"What’s Jesus Doing in There?"

Our parish Director of Religious Education, Kathy Kramer, and I once had a conversation in our church’s sanctuary. Her two delightful young boys were playing nearby, and at one point they got near the tabernacle. Kathy asked them to settle down. “This is where we pray, not where we play,” she said. One of her boys asked “Why?” Kathy explained, “Because Jesus is in the tabernacle.” With a puzzled expression on his face, the little boy looked at the tabernacle, then at me, and finally at Kathy. Then he asked, “What he doing in there?” I looked at Kathy and said: “This one’s all yours, Mom!” But Kathy was cool. After a brief pause, she looked at her son and said: “Jesus is there reminding us of how much he loves us.”

Blessed Pope John Paul II made the very same point in a little document he wrote not long before he died called “Church of the Eucharist.” It was written as a teaching document, and it’s an excellent one at that. But the Holy Father concluded this work with a very personal final chapter. He wrote, “Allow me, dear brothers and sisters, to share with deep emotion…my own testimony of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist.” He reflected with gratitude on how he had celebrated Mass and contemplated its mystery every day since his ordination in Poland in 1946.  Then he said, “Every day my faith has been able to recognize in the consecrated bread and wine the divine Wayfarer who joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and opened their eyes to the light and their hearts to a new hope.”

In saying this, he was of course referring directly to today’s gospel. As we heard, on the evening of that first Easter day, the “wayfaring” Jesus revealed himself in the “breaking of the bread”- one of the earliest titles for the Mass. And following this, the two disciples recalled how their “hearts burned” as Jesus explained the Scriptures to them.

The way this event is described is meant to remind us that we too encounter the risen Jesus at Mass. First, Jesus himself speaks to us when the Scriptures are proclaimed, and our hearts should burn within us. And then Jesus presents himself to us in the consecrated bread and wine, his Body and Blood. In other words, the risen Jesus is met, not just by the first disciples on that first Easter, but also by us every time we participate in the Eucharist. Indeed, this and every Sunday, to again quote the Holy Father, “is Easter which returns week by week.”

What a tremendous gift this is! Pope John Paul II called it the “gift par excellence,” and he dearly wanted all of us to cherish it for what it is. “In the Eucharist we have Jesus,” he wrote, “we have his redemptive sacrifice, we have his resurrection, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have adoration, obedience, and love of the Father.” “Were we to disregard the Eucharist,” he continued, “how could we overcome our own deficiency?

Yet sometimes we Catholics do disregard the Eucharist. We neglect it or take it for granted. It’s heartbreaking to read that only one third of Catholics in the United States today attend Mass on any given Sunday. It’s sad, and it’s also ironic, since it is the Eucharist that attracts so many non-Catholic Christians to join our church. A parishioner here once explained to me that while she had been born and raised a Christian, it was her desire for the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist that led her to become a Catholic.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who essentially founded our country’s Catholic school system, had a similar experience. She had been a New York Episcopalian until her husband’s illness in 1803 led both of them to the warmer climate of Rome to seek a cure. While there, she met kind and generous Catholic people who explained to her that Jesus could be met in the Mass. This greatly appealed to her in her loneliness and concern for her husband’s health. She wrote this to her sister back home: “While I face the full loneliness and sadness of my case, I cannot stop tears at the thought, “My God, how happy I would be, even so far away from all so dear, if I could find you in the church as they do.’”

Do we feel that way about the Eucharist, or do we think otherwise? Is Mass something we anticipate with joy, or do we dread it as a burden or an inconvenience? It participation at Mass a top priority, or is it something we do only occasionally, or even rarely? Yes, sometimes we do have legitimate reasons for missing Mass on Sunday. But more often than not, we don’t. In one of his books, Fr. Oscar Lukefahr asks this question: If we were offered a week’s salary to skip Mass this morning, would we go anyway? If our answer is yes, then God bless us. But if our answer is no, not only do we disobey God’s command, but we show that God is less important to us than money- or any number of other things. Indeed, it would show that we were out of touch with the true God, who is worth infinitely more than anything this passing world has to offer.[1]

Participating at Mass, Fr. Lukefahr point out, is really the only thing that Jesus specifically asks us to do for himself.  “Do this in memory of me,” was his command to us at the Last Supper. In light of all that he’s done for us, how could we possibly ignore his request? How could we ever refuse such as blessing?[2] As Kathy Kramer reminded her son, Jesus presents himself in the Eucharist to remind us of how much he loves us. In gratitude, shouldn’t we faithfully present ourselves to Jesus at the Eucharist, to show how much we love him?

[1] Fr. Oscar Lukefahr, We Worship: A Guide to the Catholic Mass

[2] ibid

Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/050811.shtml

Photo Credit: jetalone, bobosh_t, via Creative Commons