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Eucharist, Mass, and Gratitude

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One of my biggest struggles as a religion teacher is with our technical terms. We have so many words that we use, sometimes every single day: Trinity, Eucharist, Heaven, Son of God, Mass, Incarnation, and so on.

This talk isn't going to turn into class, I promise. But, I do hope you learn a lot. About the Eucharist, about God, and about yourselves. You may even learn a little bit about me, although that's the least of my concerns.

How many of you know what the word Eucharist means? I'm thinking the technical definition now. What about Mass?

Eucharist means "thanksgiving" and Mass means "dismissal." At first glance, these two definitions may not even make any sense. They may not even seem to describe what we do at all. But, yet I'm giving this talk around these two definitions. Bear with me. I hope in the end it all makes perfect sense.

First, I'll tackle the Eucharist as thanksgiving and let you know a little about my faith journey in the process.

Most of you have been Catholic or, whatever your faith tradition is, from the moment of your birth. It's just something that you've always done. I was raised Protestant. Most of the people were good hearted, but in general the whole experience was miles from Catholicism. I had no Catholics in my family. I lived in a county where Catholics were lower than 10% of the population. In my class, there was one Catholic girl. The closest I ever got to Catholicism was when I took a romantic interest in her.

But, when I was your age [a teen], I wasn't really interested in religion at all. My hobbies were girls, friends, sports, myself, and girls. I didn't have time for God and when I did, it was to question him for every shortcoming I thought I had or everything that I felt was wrong with the world. I was cynical and negative and, even worse, proud of it. I had a lot to be thankful for, but instead focused on the negative.

In college, without my parents bugging me to go to church, I didn't. I enjoyed sleeping in, doing my own thing spiritually, which for me was nothing. I stopped reading the Bible and even praying. I even became smug, content that I was somehow intellectually superior to those poor people who actually believed in a god, instead of me, who believed in nothing really. I wasn't an atheist, but pretty close. A campus Christian group asked us to fill out surveys on Jesus. I responded that he was just a good teacher rather than the Son of God. In some weird way, I was actually proud of myself. I considered it my Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon moment like somehow I had done something bold and decisive.

I was free. I was superior. I was also miserable. Sure, I had some fun and many accomplishments in college. I'm not going deny those. I wasn't really a bad person objectively in the sense that I was out doing drugs or illegal stuff. I was a pretty good kid. It's just I had no grounding. No center. And, I didn't feel free. I didn't realize the difference then between the true freedom and anarchy.

It was the early fall of 1998, when I lay down to sleep in my dorm room at Ohio University. I couldn't sleep, but I was so tired. Actually tired isn't the right word. I was utterly exhausted. I had tried to go it alone without God and had failed. I was flat on my back and picked up a Bible. I don't remember what I even read and it probably doesn't matter. It was a baby step back towards God. I still had the fortress up, but cracked open the front door, hoping to let a little "God" in my life.

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Little did I know that the little bit of God I wanted would be his version of the full court press! I had gone so long without God that I wasn't just hungry for him. I was starving! And, with its ancient traditions, depth of theology, and tradition of mysticism, Catholicism looked, even if I barely knew it at the time, like a seven course meal.

I began to wade into the waters of the Church. I started studying Catholic theology and visiting services occasionally. Christmas Eve in 1998, my brother and I just decided, for the heck of it, to attend a midnight mass. One of the most hardcore Catholic services (next to the Easter Vigil), and we did it for a lark. It was beautiful. In fact, part of my primary draw to Catholicism has always been the beauty of the Church. I have a deep love of nature and the thought that God could meet me through the natural world fascinated me. It was alien to the tradition I was raised in where religious expression was usually in the mind or spirit. I began to fall in love with the concepts of the Sacraments, where God meets us through the physical world, even if I couldn't yet receive them. I began to have dreams about the Eucharist where I would guzzle the blood of Christ. Pardon, the crude image, but I think it symbolizes an innate desire I had to meet Jesus in this intimate way.

I eventually joined the Catholic Church. But, it was six years later. That's right, the whole process took six years. That's more than a third of your young lives. God's time is often slow, especially in comparison to our instant message world. If only God has sent me a private message on Facebook telling me, join the Church; it'll be all right. In fact, I'm still seeking and I still get extremely impatient at times. I think we all do.

True to my dreams, literally, my biggest joy in being Catholic has been the Eucharist. And yet, even I, like I'm sure many of you do, take the Body and Blood of Christ on many occasions without a second thought. When we do think about it, it may be "I just want to get outta here and hang out with my friends or eat dinner." It reminds me of a painting I heard about once, but I can't remember the name of. It showed manna falling from heaven while the Israelites were in the wilderness. They were completely uninterested in it, just going about their business, not even paying this incredible sight any mind. Could this painting be called Catholics at the Eucharist? I think it could.

