“This is my body, given up for you.”
Whenever we attend Holy Mass, we hear the priest pronounce these words.
“This is my body, given up for you.”
Today’s readings from Scripture point us to the consequences of what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on the Cross. All of us who receive Holy Communion are connected; we form the Body of Christ, which is the Church. All of us who receive Holy Communion are heirs to the promise of Jesus that doing this will secure for us eternal life. That is, when our bodies die, our souls – the very essence which makes us who we are – will be safe with Jesus in a life which has no end; and we believe that one day God will give us new and everlasting bodies.
But the God who promises us such wonders in the future also leads us through the trials of daily life in the here-and-now, where our bodies are fragile and our toil is real. The first reading reminds us of how God’s chosen people had to spend 40 years travelling through a desert because they refused to follow God’s commands. In the same way, the opening chapters of the Bible tell us that in some mysterious way, there is a link between our unwillingness to listen to God’s commands and the pains of labour – both in the sense of childbearing and of human toil.
In our modern lifestyles, we may not spend 40 years wandering in a desert, but we might well spend 140 minutes each day commuting between home and work. Pope Francis spoke last Tuesday to the priests and people of Rome, acknowledging how so many parents miss out on time with their children because the parent does not make it home until the child’s bedtime. (On Thursday evening, I myself was cooking supper for my godson and his sister and brothers, because neither of their parents would be home from work before 8 pm.) The Pope has no easy answers to the trials of 21st Century living, but he does offer us some directions: when grandparents can be part of the home life, this is good. When the Church community can be a place of hospitality for young people, this is excellent. Above all, Jesus promises not to leave us orphans. We must do our best to help our children to make a real connection with Jesus, so they know the great gift they have been given: The Lord of the Universe offers them a personal friendship, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”
These words of Our Lord also have a special meaning for you, who have been called to holiness through marriage. Within the partnership of your marriage, each of you is called to say daily to your spouse, through your words and through your actions, “This is my body, given up for you.”
Part of the genius of St John Paul II was to give us a new focus for married relationships, not based on a list of ‘don’ts’ from Church teaching, but based on the idea of radical unselfishness. Jesus gave us the great commandment to “love one another,” using a Greek word for love, agape, which means self-sacrificing service. St Paul counselled the followers of Jesus to “regard others as better than yourselves”. Listen carefully to what he asks of us! He is NOT calling for us to have a negative self-image, to say “I am not as important as other people.” Rather, from a position of strength, we can say to ourselves: “I am a person of equal dignity and worth, but I am going to treat you as if your needs are more important than mine.” If both halves of a partnership do this, you will meet each other halfway. The alternative is struggling with each other to be the “greatest”, and Our Lord was most unimpressed when he found his disciples arguing over that title!
You are not alone. Our Lord understands your tiredness, your weakness, your search for meaning in toil. Eat of the Lord’s body, draw life from him, find the strength to live this life of daily sacrifice – and remember that Eucharist means “Thanksgiving”, always our appropriate response when we receive the benefits of a sacrifice.
Our Mass today began with a prayer which is also commonly used when the Blessed Sacrament is placed on the altar for Adoration:
O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament
have left us a memorial of your Passion,
grant us, we pray,
so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood
that we may always experience in ourselves
the fruits of your redemption.
This prayer invites us to ponder what Jesus did at the Last Supper and on the Cross, so that we may have a personal experience of grace, of what Jesus freely gives to us and what we can freely give to others.
A husband works long hours at a manual job, and returns home aching and sore. “This is my body, given up for you.”
A mother notices her stretch marks, remembers her youth, looks at her children and says inwardly: “This is my body, given up for you.”
A couple who understand what it means to live their sexual life without selfishness embrace each other on the altar of the marriage bed, and each says to the other: “This is my body, given up for you.”
Our Lord Jesus, who could have called a legion of angels to remove him from his Passion at any moment, embraces the altar of the Cross, and says: “This is my body, given up for you.”
This Eucharist, this Mass, is the Lord’s marital embrace to his beloved, his bride, his church. We are to receive his body into ourselves in the most physical way possible. We do this at the hands of a priest, who has made his own act of sacrifice; forsaking the right to marry to fully embrace the call to priesthood, the priest too says to his parish and to each congregation he serves, “This is my body, given up for you.”
It is my privilege to offer daily the Sacrifice of the Most Holy Eucharist, when I say to the gathered Church, lending my voice to the Lord, “This is my body, given up for you.” It is your privilege, in the family home, in the domestic Church, to offer the Sacrifice of Holy Matrimony. When you toil long hours for your daily bread, when you bathe your children, when you do the household chores, and yes, when you show your love to one another in the physical way which God has reserved for marriage, you, together with Christ living within you, declare to your husband, to your wife, “This is my body, given up for you.” Your marriage too will bear witness to the world as you remember His next words: “Do this in memory of me.”
Postscript to on-line readers in couples where a Catholic is married to a non-believer:
To the Catholic partner: I remind you of the words of St Paul, that in such a case the unbelieving spouse may be saved by their partner. This is yet another way of saying: “This is my body, given up for you.”
To the other partner, I offer an invitation to ponder today’s Gospel. Can it be true? What your spouse believes is either radical or ridiculous; bread and wine become the body of a man who lived 2000 years ago, the man who was God. This I cannot explain, only proclaim; faith is the gift of knowing that this is true, a gift which comes from God. Ask Him, and he will give you a new understanding of these most sublime words: “This is my body, given up for you.”