Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Friends love being with friends. Being present to one another is what makes friendships grow. Just about any excuse to get together can work. A dinner, a show, a shopping trip, a game or a jog. Even a paint party. Did somebody say church?

Wasn’t long ago when churchgoing was a major venue for socialization, a reliable weekly event where friends could meet and pray, catch up on news, even share a breakfast together in a parish hall. In the opera world, lovers have met in or at a church, as in “Tosca” and “Die Meistersinger.” Even those without particularly religious sensibilities consider church the appropriate place to celebrate their love with friends or make it official. Immigrant populations and some ethnic groups even today, identity with the parish church where they gather, not only on Sundays but for other social, educational and celebrative occasions.

When personal presence is not possible, friends and lovers often communicate through other means such as phone calls, mail, social media and other electronic messaging. Zoom and FaceTime are not like meeting live, but the pandemic taught us how they helped us maintain some contact. Friends often send presents, signs and symbols of love and affection, putting great care into the choice of the right gift to let the friend know they are remembered.

Last Sunday we celebrated Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. As the sacramental elements — bread and wine — remind us of the bloody, brutal sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross, we cannot escape another element of the divine genius – that Jesus chose wine, not water or grape juice, as one of the simple common food elements to define his permanent presence among us, his desire to be with us always. I mean the wine “that gladdens the hearts of men.” Yes, the suffering and the sorrow when love is poured out like a libation. Yet joy is essentially woven into the tapestry of our salvation, just as this beverage tends to liven up conversation as it warms the heart and soul when shared among friends.

The Cross is ultimately about life and life to the full. Give until it hurts — that is the message — exactly what our best friend forever, Jesus Christ, does at Calvary. Give till it hurts and your hearts will be turned to joy! For every Good Friday — after a deafening pause! — there is a resurrection. 

We speak liturgically of bread and wine as “gifts” and contemplate the deeper realities they invoke. I mentioned wine above. We may consider the way in which it is produced, the many grapes, crushed and left to ferment so that, through the process of being stomped on and bled, they are transformed into an elixir that accompanies joyful meals. Bread as well requires the grinding and milling of wheat: out of many grains one loaf is produced. It becomes bread that is broken again so that it can be consumed to stave off hunger and strengthen the body.

It might be considered that the form of bread at the time of Christ, more often resembled what we call pita today. Bread was not eaten alone typically, but as part of a meal in which it was often used at a table with friends to scoop up other food items, much like it is common in some areas to dip it in a dish of hummus, baba ganoush or good olive oil. We read in Scripture that Jesus handed Judas such a morsel, identifying him as the traitor, but seemingly inviting him should he have a change of heart. Such is the everlasting love and mercy of a God who desires to give the very best: always himself to the full.

This is why friends gift friends: they want to give themselves. The best gift of all is personal presence, just being there, friend to friend. So Jesus, the night before he died, in the form of a meal, instituted the sacrament by which he would become personally present to us every time we would do what he did in the presence of the Apostles, their successors and those they would ordain, to remember him and what his life was all about: a love poured out completely to the point of immolation on the Cross. Jesus confirms that God is our friend and as a friend, he gives us everything, including his very flesh and blood.

This is REAL presence. God is present to us in the person of every human being, as creatures uniquely made in God’s image and likeness. God is truly present in every member of the Church, baptized into the mystical body of Christ and most visible in the Eucharistic assembly where the Church celebrates its identity, foreshadowing the heavenly banquet. Jesus Christ himself, the incarnation of the living God, the Word made flesh for all time, is really REALLY present under the form of bread and wine, which by his loving will becomes his body and blood, soul and divinity so that we might have communion with him and share all the love of God’s inner life.

This is much more than strictly spiritual. It is not just a symbol. God wants to be personally present to us and, as our best friend, Jesus invites us to be personally present to him. That is what friends do. That is why we “show up” to be with Jesus and one another as members of this same body of Christ, which we call the Church and which we celebrate at every Mass. 

If we need further evidence of how real and complete is God’s love for each and every one of us — beyond the sacrifice of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, on the Cross and the sacrament of his Body and Blood which he instituted at the Last Supper — we might consider what Jesus did after the Resurrection, the many gestures that affirmed the reality of his life after death, the permanence of his humanity, and how serious he is about maintaining this bond with our humanity, our real lives in the presence. 

The incident of doubting Thomas touching the wounds of the risen Christ stands out at once, but I find the barbecue on the shore of the Sea of Galilee even more compelling. That was when Jesus appears after another unproductive night during which Peter and his friends failed to land many fish. Again, Jesus’ very presence leads again to a magnificent catch, after which Jesus invites them for a breakfast of grilled tilapia. We can speculate how it may be that Jesus assimilates the fish he eats with them biologically and tie ourselves up mentally in what seems to be an absurdity — that in his risen state he would even need to eat, let alone was able to digest, being now not bound by corporal needs or functions. I think the point is, however, that Jesus is still divine AND human. His Resurrection confirms his humanity, which his death did not destroy. Our partaking in his body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, therefore, assures us of the Eternal Life that he himself gives, which is his very self. He is fully present to us, a friend forever. Our best response, as his friend, is to be present to him in the way he has asked. His gift to us becomes our gift to him! After all, being present is what true friends do.
 
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