Sunday, April 27, 2008

Only Say the Word...

For many years I observed Mass as a non-Catholic, as I attended with my wife. The point in each Mass that always stood out to me, was the preparation for Communion when the priest lifts up the Host and says, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper." And of course the congregation replies:

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

I learned a while back that the response is adapted from the account of Jesus' healing of the Centurion's slave, in both Matthew and Luke. The Centurion believes that Jesus can heal his servant, without necessarily being in his presence but rather by simply saying it from afar.

"...Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." (Matthew 8:8)

The placement of this adaptation of verse in the Mass just before we receive Communion has an overt meaning: none of us is really worthy to receive God into our bodies, but we believe that this healing gift is nonetheless offered to us. But as I reflected on it at Mass this past Sunday, it struck me that there might be additional meaning. The Centurion needed great faith to believe that the servant need not see Jesus, or hear his blessing, or feel his hands laid upon him, for healing. He proclaims as much and Jesus is amazed (and the servant is indeed healed without a visitation).

But aren't we similarly called to express that same great faith, that we are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, even though we don't perceive Them as such? To us, They still retain the appearance, smell and taste of unleavened bread and wine. Without getting into the philosophy of it all (since I am utterly unequipped to carry out a real conversation on it anyway), suffice it to say that we Catholics believe that the bread becomes the Body and the wine becomes the Precious Blood, despite what we perceive.

Like the Centurion, we don't require Jesus' human flesh and blood to be evident to our senses, before we partake. "Only say the word," we tell him. And he did, during the discourse on the Bread of Life in John's Gospel, in which he stated clearly that his disciples would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. And at the Last Supper, when he instituted the Eucharist. In fact, it's a good thing that the true identity of the transubstantiated Host is hidden from our senses; Jesus indeed lost many disciples who couldn't accept eating his flesh.

This is a very long winded way of saying that meditating on the Centurion's faith, in relation to the faith I need to accept the holy identity of the Host, is a great help to me when I prepare my heart for Communion. I had been called for all those years to the Eucharist, to believe and eat and be healed. Thanks be to God that I finally answered.

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