will consider a mystery. It is what God did through Jesus. Let me try to tell its story.

God the Father invited people on earth to a lasting and loving relationship with him and with each other. “I want to be your God and I want you to be my people. My love for you is tender and precious. Won’t you love me in return?”

Some understood and entered into the agreement. Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rachel, Moses, Elisha, Elijah, just to begin the list. Today we heard Joshua and his family say to God, “Count us in!” But they and the rest of us humans kept choosing things easier to grab, like money and honors—barns full of them. Or, they found it too risky to believe, and hung tightly to their fears, prejudice and hatred.

Our refusal of God’s love became widespread. How did God react to such rejection?

God kept trying. God never gave up. On Good Friday, the Church prays:

My people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me. For your sake I scourged your captors and their first-born sons, but you brought your scourges down on me! My people, answer me! (from “The Reproaches” on Good Friday)

Finally, God tried a new and quite brilliant way. “Since I am all love and nothing but love, I will go out to them totally, as love does. I will become one of them. I will live humanity to its depths, and they will see love spelled out.”

So God was born as a human called Jesus. He was the heart of God, now made flesh. One with the Father but different as well. He told people to love God above all things and their neighbors as themselves. He promised that he would not leave us orphans nor would death have the final word. For he was the Bread come down from heaven; so that one may eat it and not die.

Some found God’s plan way too much to accept and walked away. Peter spoke for others when he asked, “Where are we supposed to go? You have the words of eternal life.” Count us in.

But many human beings had been hurt and betrayed, living with their own selfishness and greed, as well as their mixed-up motives, co-existing with those of others too. Love can get lost in such a world.

It was into this ocean of cruelty and loss that God the Son plunged. He dove all the way to down to death. It was a display of the most profound insides of God.

The night before he died, Jesus ate with his disciples. John remembers what that meal meant, and set the scene in his Gospel with these words: 

Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end

The way Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the story of that supper, Jesus takes bread and a cup and tells his disciples:

This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me… This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

The Church recognizes why he did this:

in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us’. (CCC, 1323)

As families, as parish communities, as a mystical body extended across space and time, we see the bread that is broken, the cup that is blessed and we can scarcely believe it as we hear “Body of Christ”, “Blood of Christ,” but we whisper, “Amen.” Count me in. Count us in.

You know that when St. John tells the story of the Last Supper, he makes no mention of the bread or cup. In an earlier chapter – the one we read from this morning – he remembers Jesus’s words about the bread that has come down from heaven, the bread of life that we are invited to eat, the bread that is himself. He remembers one action of Jesus on that night before he died: that he washed the feet of his disciples.

John seems to be saying that Christ’s presence equally is found in loving service to one another in His name. Jesus’ washing of the feet of his disciples becomes his way of being present that is made real by service/ministry to be imitated by his disciples—both during the liturgy and outside it whenever we serve one another and the world in love.  When we serve others, we are also serving the Lord whose presence is in other human beings we recognize.

As American Catholics in 2017, our choice whether or not to serve the Lord is as stark as the one that confronted Joshua and his family. Joshua recognized the powerful invitation to follow other gods, gods who were believed to be powerful and could guarantee worldly success: “the gods your ancestors served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are dwelling.”

I believe that we are invited to serve other gods than the one truly present in the Eucharist. That temptation takes a particular form in our own times; I will describe it in a moment. But then, from the beginning of the Church, Christians have always faced a temptation to serve gods other than the One revealed by Jesus Christ. 

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul provides earliest written account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament. The 11th chapter emphasizes Jesus’ action of self-giving (expressed in the words over the bread and the cup) and his double command to repeat his own action.

But Paul castigates the Corinthians for repeating the words and actions of Jesus without understanding what they are doing:

In giving this instruction, I do not praise the fact that your meetings are doing more harm than good.

First of all, I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it; there have to be factions among you in order that (also) those who are approved among you may become known. When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk.

The consequences of such omission are truly terrifying. If the Corinthians eat and drink unworthily, i.e., without having grasped and internalized the meaning of his death for them, they will have to answer for the body and blood, i.e., will be guilty of a sin against the Lord himself. (1 Cor. 11, 29).

Paul reminded them – and us – that we cannot disassociate the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist from our own individual lives of service that make his presence real in the larger world or from Christ’s presence in the community that has been convoked by him to be his ongoing presence in the world.

This morning, as we adore Christ in the Eucharist we enter into both the consolation of his presence and the challenge to reach out to others in love and service that necessarily has its effect on the whole of the community. For this reason, reducing the worship of Christ’s Eucharistic presence to be just a “me and Jesus” affair is to impoverish its real meaning and deprive us and the world of its dynamic power.

Which brings me, finally, to the temptation of our time, the “god” of our age. Let me describe it with a story.

I served my first eleven years as a priest in Detroit. Occasionally, I would cross the river into Canada to lead a weekend retreat in a lovely spirituality center on the shores of Lake Erie, sponsored by the Diocese of London (Ontario). There was an older priest who lived at the retreat house, a lovable curmudgeon who was immensely popular with young people who came to the house for a confirmation retreat or day of recollection.

The priest told me about what happened on one of those days of recollection. The incident left in me an indelible understanding about the mystery of the Eucharist.

The retreat center had hosted a group of graduating seniors from a Catholic high school in Detroit. The school was in its first year of existence, the result of the merger of two high schools. The product of the merger was a multiracial student body that was experiencing a fair amount of tension.

The tension followed these seniors throughout the day. Something was simmering just below the surface, but the priest was unable to identify it. The day was to close with a celebration of the Eucharist. The priest and the young people began in a parlor to celebrate the Liturgy of the Word, listening to the Scriptures and sharing reflection. They were going to offer the petitions of the Prayer of the Faithful, then move to the chapel for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

When the priest invited the students to pray for their own intentions, a white girl prayed perkily, “That we may always be as united as we are right now, let us pray to the Lord.”

The African American students walked out.

After a moment of stunned silence, the same girl, now with eyes full of angry tears, sputtered, “Let them go! We don’t need them!”

The priest was quiet for a moment, then removed his stole and said, “Please go to your rooms and wait for the bus to come and pick you up. I don’t think we can celebrate the Eucharist today.”

The story continues. On a Friday evening a week or two afterwards, the priest was giving the opening conference for a group of retreatants, when he noticed several young men enter and stand in the back of the room. He later went to welcome them and recognized that these were some of the young people who walked out of the senior class retreat.

One of them spoke, “Father, we came back for two reasons. First, we want to apologize for what happened. We are sorry that we could work out our stuff in a better way. But, we also want to say that we’re grateful for what happened. We never really understood the Eucharist, until we couldn’t celebrate it.”

The false god of our age would have us sputter, “Let them go; we don’t need them!” It would have us seek comfort only with those who come, without worrying about those who are not here. It would close us in on ourselves and dull our minds and hearts to the full meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

You are here this morning because you love Jesus. You adore him in his Eucharistic presence and recognize Him in others, especially the poor. You want to wash His feet by washing the feet of others. You reject the gods of this age and firmly state, “As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Body of Christ! Amen. Count us in!