“To nourish ourselves with him and abide in him through Holy Communion transforms our life into a gift to God and to our brothers.”
~ Pope Francis
Sunday’s Gospel couldn’t be plainer: Eat Jesus and become Jesus. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” says the Lord. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6.55-56).
It’s what happens every Sunday — for some folks, every day — if we’re properly disposed and we present ourselves for Holy Communion. The priest holds up the consecrated host and states simply, “The Body of Christ.” If we bow and say “Amen,” then we’re affirming that spectacular claim, and if we go further and actually dare to receive him — to consume him, to appropriate all that Christ is to ourselves, and, in so doing, to be totally appropriated to him — then we tacitly agree to do our best to act as his emissaries in the world. We accept the charge to become extensions of his divine person here and now, and we look forward to the Cross in the form of all kinds of crosses — from minor hassles to martyrdom — as we go about living and loving as Christ did.
But that Eucharistic transformation isn’t a static one. It’s not magic, and it’s certainly not an assembly line. If we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, and then do nothing to flesh out in our words and actions whom we’ve received, then the efficacy of the sacrament is muted to the point of silence. “To receive in truth the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us,” the Catechism insists, “we must recognize Christ in the poorest, his brethren” (CCC 1397, emphasis added). And, if there were any question as to what that implies, the Catechism goes on to quote St. John Chrysostom: “You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal.”
In other words, our worthy reception of Christ in the Eucharist requires that we then strive to become more Christlike, and to become more Christlike is to strive for ever greater charity toward the poor — and everybody. In the course of the Mass, the bread and wine on the altar really does become the Body and Blood of Christ, no question. But if that sacramental reality is to change us into Christ, then we have to intentionally and repeatedly subject our entire selves to it — what we do, what we desire, what we will.
An apt metaphor for this metamorphic sacramental relationship is the connection between fuel and flame. “As fire transforms into itself everything it touches,” reads the Catechism, “so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power” (CCC 1127). When we receive Holy Communion, it’s as if we allow ourselves to be changed into combustible Christs, but only if we’re serious about being set aflame in a world in need of his light and warmth. St. Angela of Foligno, writing in the late Middle Ages, made a similar point: “If we but paused for a moment to consider attentively what takes place in this Sacrament, I am sure that the thought of Christ’s love for us would transform the coldness of our hearts into a fire of love and gratitude.”
Yet, we often hold back — at least I do. And it’s often due to the severity of that coldness St. Angela mentioned — the icy selfishness in my heart, the frozen motivation to become a saint. I receive Jesus in the Eucharist, yet I’m not all that convinced that I’m truly flammable material, and so the divine love that ought to be bursting forth smolders instead.
For help with this, it’s worth turning to St. Sebald of Nuremberg, an 8th-century hermit whose feast day ordinarily would’ve been celebrated yesterday (August 19). Although the hagiographic record is mixed, it seems that Sebald was a Danish prince who experienced a conversion, abandoned a royal romance, and embraced a life of penance and prayer. He went on pilgrimage to Rome, sought and received the Pope’s approbation for his new way of life, and then associated himself with the saintly brothers Willibald and Winibald, along with their sister, Walburga, in their efforts to evangelize the German people.
Eventually he took up a solitary life in the Bavarian wilderness (around present-day Nuremberg) where he developed a reputation for sanctity and wonderworking. After his death around the year 770, a local cult of devotion grew up, and the people built a shrine in honor of their hometown holy man. This was the beginnings of the great parish church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg, and the city in time adopted the humble hermit as its patron saint.
St. Sebald is also known as the patron saint of those suffering from cold weather, and the reason for this is curious — and relevant to today’s Eucharistic Gospel theme. According to legend, it appears that one cold, snowy night, Sebald took shelter with an impoverished peasant who couldn’t locate any firewood nor afford to buy any. The poor man’s hut was not much warmer than it was outside, and his family, along with his saintly guest, felt it keenly. “So Sebald turned to the housewife and asked her to bring in a bundle of the long icicles hanging from the eaves,” writes Rev. Alban Butler. “This she did, Sebald threw them on the fire, and they blazed up merrily.”
A couple things to consider in this little vignette. First, the icicles didn’t miraculously turn into wood before the saint tossed them into the hearth. Instead, it seems that the icicles morphed into fuel at the very moment they were burned up. This is similar to the story of the ten lepers who approached Jesus for healing. Certainly he could have snapped his fingers and cured them on the spot, but what he actually did was send them, still leprous, to the priest, “and as they went they were cleansed” (Lk 17.14). That is, the healing and the deed facilitated by the healing were simultaneous.
I think this is how Eucharistic grace operates in our lives. We can’t sit back and wait for sanctification to happen after we receive Holy Communion. To the degree that we’re able, we’re called on to draw on that sanctifying grace by extending, stretching ourselves in our efforts to be Christ for others. It happens incrementally and over time, which is why the Church urges us to receive the Eucharist frequently. But every time we do, we should be mindful that God will want to set us aflame, and there’s no sense in resisting that.
One other thought: Since we’re talking about miracles here, it’s important to note that the icicles weren’t even really required. There’s biblical precedent for flame without fuel — like the fiery pillar that led the Israelites through the wilderness, for instance, and Moses’s encounter with God in a bush that was “was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Ex 3.2). But God doesn’t normally work that way with us. He expects us to throw caution to the wind, abandon our own priorities and stubbornness, and submit ourselves to his blazing love. Even when we’re convinced that we’re not capable of being the kind of people he wants us to be – even when we’re still wrestling with doubt and temptation, even when we’re still icy in our lack of faith – he wants us to rely on the power of the Eucharist we receive and have courage.
“Go, you are sent,” we’re told at the end of every Mass after we’ve consumed our Lord. It’s the crucial moment we’re expected to follow through on what we’ve received and be consumed ourselves.