"He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me, and I in him."1
A few weeks ago, someone asked me how long our Lord remained with us in the Blessed Sacrament after Holy Communion. It was a good question; one that that ought to be asked and answered a little more often (and with a little more care) then it usually is. Like all things of great importance, the answer is not completely straight-forward; it cannot be answered simply in terms of so many minutes, or hours, or any other unit of time.
First of all we must ask, "just what do we receive in Holy Communion?" The answer, of course, is "the body and soul, the humanity and the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity." Well, we know that God existed in Trinity at the very moment of creation. To speak of what came "before" creation is not very comprehensible to our human minds, so we will say no more about that, beyond saying that God always existed in Trinity -- always did and always will. Understand please, that God the Son always existed in His divinity -- we hear about that almost every Sunday in the Last Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."2
Nonetheless, we must remember that it was only at some point in time that "the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us" -- only at the Annunciation, after the angel received Mary's agreement, "He was made flesh by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man."3 Thus, we can say that the body, soul, and humanity of our Lord came into being roughly nine months before His birth. We commemorate these events liturgically in the feasts of the Annunciation and Christmas.
We know, too, that our Lord was resurrected from the dead, ascended into heaven, and will remain in His divine and human forms forever. And, we know as well that God is everywhere, and therefore in some sense, He is always with us. A few weeks ago, at Pentecost, our Lord told us in the Gospel that if we loved Him and kept His word, the Father would love us, and that they would come and make their abode with us. He would send the Holy Ghost to live within our souls, making us temples of God.4
But we also know that while among us in human form, Jesus Christ determined to give Himself to His followers in a more tangible, more physical manner. He knew that we human beings often need the reassurance that comes from the physical experience of things. About a year before the Last Supper, just after miraculously multiplying loaves of bread to feed the crowd of five-thousand of His followers in the desert, He gave a clear promise that He would give us His body and blood -- that it would be our food and drink -- and that eating and drinking of it would enable us to have eternal life. You can read about this (and I urge you to do so) by reading the sixth chapter of Saint John's Gospel. It is clear from what Saint John wrote, that our Lord was serious; that He meant His words literally, for some among the crowd immediately began to question the possibility: "How can this man give us His flesh to eat? This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?"5 But it is clear that our Lord meant exactly what He had said, for as the doubting disciples left Him, he made no effort to call them back. Certainly, if He had meant only that He was going to give some mere symbol of His body; some temporary reminder of His presence, He would have called them back and clarified the matter. He would have said something to the effect of "I didn't mean it literally" -- but He did not. He did not call them back, because He meant what He said.
At the Last Supper, in the four accounts we have from the scriptures, and the account we have in the Mass, our Lord is invariably quoted as saying: "This is My Body.... This is a chalice of My Blood...." There is no equivocation; no ambiguity -- He is always recorded as saying without any conditions: "This is...." He did not say: "this will be" or "may be" or "represents" or "will be for a little while." Rather, He says: "This is My body.... This is My Blood...." Even the reprobate sinner who boldly receives Holy Communion, receives what is the Body and Blood of Christ -- although without repentance he receives it as condemnation for his sins -- yet he receives it.
Saint Thomas Aquinas speaks beautifully of this Real Presence:
The theologians will then tell us that the true Body and Blood of Christ remain whole and entire as long as the appearances of bread or wine remain. Remember, our Lord said, "this is My Body"; He did not say that it would be His Body for some limited period of time. As long as we can look at the consecrated Host and see what appears to be bread, and as long as we can look into the consecrated chalice and see what appears to be wine, our Lord is there. That is why we can bring Holy Communion to the sick, even days after Mass. This is why we can adore our Lord in the Sacred Host in Adoration and Benediction. This is why we can visit the church and spend a few minutes with Jesus Christ, personally present in the tabernacle, waiting patiently for us at all times of the day and night. This is why we make such an affair as to who may distribute Holy Communion, and how each particle and drop is to be carefully consumed by the priest if not purposefully reserved in the tabernacle -- for those who believe in the Real Presence, it is unthinkable that even the tiniest scrap might be left to be trampled under foot or left for the insects.
This persistent Presence in the tabernacle ought to command our attention, even after Mass has been finished, even if we have not received Holy Communion (or perhaps I should say, particularly if we have not received Holy Communion) -- we ought not to be in such a great rush to "grab a coffee and a doughnut" that we fail to spend a few minutes in personal prayer with our Lord. It ought to rule out thinking about "how late can I arrive for Mass and how early can I leave, without actually missing Mass" -- one ought never think like that. If circumstances cause us to be late or leave early, we simply do so -- but we should never think in terms of "how little effort can I get away with?" -- not when we consider the abiding Presence of our Lord.
Yet the question will be asked: "How long will our Lord be with me after I receive Holy Communion? -- How long does the Real Presence endure after I have swallowed the Host?" All too often, we priests are inclined to give an "off the cuff" answer to that, based on the idea that "the Presence persists as long as the appearances of bread or wine can be perceived. In terms of normal human digestion, that probably means a few minutes, or a half an hour, or thereabouts."
It is hard to argue with the theology and the science of such a statement -- but, I will tell you that the answer actually misses the point, even though it is technically correct. To understand why, and to know the correct answer, we need to return to Saint John's sixth chapter, where our Lord says: "He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me, and I in him." Go to the dictionary and look up this word, "abides"; or look up "abiding." The word connotes permanence and stability, continuity and everlastingness. It appears to be related to the word "abode," a dwelling place where one lives more or less permanently. Our Lord is saying much more than "He who eats and drinks has dinner with Me" -- He is saying, in effect, that «he who eats and drinks has come to live his life with Me, and I with him.»
Perhaps this helps to understand the importance of the parable in today's Gospel (and why it is read within Corpus Christi's octave). Many were invited to the great supper our Lord describes, but few of the invited guests took advantage of their opportunity. Our Lord, likewise, has invited us to His Supper -- in fact He invites us often -- everyy day in most parishes, and perhaps even more often than that. Yet how many of us respond with the modern day equivalents of those in today's parable: "I have bought a farm ... I have bought a new television and I must see it -- I have bought five yoke of oxen ... I have bought a new computer and I must try it -- I have married a wife ... and she would rather go out to dinner ... my husband would rather go to the movies." Some of our excuses are good some of the time, others are quite foolish. So always remember what our Lord has promised, and make your best effort to attend His Supper -- remember what He has said:
"He who eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood abides in Me, and I in him."7