You are what you eat

This weekend many children received their First Holy Communion at our parish. Here's my homily for the occasion.
Jesus with the Eucharist, Juan de Juanes, 1579
In 1975, Bishop Nguyen Van Thuan was arrested by the communist, Vietnamese government and imprisoned in a “reeducation camp”. In total, Bishop Van Thuan spent thirteen years in prison, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement.  While in prison, his captures allowed him to write to his friends on the outside to send him an extremely limited number of bare necessities. Can you guess what was on the top of his list of requests? Wine - which he claimed was to be used as stomach medicine - and small, communion hosts. When he finally received the wine and hosts, Bishop Van Thuan was able to celebrate Mass for himself and for his fellow prisoners. He would celebrate Mass from memory because he had no Missal. As he had no chalice, he would place three drops of wine and one drop of water into the palm of his hand. He would later write that celebrating Mass and being able to have Jesus present among them in the Eucharist and to receive His Body and Blood was their greatest source of strength and hope. From personal experience, Bishop Van Thuan understood that the Eucharist is the greatest gift that God has given us. As St. John Vianney wrote about the Eucharist:
God would have given us something greater if He had something greater than Himself to give.

Bishop Van Thuan and his fellow prisoners recognized that the Eucharist transformed them. They discovered that by receiving the Eucharist, they were changed to become more like Him who they received. Now, we have probably all heard the expression “you are what you eat”. If we eat healthy food, for example, we will be healthy. If, on the other hand, I were to eat only chips all day, then I would become quite unhealthy. This rule applies to the Eucharist. Nearly 750 years ago, St. Thomas Aquinas explained it this way:
The actual effect of the Eucharist is the transformation of man into God.
Bishop Van Thuan and his fellow prisoners learned firsthand that receiving the Eucharist changed them to become more like Jesus. They became more like Jesus both as individuals and as a group.
  1. Individually they found that they became more like Jesus. Imitating Jesus in His Passion, they were better able to cope with their sufferings in prison, infusing them with patience and a sense of purpose. As well, they were given the strength to look beyond their personal suffering and serve others in the prison. The same thing should happen to us. Receiving the Eucharist should change us, gradually but really and truly, to become more like Jesus.
  2. Collectively they grew together in unity. When we receive the Eucharist, we believe that we become - all of us together - the Body of Christ. Receiving the Eucharist should make us a stronger and more united community.

We are privileged to receive the Eucharist weekly and even daily, if we choose. Unlike Bishop Van Thuan, we can do this freely and with comparative ease. We need to be careful that our ready access to this gift does not allow us to lose sight of its true value. Today, as so many among us will receive Jesus in the Eucharist for the first time, let us give thanks for this great gift. Perhaps those of us who have been receiving the Eucharist for many years can use this opportunity to ask ourselves if we are really becoming Him who we receive in the Eucharist. Over our years of receiving the Eucharist, have we changed to become more like Jesus in the way we act? Has receiving the Eucharist strengthened our parish community so that we truly are one body, unity in love? This won’t happen without our cooperation. Let us strive more and more to truly become what we eat.