Twenty-first Sunday: A Spiritual Communion

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JOS 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; PS 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; EPH 5:21-32; JN 6:60-69

This Sunday is our last week reading through John 6 and Ephesians.

In John 6 we come to the conflict: Jesus said to his disciples: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”  When many of his disciples heard this, they said: “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  But Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

As Catholics we know we stand with St. Peter, who accepts Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist, against those who reject it.  But as we did last week, let’s try to go deeper, and see what it means to accept this teaching.

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Jesus’s response to those who are scandalized points us to the heart.  “It is the spirit that gives life,” he says; “the flesh is useless.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

This is a curious response, when he has just been insisting on eating his flesh: “the flesh is useless.”  On one level, obviously he means that in order to believe the Eucharist is his flesh, we need to rely on more than our fleshly eyes.

But he says more than that.  What makes the Eucharist powerful?  How does it give us “life”?  As we saw two weeks ago, the Holy Spirit is the leaven of the Eucharist; by eating the Body of Christ, we receive the Spirit of Christ.

The tradition of the Church – St. Thomas, for example, and the Council of Trent – talks about a “spiritual communion” in a way different from how we talk about it today.  Today, by spiritual communion we often mean, not physically receiving – as if the spiritual was deficient.  But traditionally, the Church talks about spiritual communion primarily as a good communion: the sinner might receive Christ physically, but not spiritually; we want to receive him physically and spiritually; we want our every communion to be spiritual.

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Our reading from Joshua gives a metaphor for this spiritual receiving.  Joshua tells the people, “choose this day whom you will serve.”  The people “forget not all his benefits”: they say, “it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. . . .  He protected us.”

As our Psalm says, they have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.

The Exodus is a metaphor of the Christian life.  God has saved us, taken us out of slavery, brought us to the promised land – so that we may live in relationship to him, so that we may serve him.

One way to think of a truly spiritual communion is that we give thanks to the Lord for all his goodness to us, and so we pledge our lives to him.

More deeply, before we give our lives to him, we receive our lives from him.  At the communion rail, he gives us life – and we go out with that life within us.  To receive him spiritually is to let his life penetrate into us, to be transformed by the gift we receive.

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Again, the greatest image of this is in our reading from Ephesians.  This week it is the famous second half of Ephesians 5, on husbands and wives.  But note, before we start: Paul doesn’t just talk about husbands and wives.  Rather, he uses husbands and wives as a model of all kinds of relationships.  This is a teaching on marriage – but it is also a paradigm of the Christian life.

The Lectionary, then, rightly introduces the teaching on marriage with a few lines from the beginning of the chapter, where Paul is speaking more generally: “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”  This is true spiritual communion: to receive the love that Christ gives us, and to be transformed by it.  This is the whole of the Christian life.

As I am sure you know, he begins with the infamous words about wives – “be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” – but spends much more of his energy on what the husband should be like.

In fact, he concludes his words on wives by saying Christ is the head because “he is the Savior.”

The first model of the husband’s love he gives is as Savior: “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy.”  This love is self-sacrificial, yes – but with a purpose.  The husband is to have received Christ’s saving love, and so to live only to bring holiness to those around him.  Because true love focuses on the only real happiness of the other: holiness.

So the second model he gives is of the body: “For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it.”  True love sees the other’s good as my own.

To both spouses – and to all of us – he says, seek not your own advantage; seek not worldly pleasures; but be transformed by the love of Christ, the Spirit you receive in Eucharistic communion.

What is one way you could be more Eucharistic to someone close to you today?

eric.m.johnston

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