Sunday, October 23, 2016

Two different holy communions

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our Catholic faith.  It’s what makes us Catholic and makes us different from most other faiths.  Also, this belief affects every aspect of our worship and it should impact how we live our life. 
I'll start by giving some of my background and explaining why I am so passionate about our church and so convinced that it proclaims the truth.  I'll be talking about church teaching in two areas, which initially might not seem related, contraception and the Eucharist.  I'm not trying to condemn or to judge anyone.  As I'll describe, I've struggled with the issue of contraception.  But, I have been very blessed that I have been led to the truth and now will attempt to explain this to you as I describe my spiritual journey.
I grew up on the west side of Cincinnati in a area which was about 90% Catholic.  I went to a Catholic grade school and a Catholic high school.  Then, I attended UC in Engineering where I met my wife Kathleen.  She was, and is a very strong Catholic and this attracted me to her.
My personality is that of a rule follower and this worked well for me.  I always went to Sunday mass and followed the teaching of the Church.  This was all that I knew and I was very comfortable with it.
After college, Kathleen and I got married.  Then, I went to graduate school and spent several years in the Air Force.  Now, it was the early seventies and I had managed to get through the sixties without having a major faith crises.  I was a Sunday Catholic with a basic understanding of my faith.  But, I didn't have a personal relationship with Jesus and my faith hadn't really been tested. 
Kathleen's faith was a little stronger than mine was.  Also, she had embraced natural childbirth, breastfeeding, natural mothering, and eventually natural family planning.  Even though this might seem very normal today, it was very unusual in the early seventies.  When our oldest, Tim, was born in 1971, I can still remember Kathleen telling the hospital staff at the Army hospital in Hawaii that I had to be with her in labor because she was relying on me to help with her Lamaze breathing techniques.  Eventually, they did let me into the labor room, but absolutely refused to let me in the delivery room.
After we moved to Lebanon, we had our second, Lynn, in 1973, and our third child, Andrew, in 1976.  When Kathleen became pregnant with Michael in early 1977, we faced our first faith crises.  We were both 31 years old and now were expecting our fourth child.  We were practicing Natural family planning, based upon reading a book.  But we missed reading a critical chapter and were now faced with an unexpected pregnancy.  How many children would we have?  How can the church not allow us to use contraceptives?  Was this church teaching going to ruin our marriage?  And how could we possibly expect to send all of these children to college?
For a short time after Michael was born, we decided to use a contraceptive.  While it wasn't difficult to find a priest who said that this was OK, it didn't seem right, especially to Kathleen.  So, we decided to take a course from Couple to Couple League in Natural Family Planning.  We found out that, when properly used, it was 99% effective in postponing pregnancy.  Also, we learned that less than 5% of couples who practice NFP get divorced versus 50% of couples who contracept.   
This all lead me to learn more about this topic so that I could understand why the church recommended this and why it was so effective.  I read the encyclical Humanae Vitae (On Human Life) which was written the same month we were married.  I also read several outstanding books on this topic including one written by Janet Smith who is a staunch defender of church teaching.  A few years' later I read Pope Saint John Paul's Theology of the Body which further explains the church's teaching on human sexuality.
In short, I eventually realized that I was wrong in thinking that this teaching was bad for married couples.  I realized that the church, lead by the Holy Spirit, was right in this critical but controversial area.  I realized that the marital act, the union of husband and wife, is meant to be a holy communion, a renewal of the marriage covenant, free from any barriers to life.  So, what does contraception and this church teaching have to do with the Eucharist and this controversial teaching of our church.  Now, let me talk about the Eucharist.
Jesus tells us in chapter 6 of John’s Gospel: I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
This is a remarkable claim.  Jesus claims that he will give his own flesh as our food, so that we might enter into that divine life.  We will remain men but we will have the life of God within us.  No wonder his claims caused his listeners to argue among themselves and still cause disagreements today. 
His disciples struggled with this teaching. They quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?”  This was the perfect opportunity for Him to say, “Wait a minute, what I really meant was that bread and wine will just be symbols of my body and blood."
Instead, Jesus continued: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.
Jesus doesn’t water down his claim.  On the contrary, he reiterates the importance of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.  Seven times throughout his speech he repeats that his flesh is to be eaten and his blood to be drunk by those who wish to have eternal life.  His listeners understood him to mean what he said.  Many of them didn’t accept it, and abandoned him. 
After most of his disciples left him, Jesus said to His apostles:  “Do you also want to leave?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Many Catholics live their lives as if they don’t believe it.  Our faith must be strong to believe that during the consecration of the mass bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.  We believe that Jesus left us when he ascended into heaven but he remains with us in the form of bread and wine until he comes again at the end of time.  He accomplishes this great mystery through his Church, through the authority passed down from Peter and the apostles to our pope and bishops.
For many years, I didn’t appreciate what I was receiving, Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity.    I could have gone to daily mass but only began to do this in the last ten years.  And I still have trouble comprehending this great mystery.  How can that host be Jesus Christ?  How is this possible?  I am an engineer by background and a very logical person.  But, I cannot prove that that consecrated host is Jesus Christ and I also cannot prove that it isn’t.  I just have to accept it by faith. 

