Behold, the Lamb of God
19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

As I was reflecting on these readings, I was reminded of a story that I heard about 20 years ago. It was the story of a Catholic family who had an uncle who was an Evangelical Protestant. As you probably know, Protestant Evangelical Churches do not have a Mass; there is no liturgy of the Eucharist. They provide a service, one of worship, song, and the preaching of the word. And they have some of the most powerful preachers who don't preach for a mere ten minutes, but often for more than an hour.

Well, this uncle, who was a Protestant Evangelical, came to visit his Catholic relatives one Christmas, and so he went along with them to Midnight Mass. But it was a very unpleasant evening for the family, because the priest was a horrible preacher; the family was very embarrassed, and to make matters worse, the uncle got up at communion time to receive, so they had to gently tell him that he can't receive communion, that one has to be in full communion with the Church before one can receive the Eucharist.

The following year that same uncle visited again at Christmas. This time the family decided they would attend midnight Mass at another Catholic Church in the area. But the uncle insisted: "I want to go to the same Church we went to last Christmas". So they did. And once again went to line up for communion. Again, one of them said, "Maybe you forgot, but you really do have to be Catholic to receive communion". And he said, "Oh, I am a Catholic now; I became a Catholic this year". Later he explained to them that it all began that first Midnight Mass. The preaching was so dull that he thought to himself: "If that man gave that sermon in my Church, everybody would have walked out. I couldn't stop wondering why nobody walked out. So I called him, met with him, and asked him why nobody walked out. And he explained to me what the Mass is, that it is the Eucharist that is at the center; it's all about the Eucharist, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Real Presence of Christ under the appearance of ordinary bread."

And so it was the priest who gave them the Eucharist that Christmas Eve, it was the Congregation that preached the homily; they preached on the value of the Mass through their constancy, rooted in their love for the Eucharist.

Of course, this is not to suggest that preaching is unimportant. Teaching is very important; in Christ's Parable of the Sower, the seed that fell on the path was eaten up by the birds. Jesus explained the meaning of that part: the seed, which represents the word of God, was received but with little depth of understanding, so the Evil One was able to steal what was sown. In fact, we lose many Catholics to Evangelicals precisely because of a lack of proper catechesis. So teaching, clarifying, catechizing, is very important. It is really a defect of charity to neglect this.

But there is something more important, and that is the Sacrifice of the Mass. This is the point of it all: to become physically united to God the Son, to consume Him as real food. And the intensity of our hunger for the Eucharist is really the measure of our faith and love of Him.

I used to visit a patient at CAMH who would always call down to the chaplaincy office on Mondays: "When it Deacon Doug coming in? Is he coming in today? When is he coming? Is he here yet?" Now that might sound flattering, that she just can't wait to see me, but nothing could be further from the truth. It wasn't about me at all. She had a voracious hunger for the Eucharist. I'd see her, go through the prayers, and just before receiving she'd take out her false teeth and lay them right there on the table in front of me, I'd begin to feel wheezy, give her communion, she'd put her teeth back in, I'd say the final prayer and blessing, and then she'd give me two minutes: "How are you? Good, she'd say, and you? Good. Feeling all right, what's new, etc." Then she'd say "Okay, thanks for coming in. See you next Monday? See you then." All she wanted was the Eucharist. It was the body of Christ that relieved her loneliness, not me. It was Christ that was her strength, not me.

Recently I visited another patient there and was about to give her communion; this girl knows nothing of the faith, she was born Catholic, but she was not brought up with any kind of instruction, and as I was about to give her communion, she says to me: "What is that?" I looked at her in disbelief, a little disappointed, because I thought I'd gone over this with her. Then she says: "Is it bread?" I said "No, it's not bread; it's the substance of Christ's body…" And she interrupts me and says: "I feel good when I receive it".

You see, what she was doing was asking for clarification, because she was wondering why there is something different about this. What she was asking was, "What is that which, when I receive it, I feel good afterwards?" Is it just bread? It has to be something more, she was implying. Her experience was telling her that this is different. It is not what it appears to be. I found that fascinating.

