The Epistle read this evening is Saint Paul’s account of the institution of the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper. The Church asks us to consider it together with the reading of the Passion Gospel tomorrow, as we have considered the Passion Gospels read earlier this week, as a demonstration of the unity of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, a demonstration of the unity of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of the Cross. Indeed, tonight we will reserve one large Host in the tabernacle on our altar of repose, to be consumed by the priest tomorrow in what is called the Liturgy of the Presanctified – note, again, the unity of Holy Thursday and Good Friday.
Saint Paul’s epistle is particularly significant in our own time – perhaps more so than in any time since he wrote it back in the first century to the unruly Christians of the Church of Corinth. A number of things seemed to have gone wrong since Paul founded the Church at Corinth, and he wrote to correct their abuses. Some of them had engaged in serious sins; something which Paul, of course, could not tolerate at all. But, more to the point, Paul took them to task for the way in which they gathered together to celebrate Holy Mass. The women were coming to Mass without dressing modestly, not bothering to veil their heads and making a great deal of chatter when Mass was to begin – very likely, the men were no better. Like the Passover, the Mass was celebrated in the context of a community meal – that was alright, but the wealthy were bringing expensive food and drink for themselves, while the poor were forced to look on in envy. Among the Corinthians we have, perhaps, the first Pentecostals – and the Mass was disturbed by self important people who wanted to get up and speak in strange languages which no one could understand.
Paul put a stop to the more egregious offenses: “Don’t come here dressed immodestly, or just to chat, or to banquet – say nothing that cannot be interpreted for the edification of all those at Mass. But, it is important to see that the root of the problem is the one he addresses in this brief passage we read a few moments ago: People were failing to “distinguish the body.” Even at this early date, they were failing to recognize Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, and consequently failing to render the respect due to Him.
To be sure – intellectually, they knew that Jesus Christ was present in the consecrated bread and wine, and that by repeating the actions that Paul described, the Sacrifice of the Cross would be re-presented right there in the room where they gathered. They knew these things intellectually, but perhaps in the way that one knows the names of the state capitals, or the members of the President’s cabinet – that is to say that their knowledge had little practical effect on them. They had allowed themselves to make Jesus Christ an abstraction – Jesus was amongst them theoretically, but not practically – so they had no shame and no scruple over how they behaved in His presence.
The same problem has manifested itself in our time.
Bishop Sheen used to tell a story to inspire his audience to turn their theoretical appreciation of our Lord into practical behavior with regard to the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. He related how the Catholics of a small church in China were preparing their children to receive their First Holy Communion, right at about the time the Communists took over their country. The children had been prepared well: they understood that Jesus Christ would be coming to them in the Sacred Host, His body and His blood, His humanity and His divinity - in all reality and practicality the God who made them. They were impressed with the fact that the Host was so holy that only the priest could take the Sacred particle out of the golden cup with his hands; that they would receive their Lord in all humility, being fed from the hands of His priest. The were impressed with the idea that this was no casual thing; that even the most holy would receive our Lord only once a day, apart perhaps from the day on which they died.
On the very day of First Communion the soldiers came. At first they just hung around in the back of the church, but as the priest was about to receive his own Communion, he could hear them beginning to curse and blaspheme about the “foolish people who were eating their god.” When the noise died down it was only after the Catholics had all been arrested or put to death – and the ciborium containing the Hosts for the six or seven first-communicants had been stolen and its Sacred Contents scattered on the floor. Only one tiny little girl remained, for she had been able to hide behind a curtain and escape detection.
Now, one might have expected this little girl to run off in terror at the first possible minute – but she did not. What she did can only make sense to those who deeply believe that our Lord is present in the Most Blessed Sacrament, and who understand the respect which our Lord should always command. When “the coast was clear,” she got down on her knees, bowed over and picked up one Host with her moistened tongue, and received her first Holy Communion. Even that might possibly be attributed to childish curiosity – but not the fact that she snuck back into the church each day until she had received the last Host – her “Last Communion,” for she was shot while in the process.
What can we learn from this young, un-named martyr for the Blessed Sacrament? Obviously, we can say all of the usual things about receiving Communion in the state of grace, and coming to Mass frequently, properly dressed, avoiding all distractions, and paying close attention to the Mass. But the real lesson is in her appreciation of the Eucharistic reality – with that, all of the other things will come more or less automatically. Perhaps for us adults it will take a more conscious effort to develop that appreciation. But if we take the time to recall that God Himself dwells in our tabernacle, that Jesus Christ offers Himself in Sacrifice for our sins on this altar – if we remind ourselves that it is Jesus of Nazareth whom we receive in Holy Communion, every thing else will fall into place.
The ever practical Saint Paul calls upon us – not to refrain from Holy Communion, but to take the challenge that we must make for ourselves: “Let a man prove himself, and eat of that bread and drink of that cup.” Let him approach our Lord frequently in Holy Communion, never failing to regard Him with the awe of a little child, never failing to treat Him with the respect due Almighty God.
 Epistle: 1 Corinthians xi: 20-32