So, tonight, I am talking about two different holy communions, two sacraments, two mysteries.  There is the holy communion of husband and wife in the marital act.  When this act is truly free, total, faithful and fruitful, it is a renewal of the promises that we made when we are married, a renewal of our marriage covenant.  Then, there is the Holy Communion with Jesus when we receive him body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharist.  Jesus gives himself to his bride, the church freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully.  Each of these holy communions is controversial, each is counter cultural.  Most non-Catholics don't believe in either of these.  Many Catholics believe in the Eucharist but don't accept the church's teaching on contraception.  If this is what you believe, I'll ask you to ponder if our church, led by the Holy Spirit, can really be half right and half wrong.  In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus passes divine authority to his bride, the church when he says: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it."   Our church is truly the bride of Christ and our leaders carry his authority which has been passed down for 2000 years.  It is a church led by sinners, as we all are, which consecrates the Eucharist and is guided by the Holy Spirit in matters of faith, including its teaching on contraception.

The Pharisee and the tax collector

Several weeks' ago, I was on Fountain Square in Cincinnati on a beautiful Saturday morning.  A man came up to me and asked for money for coffee.  He was African-American, middle age, thin, and had a small beard.  I reached into my pocket and pulled out my wallet to give him several dollars.  Then, I discovered that I didn't have anything less than a 20.  I quickly debated with myself what I should do.  I didn't want to turn him down at this point.  So, I gave him a twenty and told him to buy some food to go with his coffee.  I felt good about giving him the 20 and seeing his obvious surprise and happiness.  But, I suspect that he didn't use the money to buy food.

This incident came to mind when I read today's Gospel.  The Pharisee in the Gospel had his act together.  He does more than his religious obligation requires. He observes the evils of the world around him and gives thanks to God that he is not part of it, like “the rest of humanity, greedy dishonest, adulterous….”  What’s more he thanks God for his good behavior and his upright life. Why, he even exceeds the religious demands of first century Judaism!  His prayer sounds right.  But, we know there is a problem because Jesus is obviously telling this parable with a critical eye towards the Pharisee.

The Pharisee isn’t praying with his community. He is by himself praying prayers in the first person singular. He says: " I am not… I fast… I pay tithes.”  He is not praying for his community or those in need. He is detached from anyone else. He isn't crediting God for his life, since the prayer is focused on himself, not God. God really doesn’t seem to play any part in his life.

The tax collector would have been despised by his community. After all, tax collectors were Jewish men who made a very comfortable living, raising taxes from the Jews for the Romans.  He is not the subject of his prayer, God is. God is doing the work and he is a recipient of God’s mercy.  He says:  “Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He is not focusing on his actions, good or bad, he’s trusting in God’s mercy.

Jesus extols the tax collector’s humility: he knows himself and doesn't pretend to be anything other than himself. He relies on God to do for him what he can’t do for himself,   He can’t claim mercy based on his merits. But he asks for it and trusts that God will give it to him.

Jesus’ listeners would have been surprised by this parable. They would have held the Pharisee in high regard. But the parable shows us our proper relationship before God, based on God's merciful gift of forgiveness, and not the merits of our actions.
The parable is a caution for all of us, especially those who consider themselves to be religious people. We have to be awake to our own spiritual poverty.  Since Jesus kept company with sinners, he would expect us, as his disciples, to do the same.   The love of God which we profess can turn into self-love. We can look upon the gifts we have from God as rewards for our behavior. Like the Pharisee, our prayer can easily become a boast. When the Pharisee prayed in the  Temple that day, his relationship with God wasn't growing. But the tax collector left changed by God’s grace from his prayer.

Jesus addresses the parable to “those who were convinced of their own righteousness.”  We don’t like people who are “self righteous” -- like the Pharisee.   In the second reading, Paul credits his righteousness not to his work, but to his faith in Jesus. That faith is a gift from God which makes him “righteous” , not self-righteous. In the parable,  the tax collector turns out to be righteous, or just, in God’s eyes. He is in right relations with God.

Getting back to my encounter with the beggar on Fountain Square.  I really don't know him so I can't say whether he would be considered righteous or not.  But, as a beggar asking for money for coffee on a Saturday morning, I expect that he probably isn't proud or arrogant.  In fact, he might be more trusting in God that I am.  He might even have given thanks to God for this twenty that this guy on the square happened to drop on him.  I wonder when I look at a beggar, if I can truly say "there but for the grace of God, go I."  I wonder if I might be considered righteous or self-righteous in the eyes of God.   Today, I would encourage all of us to analyze our relationships with others, especially the poor, to determine whether Jesus might find us to be humble like the tax collector or self-righteous like the Pharisee.