Rorate Caeli

Sermon: The Fleshliness of the Catholic Faith

Fr. Richard G. Cipolla
Delivered at a Solemn Traditional Mass, at St. Mary's, Norwalk, Connecticut

“At this the Jews began to quarrel among themselves, saying, “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said: “The man who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.  The man who feeds on me will have life because of me.” (John 6:52-55)
The Greek verb for the English translation that says “began to quarrel among themselves” has the overtones of a nasty fight.  Jesus statement, “I am the bread from heaven”, his personalization of what was understood to be spiritual caused the Jews to murmur as they did in the desert at Meribah.  But then Jesus’ words about feeding on his flesh and blood causes a near riot to break out.  I would suspect with just cause that in many Catholic parishes today a riot would break out if the parishioners were told that they had to take Jesus’ words seriously about eating his flesh and blood.

For they would see these words as a scandal, in Greek a stumbling block to their faith, which so often blocks so many from understanding what this Catholic faith of our is all about: the scandal of the fleshliness of our religion. There are antiseptic versions of Christianity that have eliminated the scandal.  In those versions there is no talk about flesh at all: God forbid.  Those versions, and there are several with different spins, pride themselves on the purely spiritual nature of their faith.  According to this version the spirit and the flesh are two separate realms, having nothing to do with each other.  This is most convenient, for then one’s faith can have nothing to do with everyday life, which is very fleshly, dealing with contacts with fleshly people: one’s wife, children, friends, and not the least of all one’s self.  Questions of sex automatically are dismissed as having nothing to do with the Christian faith, because this spiritualized God and this air brushed Christ are above sex, above procreation, having nothing to do with either. They are above the life we lead, a life full of sounds, smell, sight, longing, foolishness, above even those things we call the arts, the music, the painting, the sculpture, the written word, all these that call us beyond our selves through our senses.

But this is very convenient, because when there is no flesh in religion, one can innovate and make new rules that have no real relationship to everyday reality.  One can do what one wants in the matter of the flesh because in the end this fleshly existence we lead has nothing to do with the ultimate reality who is the God who is above all of this and who cannot possibly care about it.  We heard those oft-repeated phrases in the 1960s like: “the government does not belong in the bedroom”.  Quite apart from this being a fatuous statement that plays to the crowd, this expresses what most people now believe: that sexual morality, quite apart from government, is a matter of one’s own choice.  How else could we have gotten to the place in which we find ourselves today, where not only the government declares that gay marriage is a right but the Episcopal church devises a new rite, a tasteful rite I am sure, that celebrates gay marriage in a church that calls itself Christian.

But this goes deeper than questions of sexual morality. It extends to the boardroom and the question of health reform and the existence of poverty.  And all sorts of people would say that these matters have nothing to do with religion because our God is above all of this. In this view to even think that God who is pure spirit has anything to do with these worldly, fleshly matters is to demean God, to bring him down to our level, and then what good would that be?

But against this watery gruel that could never feed anyone who has any reality comes the God who leaps down from his throne and takes flesh—oh, there is that word again—takes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, takes her flesh grows—imagine God growing!—in the darkness of that fleshly womb an dis born, born into the world of straw and the breath of cows, the world of smell of sweat and incense, the world of beauty and messiness, the world of grunting and chanting.  And God in the flesh is nurtured by the real milk of this woman, this real woman, Mary, and this Jesus (for real people have real names) grows in this family, works with his hands and is part of the world, not the world of Platonic ideas, but the world in which bodily existence is central, the world in which bread and wine and water are not only real but are part of the food and drink that keeps us alive and that gladdens the heart of man.  And this God made flesh speaks, he talks, he teaches, he tells us that God is not some spirit who exists in some parallel universe and who reached over out of boredom and pressed the button for the big bank and then washed his hands of the outcome of that mess called creation.  Ah, no, this God became—imagine God becoming anything!—part of the creation, he became so small to become flesh to fit into that womb, to be able to speak so that we could hear clearly, the God who touched water and it became wine, that God who took spittle from his mouth and put that spittle on a blind man’s eyes so that blind man could see, that God who touched to bless and to heal, that God who walked on water, that God who stood in from of his friend’s tomb and wept, his friend whose body stank from being dead, and cried out: “Lazarus, come out!”

