Posted by: frroberts | October 13, 2017

Tears from Heaven

In year of Our Lord 304 in Abitina, a provincial town in Roman North Africa, 49 Christians gathered together to celebrate the Holy Eucharist. These brave Christians did this despite the fact that the celebration of the Mass had been banned by Roman law for almost a year.

The priest and these Christians were discovered by the Roman authorities. They were told that they could be set free, if only they would burn some incense in the honor of the Emperor and agree not celebrate the Eucharist ever again. The Roman magistrate informed them that they could have whatever personal beliefs about Jesus that they liked, but had to agree not come together on Sundays. To this warning one of the Christians responded, “Sunday Eucharist…cannot be missed; that is our law.”

Still the magistrate continued, trying to use torture to extract a recantation from the Christians. He raged as the band of believers stood firm. The magistrate grew impatient. He had broken far more proud men through torture, but these Christians, who boasted only of their weakness, would not bend. The magistrate reminded them that he held their lives in his hands, that he had the power to kill them or let them live. To this threat, the group responded in chorus, “without Sunday Eucharist, we cannot live.” These Christians preferred death to missing Mass.   Mother Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Martyrs of Abitina on February 12.

As moving as the story is, it is also troubling. It is troubling because today the vast majority of us do not experience the Sunday obligation in a way that is anything like what these martyrs did. Let’s be honest, how many of us would be even willing to lose our job in order to go to Mass on one Sunday? How many of us, when spending a Sunday with non-Catholics on vacation, would insist that we attend Mass when it causes an inconvenience for the rest of the group?

The martyrs of Abitina knew the power of the Eucharist in a way we do not.

One very important step toward claiming for ourselves the spiritual power of the Eucharist is to become more aware of the love that is made available to us through the Sacrifice of the Mass. Our faith tells us that the Eucharist is more than just a symbol. It is really, substantially Christ’s Body and Blood.  Jesus is present in the Eucharist, Body, Blood, soul and divinity.  We should never refer to the Body and Blood of Christ that we receive at Mass as bread and wine in common speech.  Never.

There is another element to our Eucharistic faith that does not get the attention that it deserves. At every Mass, the Sacrifice of the Cross, made once and for all, becomes sacramentally present on the altar. The readings for this Feast of Corpus Christi point to this truth of our faith. Exodus speaks of the blood that ratified the bond between the Israelites and the Lord.  Like all of the covenants of the Old Testament, this covenant was a prefiguring of the New Covenant God would make, not with the blood of animals, but with His own Blood poured out for us on the Cross for the remission of our sins.

The blood of animals used to seal covenants in the Old Testament is the means by which God’s people swear an oath of loyalty to the Lord God. God promises to bless them and be their God. In return, Israel promises to be faithful to Lord by worshipping Him alone and obeying His commandments. The people pour out the blood of animals on the altar as a way of saying, “Let us become as these animals are if we are not true to this covenant.”

The painful experience of Israel is that they do not keep their end of the covenant. They put other gods or even things first in their hearts, which was the place that they had promised to reserve for God alone. Not only was Israel’s relationship with God disordered, so were their relationships with each other. Much of the history of Israel in the Old Testament reads like a catalogue of murder, adultery, oppression and just about every other sin imaginable.

And what is Israel’s self-imposed penalty for breaking the covenant? “Let us become as these animals are if we are not true to this covenant.” Saint Paul puts it eloquently, “The wages of sin are death”–not just physical death, but the eternal, spiritual death of Hell.

The more we reflect on the human condition, the more we see that the infidelity of God’s chosen people is hardly unique. Their failures are simply exemplars of the failures of all humanity. We all want blessings from heaven, but not one of us have lived in a way that is worthy of receiving them. As Paul observes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

What is God’s response to our pride, anger, greed, gluttony, envy, lust and sloth? What is God’s response to our spiritual death wish?

“Take this, all of you, and eat of it: for this is my Body, which will be given up for you.”

“Take this, all of you, and drink from it: for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, gives Himself up to His enemies and chooses to die the death that we deserve. On the Cross, He becomes as those animals of the Old Covenant were: His Body is broken, His Blood is poured out: “He who knew no sin, became sin for us.”

We profess as Catholics that the Mass makes present on the Altar the bloody sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary under the veil of sacrament. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains it something like this– at the moment of the consecration of the bread, Christ’s Body is made present on the altar. When the wine is consecrated, Our Lord’s Blood is separated from His Body, making present His death on the Cross that destroyed the power of sin and death.

If we experienced even a fraction of the love that Jesus pours out for us on the altar during the sacrifice of the Mass, we would be moved to tears.  These are not only tears of sorrow for our sins but also tears of joy that come with realizing just how much and how unconditionally God loves us.

The first Catholic to experience the gift of tears in connection with the Mass was Saint Peter.  Just hours after the Last Supper, in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin, Peter denied Jesus three times.  Just as the third denial came from Peter’s lips, the guards were leading Jesus out. Our Lord turned His loving glance to Peter and their eyes met.  Peter went out and wept bitterly.

It is said of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the great founder of the Society of Jesus, that he could not make it through celebrating Mass without being moved to tears by the Sacrifice being offered on the altar.

There are many other Catholics, not just great saints, but poor sinners like you and me, who report being moved in the same way during the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

When is the last time we came to Mass and remembered that Jesus’ death on the Cross is actually present on the altar?

When is the last time we came to Mass and asked God to help us feel real sorrow for our sins?

When is the last time we came to Mass and experienced the unconditional love of Christ in a way that moved us?

At the beginning of this homily, I raised the question of how we can know the power of the Eucharist more like the martyrs of Abitina, who said that they could not live without it.  When we come to the Eucharist, we come to the foot of Calvary.  During the Sacrifice of the Mass, our Lord’s death on the Cross is made present sacramentally on the altar.  And if we are not moved, even to tears, by the ugliness of our sins and the depth of God’s unconditional love for us, we are missing out.

The martyrs of Abitina were willing to embrace death before missing Mass because every Sunday they experienced Christ’s own victorious death on the Cross when they celebrated the Eucharist.  These Christians came to know that the only heart that really lives is a heart that beats with the love of Christ.

Let us beg Almighty God to rend our hearts in the presence of such an awesome sacrifice:

Almighty and most gentle God, Who from a Rock made flow a Fountain of Living Water
for Your thirsting People,
draw now from the hardness of our Hearts
Tears of Sorrow
that we may Weep for our Sins
and, by Your continued Mercy,
be made ready to accept their Pardon.
Through Christ our Lord.

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