“The love of Christ overwhelms us”, says St Paul is today’s 2nd reading. He is talking about Christ’s love for us, shown in his self-giving on the Cross. His talking about God’s desire for humanity to be reconciled and at peace with him. And he says this love of Christ “overwhelms” him. You can translate, holds him together, holds him fast, has him in its grip, has taken control of him. It has shaped his whole life. Indeed! Ever sine Christ showed himself to Paul outside Damascus. In its Latin form this phrase was the motto of the late Cardinal Thomas Winning.
What it makes me think of, I must say, is the Eucharist. The last thing Jesus did before entering into his passion was to meet with his disciples at Passover time and institute the Eucharist. He took bread, he took a chalice of wine. We know it well. And what he was doing when he did that, at the very moment Judas, was busy betraying him, was summing up his whole life. He was about to die and rise so that the Holy Spirit would come and we would be brought back to closeness with God. He summed all this up in this holy meal and gave it to the future generations to celebrate. So his story, his action, his life, death and resurrection wouldn’t just be a one-off and then lost in the past – but always with us, a living memory. “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, says St Paul again, we proclaim his death, until he comes.”
To protect each other from this wretched virus, we have had to endure, in part, a Eucharistic fast. Now we are freer to come back. I sometimes think this pandemic its real evil is that it is anti-eucharistic. It does the opposite of what the Eucharist does. The Eucharist brings us together; the pandemic separates us. The Eucharist empowers us with the energy of Christ; the pandemic has closed us down. The pandemic has brought death, but Jesus says whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live for ever.
“The love of Christ overwhelms us, holds us, controls us.”
I think this is a time for us to rediscover the Eucharist, realise it afresh. It’s not just one thing among others that the Christian people do; Christ in the Eucharist is the heart of the Church.
First of all, and most of all, the Eucharist recalls, proclaims, shows forth, represents and re-presents Christ’s sacrifice: his gift of himself to his Father, of his whole self (his body) and his life and death (his blood). The body is given and the blood poured out, for us and “for many”. The Eucharist is the presence of the sacrifice of Christ. It “proclaims” his death. It’s the Cross lifted up. In every Mass, through the ministry of priests, the risen Christ, without literally reliving his Passions, reminds us of, shows us, this atoning sacrifice, his love for the Father and for us. This can indeed “take hold” of us and shape our understanding and more. “From now onwards, says St Paul, we do not judge anyone by the standards of the flesh.” He means our whole outlook has changed.
That’s a first teaching: the Eucharist the presence of the Cross and all it implies. And what gives this its full reality, its substance, its impact, is expressed in a second teaching. The bread and the wine become Christ’s Body and Blood. The bread and wine are, as it were, the raw material of the celebration. By the power of Christ’s words and the action of the Holy Spirit, they are changed. They are really and truly changed, in their very identity, their “substance”, as the Church says. After the Eucharistic Prayer and its consecration, the bread and wine, except in appearance, are actually no longer such. Christ in person is now our food and drink. Theelements are the presence of Christ, God with us. Brothers and sisters, here again is Christ’s love. We can’t be casual before this. There’s nothing else like it. May we never, never, externally or internally, take this lightly. May we be taken over by it!
“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”, says Paul a little further on from today’s passage. Here’s a third point. Here’s the purpose of it all. Christ’s love, shown in his death and resurrection, re-presented in the Eucharist, aims at bringing us back to his Father, returning us to him, to one another and to ourselves. The divine purpose is reconciliation, union, communion, a new creation as St Paul calls it, humanity gathered around this table. The Eucharist is something to be lived, to pass over into everything we are and do. What is first said of it should become say-able of us: the “Body of Christ”, a “living sacrifice of praise”, a “bond of unity”, a sign of Christ’s love – not in ritual but in life. “The reason he died for all was so that living men should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised to life for them.” We are to be Eucharistic people. Perhaps Mary was the first.
Dotted through the world, in so many walks of life and life-situations, there are people overwhelmed, held together, gripped, held fast, by the love of Christ. They are the ones who keep the world together. There are even politicians among them. You may remember the Pakistani minister for religious minorities, a Catholic Shahbaz Bhatti, born in 1968, murdered by terrorists in 2011. His cause for beatification has begun in Pakistan. Just the other day it was announced that the Pope has approved the cause for beatification of Robert Schuman (1886-1963). He was a French Catholic committed to politics – understood as a mission and a service, and as an act of obedience to God’s will – who lived in prayer and was nourished by the daily Eucharist. He gave his life for the reconstruction of peace in Europe.
“The love of Christ overwhelms us”. The Eucharist proclaims it to us. May the Eucharist, as it were, emerge from “lockdown”. I don’t mean Covid restrictions. I mean the restrictions, the limits our lack of faith and our preoccupations may impose. May the Lord rise again among us!
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 20 June 2021