As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”; and when he said this, he fell asleep.
So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Some years ago a teacher of mine from graduate school died a quite difficult and painful death as a relatively young man. He was a Trappist monk who had spent most of his life outside of the monastery for health reasons, largely studying and teaching. His life, as a Trappist not living in his monastery, was a lonely and conflictual one. He was buried in his monastery in Iowa, and at his funeral the Abbot offered the homily. Although I was not present, I have been moved and formed by that homily ever since I read it. In it the Abbot spoke of how, even as a boy, this monk had an intuitive sense that his life belonged to God, thus he entered the minor seminary and then the community at a very young age. At his class’ solemn profession he chose the motto for their profession cards: “Christ Jesus has made me His own.” The homily concluded with the following paragraphs:
In his last illness Rick and I would have what I now call brief faith conversations. He told me his time of illness was a vast desert experience with very few consolations. During one visit he told me he knew the meaning of the words from Psalm 90, “the terrors of the night.” However, on one occasion he did experience the consolation of God. He told me he had an experience of the love of the Sacred Heart flowing into his own heart – conveying total love and acceptance of him. In my mind it was the completion of that love Richard wanted to give himself totally to as a young boy.
So now his time of faith gives way to vision – his desert is over and all he hoped for in life is now not a hope but a reality. In the obscure corners of a young boy’s heart a call came from Christ. At solemn profession he summed it up with the words, “Christ Jesus has made me His own.” Now he knows that not by faith but by experience. (Fr. Brendan Freeman, OCSO)
Today as we read of the death of St. Stephen, we hear expressed in Stephen’s last words his intimacy with the Lord Jesus. He faces death as he does because of his desire for the Lord. In the gospel today we begin the gospel’s teaching on the Eucharist. We have heard earlier in the gospel that God so loved the world as to give His only Son. Now we hear that the Son so loves us as to give us life, His life, by nourishing us with his very body and blood. Jesus himself is the “bread of God . . . which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” In the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus tells us that the life we are given is his life and our life is now life in Him.
We spend our lives, both consciously and unconsciously, searching for love. We experience that we never feel more alive than when someone takes notice of us in such a way that we experience being significant and of value to that other. We displace this longing on to many feeble substitutes, power, wealth, success, fame, and yet under the mask that each of these is we discover the longing for love. Our fearfulness of our own neediness can lead us to deny this longing, but there is no denying that life, for us, lies in communion. The power of our longing is due to our experience of disunion, of separation from God, ourselves, and the world which is itself the aberration.
As we read the passages from John in the coming days, we shall hear the question raised, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Today a related but different question comes to mind: “Why does Jesus give us his flesh to eat?” There is no satisfying cognitive answer to this question. There is, however, an experiential answer, which the mystical writings describe to us. Jan van Ruusbroec writes, what might seem somewhat scandalously to us, that Jesus loves us both “avidly and generously.” That is, he not only “gives us all that he has and all that he is,” but he also”takes from us all that we are and demands of us more than we can accomplish.” Ruusbroec says that Jesus’ hunger for us is “incomparably great,” and that he “consumes us right to the depths of our being.”
If we have a desire even deeper than our desire for one to love us in such a way that they would give us all they have and are, that desire is to be desired. In our faith we often speak of “taking communion.” But, of course, it is impossible to “take communion” for communion is inherently relational and mutual. I cannot take communion with you from you. We can only be in communion when we give to and receive from each other.
The mystics often startle us in their expressions. Ruusbroec, for example, speaks of Jesus as “suffering from bulimia.” He says that Jesus consumes in his unbridled longing for us “the very marrow of our bones.” He then goes on to say that the more we willingly grant this consuming of ourselves to Jesus, the more that Jesus “savors” us.
I wonder if the Eucharist doesn’t often become less than meaningful to me, even, sadly, somewhat perfunctory, because I do not recognize the desire and longing of Jesus to consume me. I fail to be aware of and awake to the truth that Jesus gives himself to be my life because he longs for and craves my being with him. He desires that my life be his and his life be mine. In his novel recently made into a film, André Aciman has two persons who have become infatuated with each want to express their desire and love for each other by calling each other by their own names. He has one say to the other: “Call me by your name, and I’ll call you by mine.” When I first read this book many years ago, I didn’t at all understand how this was expressive of their love and bond. Now I am beginning to see, however, that their desire to be the life of the other is the very communion that we endlessly seek throughout our lives. The reality, however, is that the communion their exchange of identities seeks to express can only finally be consummated in death — or in a sacrament in which time and eternity touch.
There is only one who is more “me” than I am myself. And so, it is only in being consumed by that one that I become who I really am. We can spend so much energy seeking God and making God a possession of ours that we fail to understand the profound truth of God’s desire for us. Ruusbroec says that God in Jesus is bulimic in our regard. In a sense, God in Jesus can never get enough of us — until God has all of us.
Christ Jesus is always at work to make us his own. His love is always being poured into our hearts, conveying not only total love and acceptance of us but infinite desire for us. We know and experience, and so often fear, the depth and power of the life of desire in us. In that fear we far to often tranquilize that desire and dissociate from those longings. Yet, that is the very place where communion, where Eucharist, ceases to be perfunctory ritual and instead becomes the sacrament of our real heart’s desire. it is the momentary realization of an eternal truth. God gives himself to us that we might in turn willingly grant God the fulfillment of his desire for us.
Christ gave his flesh to be our soul’s food and his blood to be our soul’s drink. Such a marvel of love had never been heard of in previous times. Now it is the nature of love always to give and to take, to love and to be loved; these two aspects are found in everyone who loves. Christ’s love is both avid and generous. Although he gives us all that he has and all that he is, he also takes from us all that we have and all that we are and demands of us more than we can accomplish. His hunger is incomparably great: He consumes us right to the depths of our being, for he is a voracious glutton suffering from bulimia and consuming the very marrow from our bones. Still, we grant him all this willingly, and the more willingly we grant it, the more does he savor us. No matter how much of us he consumes, he cannot be satisfied, for he is suffering from bulimia and so has an unquenchable appetite. Even though we are poor, that does not matter to him, for he does not wish to leave us.
Jan van Ruusbroec, A Mirror of Eternal Blessedness, II,B