Spiritual growth: sermon on the Sunday in the octave of Corpus Christi

“Then Jesus said to them: Amen, Amen, I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.”

On Thursday, we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. That feast marks the gift of the Blessed Sacrament, a gift that we shall honour this Sunday by carrying the Blessed Sacrament in procession. The Council of Trent, in the sixteenth century, praised these kinds of processions, which at the time were being criticised by the first Protestants. The Council fathers said, on the contrary, that such processions are a very good way for us both to imitate the angels and the magi in their adoration of our Lord, and also to show our gratitude for the gift of the Holy Eucharist. They declared, “It is most just that there be certain appointed holy days, whereon all Christians may, with a special and unusual demonstration, testify that their minds are grateful and thankful to their common Lord and Redeemer for so ineffable and truly divine a benefit, whereby the victory and triumph of His death are represented.” We do all this by carrying the Blessed Sacrament in procession, with candles and incense, and singing hymns in Christ’s honour.

As far as we know, it was in the synagogue at Capharnaum, in the town of St Peter and St Andrew, beside the Sea of Galilee, that our Lord first spoke publicly about the Blessed Sacrament. On that occasion, which St John has recorded for us, Christ spoke about the Blessed Sacrament as being above all the means for us to have life. “The bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life to the world; this is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat of it, he may not die; the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

We can say that our Lord, when He said these things, was acting as a legislator. That is, He was announcing a new law, that was going to come into effect at the Last Supper, and which was to remain in effect until the end of the world. This law is that the Blessed Sacrament, which we also call the Holy Eucharist, is the way for mankind to have life. “Amen, Amen, I say unto you: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.”

We shouldn’t be surprised that our Saviour promulgated a law of this kind. Already in the natural world, there are many laws, which are easy enough for us to recognise. Any of us can look at a newborn baby and say to it, “Unless you receive milk, you won’t have any life.” The baby is alive already, he’s already been born, but he’s not going to grow up and become strong unless he is fed; unless he’s fed, he is going to die. Everyone knows this. And something similar applies in the supernatural realm. We are born to supernatural life by baptism, but unless we receive some supernatural food, we’re not going to be able to retain that life for very long. 

That’s why St Peter, talking to the newly baptised Christians, says, “As new-born babes, desire the rational milk, that thereby you may grow up unto salvation.” It is a strange phrase, isn’t it — “rational milk”? Literally translated, it is even stranger: he says, desire the “logical milk”. But it’s a reference to the Holy Eucharist, to Christ who is called the Logos, that is, the Word of God. St Peter wanted the newborn Christians to grow up by receiving this food, so that they would be ready for the trials that he knew were soon to break upon them, under the emperor Nero.

Now, there is both a similarity and a dissimilarity between the ways in which natural food sustains our natural life and the Holy Eucharist sustains our supernatural life. They are similar, because they both bring about a slow but steady growth toward some predetermined goal. The growth is slow in the sense that it is imperceptible. When a child has finished his dinner, his parents do not immediately see that he is several inches taller than when he started it. But if one of the parents, perhaps the father, should have to be absent from home for a few months, then when he returns, he is often struck, straightaway, by how his child has grown in his absence. Likewise, after Holy Communion, even if we have made a good preparation for it, we should not be surprised if we do not immediately notice any difference in ourselves. But if we continue week by week — or even, if we are so fortunate, day by day — to make good Holy Communions, then the life of Christ is certainly growing within us; and the heavenly patrons into whose charge God has put us, such as our guardian angels, certainly see how we have grown, even if we ourselves do not.

Then also, in both cases, the growth is toward some predetermined goal. From a very young age, it’s possible to see how tall an infant is going to be when he has finished growing. Provided he is nourished properly through his childhood and early adolescence, he will reach the height to which he is predisposed by nature, no more and no less. What about our supernatural life? For each of His children who will enter heaven one day, God in His wisdom has predestined a certain degree of heavenly glory. The saints are not all the same, just as we are not all the same height. St Paul alludes to this when he says that “star differs from star in glory”. 

This plan of God doesn’t take away our free will. God destines us to reach heaven precisely by using our free will well: and each time that we receive the Blessed Sacrament well, we are co-operating with His plan. Jesus said to the Pharisees: “The thief” — that is, the devil — comes only “to steal, and to kill, and to destroy”; but the Good Shepherd — that is, Himself — has come “that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” With each good Holy Communion, we are coming closer to the particular abundance of life that God has destined for each of us to possess.

But finally, there is also a difference between our natural life and our supernatural one. When our natural growth has reached its term, then, not too long afterwards our strength begins slowly to decline. We are no longer living like our first parents in the garden of Eden, with a tree of life at hand to prevent aging. It’s a bit sad, but that’s just how things are, since sin entered the world. But with our supernatural life, things are very different. If to be young is to be innocent, then we can say that we grow younger in God’s sight, the more Christ’s life grows within us. And when, after many good Holy Communions, we finally reach that degree of charity that the Holy Ghost has predestined for us, then there will be no possibility of declining. When that day comes, what shall we do but pass over with Christ to His Father? And Their life will abide in us forever.