But what is the point of this flesh of this God, this man called Jesus?  The first point deals with what is the downside of flesh, the downers of suffering and death.  For the reality that is the flesh—and how can we deny that this is not central to our own reality—the reality is that the flesh dies.  How we die is in the end not important: old age, disease, accident, a tragic death, a happy death.  All the promise of my existence, the water, the wine, the bread, the joy, the beauty, threatened with annulment by death.  But that is the point of the God who leapt from his throne to enter the womb of the virgin: he took on our flesh to suffer and to die, to die for us, took on that which seeds our very bodies with death, that sin that we all not only carry about but that we do, that flesh that drags us down to be who we should not be, those who are destined to death.  Talk about reality!:  the flesh of the God-man is contact with the wood of the Cross. “This is my body which is given up for you".  The iron—Fe is the chemical symbol—of the nails in contact with the flesh of the hands of the God-man.  The thorns in the crown in contact with the matted hair of the God-man.  The cry of the Man to God vibrating in the air with thickness and thunder. The contact of the iron of the spear with the fleshly side of the God-man and the blood and water that poured out.  “This is my blood, the blood of the new covenant”.  The death of the God-man, the flesh gone cold, the mother holding his body, his flesh, the contact of the cold flesh of the God-man with the stone of the tomb, the neatness of the burial cloths that were no longer in contact with the living flesh of the risen Christ, the light that came forth from the resurrected flesh of the God-man that blinded the guards at the tomb, the flesh that passed through the locked doors of the Upper Room: “Peace be with you. It is I. I have risen.”  The flesh of the risen Jesus who opened the minds and hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus and who sat down and broke bread—This is my body--, and they recognized him, not a ghost, but the flesh and blood who was and is Jesus. 

And all of this—some would say it is a good story, a terrific story.  Telling stories is a very “in” thing right now, and some cool Catholics would say:  “We remain Catholic because we have the best stories”.  But these people do not have a clue, for it is precisely this story of flesh and blood that is a stumbling block to belief. It is the reality of Jesus Christ, whose flesh and blood prevent any sort of spiritualizing the whole thing away, it is the reality of the flesh that hung on that cross and the blood that was shed on that cross that causes people to turn away.  It is the reality of the flesh and blood of the risen Christ that is present and received in the Eucharist that causes people to riot in disbelief.  

To face that reality is to come face to face with the reality of God in our lives, with his presence not in some far off place called heaven, but here and now, on this altar in this church.  It is the flesh and blood of the risen Christ that is made present at this and every Mass.  No symbol of God. God in the flesh, as real and as present as He was in the manger or on the cross, that flesh and blood given for you and me on that cross and now given to you an for food: “for my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”  And to what purpose?  Is not his coming to us under the veils of bread and wine enough?   What more could we want, what more could he give us? But remember that his flesh and blood and given FOR us, he is present here to give himself to us.

What happens when we eat his risen flesh and drink his blood?  If we have faith, that is, if we welcome Him into our body of flesh and blood, he gives us life, his risen body touches and deals and dwells in our body, giving us that strength to be holy, to be chaste, to be pure, to become that person called to love unconditionally, giving us that grace without which we shall surely die from sin.  “The man who feeds on me will have life because of me.”  This is what Holy Communion is, that is what happens, and, in the words of St. John Vianney, if we truly believe this we would come up to the altar over broken glass on our knees to receive what alone can give us eternal life.

Lord Jesus Christ, let us not stumble today as we receive your sacred flesh and blood. Let us come to this altar to adore you, to receive you, to allow you to live in us and give us that life that is the life of God. May we be transformed by your flesh and blood into people whose lives are lived in the love shown to us by your cross.