As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:29-32)
A number of years ago, I was helping to prepare a group of 2nd graders for First Communion. As part of the presentation, I held up an unconsecrated host and asked, “At Mass, who does this become?” With one voice, the class responded “Jesus!” Please with their reply, I opened it up for questions, which mainly focused on the practicalities how to receive communion. After a few minutes, I fielded a final question from a little girl sitting right up front. With a puzzled look her face, she pointed to the host asked, “If that’s Jesus, how does He fit in there?”
This weekend we celebrate First Communions. The mystery of the Eucharist is at the heart of our faith. As a mystery, the “how” of the Eucharist goes beyond full comprehension. Thankfully, Jesus says: “Take and eat,” not “take and understand.” Though we might not fathom its physics, Christ gives us the Eucharist as food for our spiritual journey. In Gospel, we meet Cleopas and his companion on Road to Emmaus. In the wake of the crucifixion, they are fleeing from Jerusalem with heavy hearts. They fear for their lives, they are ashamed that they abandoned their master in his hour of need, and they stew in the dejection of their shattered dreams of Christ as a political liberator. In the midst of this darkness, they encounter Christ who enters into their conversation and begins to explain the mysteries of salvation. Though they do not recognize Jesus, when they come to the crossroads, they urge him: “Stay with us.” This invitation makes all the difference. Their hearts have begun to heal and in this moment they are hungry for more. As Christ breaks bread with them, he leaves them the gift of the Eucharist, his sacramental presence to be eaten and shared. And their response is immediate and decisive. They jump up and race back to the small, isolated community locked in Upper Room to share their encounter. The Passover bread that they share is no longer simply bread, but is the substance of Christ himself which unites them both with Christ and with one another.
In the Eucharist, God not only forms us as a people, but transforms us by his grace. Our second reading from Peter tells us that God has redeemed us not with silver and gold but “with the precious blood of Christ.” Salvation is not a transaction, but transformation. Heaven is not something that we earn by good actions, but is given from the abundance of God’s life itself. The great gift of the Eucharist is the gift of God’s life within us. When we consume Communion, the very life of God transforms us, just as it does the bread. This bread of angels, the panis angelicus, nourishes us with the life of God’s grace, and there is no moment in which we are closer to heaven than the moment we receive the Eucharist. In this moment, our hearts are nourished by heavenly bread. Jesus becomes bread so that we might be fed.
As we rejoice to witness our children receive communion for the very first time, we are invited to once again treasure the gift of the Eucharist. Like the disciples traveling the Emmaus road, we also travel the journey of life carrying fear, disappointment, embarrassment and guilt. Through regular communion, we are given the strength to journey life’s road amid the frustrations and burdens. Especially for us who are in the habit of receiving communion week after week, we have to guard against complacency and indifference. A very simple prayer that I often call to mind right after I receive communion is the words of the disciples: “Stay with me, Lord.” As you receive the Eucharist and return to your pew, join me in praying: “Stay with me, Lord.” As you go about the busyness of the day invite Jesus with the words: “Stay with me, Lord.” As you wake in morning and retire in evening call upon the strength of his presence: “Stay with me, Lord.” And expect Christ to set your heart afire with his love.
-Fr. Michael Hurley, OP