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The Real Presence and Sanctity
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In speaking about holiness it is remarkable how we can overlook the obvious. For example it is obvious that we cannot become holy unless we obtain the extraordinary graces needed to reach sanctity. Hearing about holiness; reading about it; even seeing holiness, does not make one holy. We need grace. It is equally obvious that the graces we need must come to us from Christ since as He told us, "Without Me you can do nothing". If that nothing refers even to salvation, it most certainly refers to sanctification.
The question remains - how? How do we obtain the grace that only Christ can give, in order to become more and more like Him, in a word to become holy, because Christlikeness is holiness? We obtain the graces we need from Christ by asking Him, by praying to Him and by begging Him for them. All of this is true. But then we begin to touch on mystery, because Christ will give us the grace we need (and we need a lot of grace to become holy) only if we ask Him for it as He wants us to approach Him. And the "as He wants us to" is the key to the mystery. How does Christ want us to approach Him, so that approaching Him we might ask Him effectively? The answer is plain by faith. Faith in Christ is what Christ demands as the precondition for answering our prayers. It is not in much speech nor in long hours of petitioning that prayer is efficacious but only insofar as it is animated by faith and for our purpose, so animated as to obtain the beyond-ordinary graces of holiness.
But we are not yet at the center of our subject. There are manifold mysteries about Christ, such as the many aspects of the Incarnation and the infinitude of meaning behind the Name "Jesus". Is there some one mystery of our faith in Him which, if we believe in it deeply we shall tap the resources of His gracious mercy? Yes. It is faith in His Real Presence. No wonder over the centuries this has been called THE mystery of faith. It is the epicenter of Christology.
In order to impress ourselves with this very central fact, we should go back to Christ's promise of the Eucharist in Saint John's Gospel. What needs to be kept in mind is that there were two levels to this promise of the Eucharist recorded by John in his sixth chapter. They intertwine through the forty some verses dealing with the promise of the Eucharist, but the two levels are not the same. One is the level of faith where Christ insists on the absolute necessity of believing in Him to be saved and sanctified; belief, believing, believe run right through as a theme in that Eucharistic promise. The other level is the level of the Eucharist itself which Christ proceeds to identify as the special object of our faith in Him. When reading many of the verses from Saint John, note the interplay of these two levels; the need for believing in Christ and the characteristic object of this faith in Christ, namely that He is really present in the Eucharist as the nourishment of our spiritual life.
You recall the context. Christ had just worked one of His several miraculous multiplications of food. Then He went on: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst. But, as I have told you, you can see me and still you do not believe....Yes, it is my Father's will that whoever sees the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and that I shall raise him up on the last day....I tell you most solemnly, everybody who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that a man may eat it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world."
Then begins the dialectic. Christ made it per lucidly clear that no one would be saved, much less sanctified, unless he believes in Christ. And what is the core of believing in Christ? It is believing that He is the bread that came down from heaven to live in our midst as the Eucharist and to be received in our bodies as Communion. "Then the Jews," so John continues, "started arguing with one another: 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" There was no taking back on the part of Christ. "I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you" - meaning, if you do not believe, clearly you will not receive life; then you shall die.
Then John goes on: "He taught this doctrine at Capernaum, in the synagogue. After hearing it, many of his followers said, 'This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?' Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, 'Does this upset you? What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where He was before?....But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. He went on, 'This is why I told you that no one could come to me unless the Father allows him.' After this, many of his disciples left him, and stopped going with him."
But John is not finished yet. "Then Jesus said to the Twelve, 'What about you, do you want to go away too?'" He might have lost all twelve right then: "Simon Peter answered, 'Lord who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe; we know that you are the Holy One of God.'" So far; Saint John.
As often as we have read and heard these verses from the beloved disciple and as often as we may have been impressed by the studied effort of the Evangelist to bring out the necessity of believing in Christ as really present in the Eucharist, we may not perhaps have been sufficiently impressed with the logic of it all. It all ties in together. Thematically, this means that our faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the touchstone of sanctity. We shall be saved if we believe in this Presence and believing, act as those who do believe. We shall be sanctified too if we believe. We shall be effective in winning souls to Christ if we believe in this mystery, neither more nor less. The deeper our faith in this Presence, the more surely we shall be saved; the more securely we shall be sanctified, and the more effectively, beyond our wildest dreams, shall we bring not hundreds but thousands of souls to the Heart of Christ.
But then we ask ourselves, "What is it, or better, who is it we believe in, when we believe in the Real Presence?" We believe it is the same Jesus who was conceived in the womb of His Mother Mary. We should not tire of reminding ourselves that the flesh in the Eucharist came from Mary. It is the same Jesus who was born at Bethlehem; who fled and stayed for a while in Egypt; who lived at Nazareth; who began His public life and preached to the people. It is the same Savior who worked miracles; who raised people from the dead; who forgave sinners and who reconciled the Magdalene. It is the same Christ who suffered and died and by His divine power raised His body from the grave. This is the same Christ who ascended into heaven, is now at the right hand of His heavenly Father and is also in our midst. This, in the profoundest sense of the word, is heaven on earth. This is what we believe, when we believe in the Real Presence.
