“Why would anyone need to eat the Lord’s body, anyway?” asked an acquaintance of mine several years ago, after I had shared my belief that Christ offers us his very Body and Blood every Sunday in communion. “What spiritual benefit could there possibly be in eating, say, one of Jesus’ fingers?” The bluntness of his question surprised me, and I remember not being able to give him a very good answer. But if I had another chance today, I would explain the Eucharist in a way he’d never expect: by turning to the sacrament of marriage!
After all, the same question could be asked about the “marital embrace”– the sexual union between a husband and wife in marriage. “What spiritual benefits,” I’d ask with a smile, “could possibly come from a man and a woman uniting their bodies in this way?” Physically speaking, nothing appears to be happening except an act of reproduction, right? This is certainly how our culture understands sexuality: merely as a form of entertainment and a release of biological urges. Nothing too spiritual there, it would seem!
Yet we Christians believe, oddly enough, that sex actually does have meaning. We believe that sex is an awesome and beautiful and holy gift from God. When a man and a woman marry, they vow to love each other as God loves His people: totally, freely, faithfully, and fruitfully. In other words, they promise each other, “I will love you as Jesus loves us –I will give my entire self to you, body and soul, freely and totally, just as Jesus gave everything to us upon the cross.” When they unite themselves as husband and wife on their wedding night, these vows become a reality. Through the marital embrace, they truly give their whole selves to each other, body and soul. They give themselves to each other as truly as Jesus gave himself to each of us upon the cross.
There are, of course, countless ways that a married couple can demonstrate their love for each other: words of “I love you”, holding hands, spending time together, and all the daily acts of sacrificial love that married life entails (nothing says “I love you” like changing a diaper!) These many acts of love all help the spouses to deepen their love and their marital union. But the marital embrace is the gift given by God for a husband and a wife to most perfectly express their love. It allows them to become united, not only in spirit, but in both soul and body. Whenever a husband and wife give themselves worthily to each other, God through the sacrament of marriage pours tremendous grace into their hearts and into their marriage. They experience a true union of persons that can bring them closer to God, and in fact can be one of the most beautiful prayers on earth!
Similarly, there are countless ways that I can unite myself to Jesus and receive him into my heart: a word of love to him during the day, meditating upon his words in Scripture, spending time with him in the chapel. But at the Last Supper, Jesus gave us a most incredible gift– the opportunity to experience true union with him, not only in spirit but also with our entire selves, both body and soul! When I receive communion at Mass, it looks as if I am simply receiving a piece of bread … but what is truly happening blows my mind. Jesus Christ, the creator and redeemer of the entire universe, is giving himself totally to me, in all of his body and soul, humanity and divinity! And he is asking me to give myself entirely to him, to unite myself entirely to him, both body and soul. When I receive this gift with a prepared heart, boundless grace pours into me and I experience a true union with Christ, just as truly real and just as intimate as the most loving union of husband and wife!
Can anyone imagine a more beautiful, a more humbling, a more AMAZING gift?!?