This is something I find very often with patients who suffer from mental illness. Because they suffer so much, and because their suffering is much worse than physical suffering, many of them are more emptied of self than the average person of faith, and so they tend to have a richer experience of God, they are more filled with the life of God because they are far more childlike and more emptied of the delights that fill the lives of the average person of faith. Father Jean Pierre de Caussade writes: "To enrich the soul at the expense of the senses, filling it by so much the more as they experience the more terrible emptiness, is a secret of the divine wisdom."

And of course, the reason this patient feels so good when she receives communion is that it is not bread anymore, and she knew as much, through the light of faith. We are not receiving bread, we are receiving a Person. This lady was experiencing a Presence; "Someone" is present here, under the appearance of ordinary bread. And this Someone, this Personal Presence, is the eternal Son of God, who disguises Himself under the appearance of an ordinary, unexciting, bland to the senses wafer of bread.

Christ is not just present passively; rather, the Eucharist is Christ in the eternal act of offering Himself to the Father in the same sacrificial offering as that which took place in history on Good Friday. That's what we receive into ourselves every time we receive communion.

J. R. R. Tolkein, the author of the Lord of the Rings, was certainly a literary genius. He was also a devout Catholic, and there is no understanding The Lord of the Rings without an understanding of Catholicism. That was his purpose in writing it, to communicate through a literary vehicle the deepest truths of the Catholic faith. And that's what Lembas is, that special bread made by the Elves, called waybread. It is a guarded secret and only rarely is it given to non-Elves. The evil creature Gollum finds it repulsive and refuses to eat it, even on the point of starvation, but it was this bread that sustained Frodo and Sam on their journey to Mount Mordor.

Tolkein had this first reading in mind: "…the angel of the Lord came back a second time, touched Elijah, and ordered, "Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!" He got up, ate, and drank; then strengthened by that food (i.e., hearth cake), he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb."

This, of course, foreshadows the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, which is the Lamb of God. Lembas is a word that Tolkein derived from the Old Germanic word "lambaz", which means lamb, referring of course to the Lamb of God.

Now, when people stop coming to Mass because the priest, whom they clicked with, got moved and has been replaced by a person with a rather dull personality perhaps, that shows that these people have missed the point, they do not understand what Mass is about, for one reason or another. Thus, those who come to Mass primarily because they are drawn to the personality of the priest miss the point. John the Baptist provides the clue. Notice in every icon that depicts him, he points; for he says: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world". He also says: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Those who stop going to Mass because they don't like the priest are like followers of John the Baptist who didn't hear what he said, and who fell away after he was beheaded; those who attend Mass because they are drawn to the priest's personality are like brute animals that don't understand the significance of a pointing finger. And priests that fail to lead the faithful to the Lamb of God point to themselves and are unwilling to decrease. If we don't eat, we die. If we don't feed on the Bread of Life, the Lamb of God, we won't have the strength to make to the mountain peak of Horeb. We'll die of exhaustion. If we eat periodically, when it is convenient, we will soon be undernourished, and that could and often does lead to spiritual death.

Finally, there's a reason why the ingredients of the Sacrament are ordinary, simple, flour and water. It is a simple host; not a cinnamon bun one week, a taco the next, perhaps a chocolate brownie the following week, etc. If that were the case, we wouldn't discern the presence of Christ in the Eucharist; we'd be so focused on the extraordinary flavor of the food. It is kept very simple, very unexciting, very ordinary, because it is not about flavor, it is not about taste, it is about the very simple and delicate presence of Christ.

The Mass is all about growing in the faith that can discern the presence of Christ not in what is extraordinary and exciting and stimulating, but in the ordinary and every day. He is present among us in disguise. He is present in our suffering, He is present in those who are poor and who suffer, He is present in those who are forgotten and ignored, and He is present under the very plane, ordinary, unexciting appearance of the host. The more we hunger for the Eucharist, the greater will be our ability to perceive Him hiding under His favorite disguises.