We believe therefore that He is here on earth not only as God but as Man. That bears much more emphasis than we can ever give it because it means, as faith assures us, that while before the Incarnation God was on earth which He made, with the Incarnation God became Man. It is the man who is God who is really present! We believe that this humanity, which really means this human being, is capable of working the same wonders now that He worked in Palestine.
Let us follow this through. Recall the many times during His public life when Christ was asked to work miracles, to heal and to cure, but that on some tragic occasions we are told He could not work the miracles because of the lack of faith among the people. The needs were there, desperate bodily and spiritual needs; the power was there, infinite power. We don't explain this; we accept it, we believe it: Omnipotence is bound by our faith. How is it that the Almighty, who brought the world into being out of nothing; who made us out of nothing; who sustains the universe, symbolically, in the Palm of His Hand - that this God's Omnipotence is conditioned by our faith: We don't understand,' but we accept it. It is both wonderful and terrifying, isn't it?
It is this human nature that, we are bidden to believe, has done two things. First, in the womb of Mary it was substantially united with the Eternal Word of God so that the child she bore in her womb for nine months was her Creator. That' A the first article of faith and the substratum for the second. Secondly, we believe that in ways beyond our comprehension, this humanity has decided to remain thus substantially united with the divinity and that this humanity united with the Word of God is here on earth. Is it any wonder that the Fathers of the Church speak of the Real Presence as the acme of the Faith? It is at the peak of the pyramid of all that we believe because the Real Presence subsumes everything else.
Now there is a further refinement that I think bears some emphasis. After all, having made the world and, for reasons best known to His Infinite Wisdom, having allowed the world to sin, in deciding to redeem the world God did not have to become man to achieve the redemption. Clearly, He did so because He wanted to. But once God made that decision, that the world would be redeemed by the humanity assumed by the Son of God, that humanity remains for all time the source of all grace to mankind and in eternity, the source of all heavenly glory.
This is the mediatorial channel through which all the treasures of heaven come to the human race. That human being is the indispensable link between God and sinful man. Consequently, whether it is as the Real Presence Whom we come to worship or as the Real Presence whom we come to receive, in all cases it is the human Jesus who is our God, who through His humanity channels to us the treasures of His divinity. So when we who are so pathetically human come to Him, who is so gloriously human, it is a human heart speaking to a Human Heart; it is a human mind thinking about a Human Mind and, in ways that we cannot conceive, that Human Mind and Human Will radiates to us the wisdom and the strength we need even to be saved and surely to be sanctified.
There are so many things that the mystery of Christ's humanity in the Eucharist teaches us, because there is no limit to what we can expect to receive from Him. He is here. Everything else is up to us; it all depends on our faith. While there are many things that faith leads us to beg from this Eucharistic Jesus (even, if need be, to work miracles in our favor), there is no grace that we need more and that we should more earnestly beg Him to give us, than the grace to experience in our humanity what He experienced in His. Whatever other reasons He had for becoming man, this is the fundamental one - He became man, assuming our human nature, in order that like us, He might be able to endure. God as God could have done everything else in our favor except suffer. This He could not do.
There are myriad favors and countless petitions we ask for; there are desires, dreams, hopes, and ambitions that we want Him to fulfill. And provided they are good for us, He will answer all our prayers, if only we believe. But there is one petition we must not omit making, because this is the whole reason for His being here as the human being who suffered and who now wants us to join our sufferings with His. But we need grace, strength and courage: that's the missing link. It is essential that we beg this human God in our midst to help us live out our humanity faithfully, meaning that He will enable us to be patient with others and with ourselves, and patient with Him; that we might bear up with our crosses, especially with that heaviest burden we have to carry - ourselves.
We need grace to be resigned even as He, as man, was resigned to the Divine Will, so that like Him we might be able to offer ourselves daily and perhaps many times daily, being sure that it is especially in that way that we grow in His likeness. After all the learned books have been read and all the erudite sermons have been heard, we actually become most like Christ, we become most holy, when we have learned how like Him to suffer. Anyone who preaches another gospel is not a true prophet.
I trust we have long learned this secret. With the strength that He gives us and the courage that we obtain from Jesus, who is here with us, this cross that we carry with Him and for Him becomes lighter and sweeter to such an extent that, strange though it seems, the more we endure with Him the more we shall be consoled by Him. There are two kinds of joy: one that comes from this life born of earth - the other that comes from God. The price we have to pay to obtain a foretaste of heaven on earth is to embrace the cross.
I still have a short epilogue. In the light of all that we have seen, is it any wonder that all sanctity in the Roman Catholic Church is said to be derived from the Eucharist; that all saints became sanctified because they believed in the Eucharist and lived out their belief; and that our greatest joy on earth is to be present to Him? Words almost lose their meaning when we use them in this way - we are to be present to Him who makes Himself present to us. The Beatific Vision is simply the Eucharist unveiled and enjoyed for eternity. "
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