Let's discuss what the Eucharist is for a moment. Because if we really internalize what it is, I think we'd be a little more thankful. It's the Body and Blood of Christ. His entire body, soul, and divinity. We are consuming the God-man. The creator of heaven and earth. The one who made the entire universe. The one who walked the earth nearly 2000 years, was crucified, died, and raised. This one comes to us intimately at every mass. He does it under the appearances of bread and wine since those are our common symbols. But it really is his Body and Blood. Here's an example for those of you who may not understand it.

Once we realize that every mass, which most parishes throughout the world offer every single day, is an opportunity to commune intimately with our Lord and God, it should change our attitude. And our lives. Rather than coming up with excuses to avoid going to church, we should be desperately clawing our way into the building. And instead of mentally grumbling about how soon lunch isn't coming or how much we'd like to go home to watch the Cleveland Browns lose, we should use that short time after the consecration of the elements to intimately connect with Jesus. To tell him our wants, our needs, our fears, our joys, and yes, what we are thankful for.

Now were back to the word mass. It comes from the latin word missa, which you can see in the very word dismissal. The missa is the end of the service when we are told to "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord." Hmmm. It's fascinating that the entire service takes its name from the very final part, the part where we're told to get outta here! That should tell us something. What is it? That Jesus not only calls us to internal conversation and spirituality, he also calls us to bring Jesus and the spirit of the mass to the world.

Hopefully most of you know that Jesus wants us to serve the poor, love our neighbor (and enemies), and follow God's laws. The Mass strengthens us to do all of this. But, I want you to understand today that the mass should empower us to lead a life of gratitude. While the other stuff isn't easy, I believe this is especially hard. If the Eucharist is ultimately an act of Thanksgiving, and it is, then the lives we lived strengthened by the Eucharist should be lives of gratitude as well. Yet, how many of us can say we live our lives in total gratitude for our gifts? Partial gratitude? Ok, what about simply not being cynical about everything?

How often do we truly stop to focus on the everyday blessings of life that we take for granted? Parents, family, friends, opportunities, comfort, food, shelter? These are all gifts that for whatever reason God has given us. He doesn't have to. We don't deserve it. Some people don't even have them. But we receive them anyway. How often do we say thanks?

I know what some of you are thinking, because I would be thinking it too. Yeah, yeah, I have all this stuff, but I also have a ton of other problems. All of us here probably have enough emotional baggage to fill up the cargo hold of a mid sized airplane. Some of us a jumbo jet. But, guess what? No matter how bad it is, I'm sure you still have a ton of things you can be grateful for. And, even if you can't think clearly enough to come up with even one, I can name one, a big one, that all of you have: life.

Unless someone has left this mortal world during my talk (I've put people to sleep before, but never eternal sleep), the fact that we are not six feet in the ground means that no matter what our problems, we always have another chance. No matter what we've done or failed to do, we have that second chance, third chance, or one hundred thousandth chance that God has given us.

I'm not here to lecture you. I'm not some wise sage on the moutaintop, even if I did have a beard for awhile, who's going to tell my dear children how to follow me to bliss. Right now my future is about as uncertain as its ever been. I have a lot of worry, anxiety, and yes, even anger. And I could focus on that and be overwhelmed by it. But, guess what I'd be left with? Worry, anxiety, and anger.

It's been hard as hell, but I've made an intentional effort to focus on my blessings. I'm alive. I have a beautiful wife, a loving family. I have great friends and supportive parents. I think I have some great personality traits and talents. I have all of you and the student community, which has given me some of the most incredible gifts of love and friendship I've ever known. Whatever happens or doesn't happen, I have a lot to be grateful for. Even if my immediate financial future seems uncertain, I am a very, very, rich man.

But, above all, I have the gift of God. And I don't mean a present given by God to me in answer to prayer. I mean the gift of GOD HIMSELF. The gift he gives us every time the Mass is said throughout the world. The highest gift which should elicit within us joy and thanksgiving, even in the midst of suffering and problems. The gift of joy and gratitude in receiving his Body and Blood, that we then bring to the world. A world, which I might add, desperately needs the love and joy of Christ more than ever. And he's not walking this earth to do it. It has to come through us. Receiving his body and blood, we become his body to the world.

I challenge you, to finish your Kairos retreat in a spirit of gratitude for God and his gifts. As you participate in mass and receive the Eucharist tonight, THANK God for all that he has given you, especially, the most precious gift of all: his very self, which he generously offers us in the Eucharist. And take that grace and thanksgiving and give it to the world by your lives of gratitude, hope, and joy.

This article is based on speech given by the author at a Kairos high-school retreat

Last updated 05-10-2008

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