I was struck by two responses of people I deeply respect. For one, a fellow parishioner, celebrating this high holy day in the fashion we did was uniquely inspiring. As she put it, “Tonight, through technology and the efforts of the clergy, religious, and lay people of the Diocese of Orlando, I and thousands of other Catholics in Central Florida were able to celebrate this most holy night. Different, yes. Still personally holy, yes. In the words of our Jewish ancestors “why is this night different?”. As said at the end tonight’s homily it’s not because we celebrated Mass via the wonders of technology but because “we remember, we celebrate, we believe”.
The second response, from my young niece, reflected another genuine reaction: “There is a lot of scariness right now. I am afraid for everyone's health and well-being. It's hard to adjust to our new lifestyles. But even with all of that, the first thing that truly caused me to be overcome by emotion was watching Holy Thursday mass on Facebook live. My heart breaks that I can't celebrate Holy Week in my church, with my community. The loss of that makes almost everything else seem trivial.”
Set side by side, these testaments complement each other in the ways we relate to the Eucharistic sacrament. There is something stunning about the idea that our hunger for Eucharistic communion with the Lord and our brethren in the Lord led so many of us to electronically follow the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on 61” screens or even smart watches in a pinch. Equally true, the pain of missing full communion through the Mass and/or the opportunity for Eucharistic adoration is an ache of the soul that can only be softened by the reality that our prolonged “Eucharistic fast” is a sacrifice on behalf of the most vulnerable of God’s people among us.
I have come to respect a young Catholic theologian from Regina, Saskatchewan, Brett Salkeld. As a father of seven children, it is a wonder how he finds time to write and do his research. Last year, family notwithstanding, Salkeld published a splendid new book on the Eucharist, Transubstantiation: Theology, History, and Christian Unity. A specialist in ecumenism or inter-church relations, Salkeld discerned a need for a clear understanding of what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about Real Presence, i.e., how Christ becomes present in the bread and wine. The term “transubstantiation” refers to that process of change.
Salkeld draws heavily upon the wisdom of St. Thomas Aquinas [1225-1274] and his exhaustive writings on sacraments. My kiddie catechism in 1956, the year of my first communion, defined sacraments as “outward signs, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” Aquinas, in his technical Latin, would define sacraments as signs that deliver what they signify. Pouring baptismal water over an infant’s head is a sign of washing, but in this sacrament, there is a real washing taking place, a cleansing of the collective sin of Adam and his descendants. We can be certain that “baptism works” because it is done at the command of Christ [or “instituted by Christ,” to use the older language.] And, if one lives faithfully to Christ’s example, one will be saved [i.e., given the “grace of redemption.”]
The same principles would be true for every sacrament, including the Eucharist. But Aquinas and other great thinkers are quick to remind us that sacraments are provisional realities, for the period between Christ’s cross and the Last Coming. At the end of the world there will be no need for sacraments, since we will be in the presence of the fullness of God. Consequently, no sacrament makes us perfect in this life, but if celebrated frequently with faith and played out in our human conduct they will prepare us for our final destiny of perfect joy.
Communion, when administered to the dying, is called viaticum, “food for the journey.” In truth, all communion is viaticum in the sense that we need the constant food that is Christ to push on through our fears and weaknesses. My niece articulated this well. It is also true that as a provisional sacrament, the Eucharist points to a day “when every tear will be wiped away.” This is the Jewish hope of Passover. Our Christian Passover this year has been disrupted but not stopped. As every Passover ends with “next year in Jerusalem,” in a special way we Christians can look to the day when we are physically united to the Eucharistic meal and to our family in faith.
Prayers and blessings to all.