A few weeks ago I gave a homily at the COSJ healing Mass, and I thought I’d try to reconstruct some of it here. That First Friday happened to be All Souls Day, so I wondered how I might somehow connect the idea of healing with that of the faithful departed. I suggested that for the Christian, death is the ultimate healing, but I hastened to add that none of those present, God willing, would have that experience when they came up to be prayed over!
The Gospel I read (about a dozen options were possible) was John 6:51-58, part of Jesus’ precious “Bread of Life” discourse, which is appropriate for All Souls Day because He says that those who eat his Flesh and drink his Blood “will live forever.” Eternal life, salvation, and the Kingdom of Heaven are fairly common themes in the New Testament, but I noticed in a commentary that the specific phrase “live forever” occurs only three times in the whole Bible: twice in the Gospel I had read, and once in the Book of Genesis, referring to eating of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden.
So there’s a connection between God’s original plan for our happiness—which was ruined when death entered the world through sin—and his plan for our redemption in Jesus Christ. Both have to do with eating and thus living forever.
The hymnographers of the Byzantine tradition sometimes speak of Our Lady as the new Tree of Life, because she bore Him whose Flesh and Blood fills us with divine and hence eternal life. We eat of the fruit of Mary’s womb and so we live forever in the new Paradise of the Kingdom of Heaven. A hymn for the Byzantine Office for the Dead reads: “Hail, holy Virgin, who for the salvation of all have borne God in the flesh. Through you, mankind has found salvation; through you, may we find Paradise, O Mother of God, pure and blessed!”
The Holy Eucharist can be given to us only because Christ sacrificed Himself on the Cross for the atonement of our sins and hence for our salvation. “Take and eat, for this is my Body, given up for you; take and drink, for this is my Blood, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of sins,” said the Lord at the Mystical Supper just before his Passion.
There are several prefigurations of the sacrifice of Christ in the Old Testament, and as I was reading something from the Venerable Fulton Sheen, I was led by his reflections to the (attempted) sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. As the two were approaching the place of sacrifice, Isaac (with not a little anxiety) said: “Father, here are the wood and the fire, but where is the lamb?” We know how the story goes, that at the last minute God stayed the knife-bearing hand of Abraham and pointed out a ram caught in a thicket to be offered as a substitute, so Isaac didn’t have to die. Christ died so that we would not have to die the eternal death, but rather that through communion with Him we could live forever.
But let’s return to Isaac’s words: Where is the lamb? This question, perhaps hidden in the depths of the human soul, nonetheless reverberated throughout the centuries of the Old Testament. Where is the lamb? Where is the sacrifice that will be acceptable to God, the definitive sacrifice? Does such a sacrifice, such a lamb, even exist? Or are we condemned to be banished from Paradise forever?
When the fullness of time had come, John the Baptizer stood on the banks of the Jordan, bearing a revelation, an earth-shaking announcement after which nothing in this world would ever be the same: “Behold, there is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” The answer to the burning question of the ages—Where is the lamb?—was standing before John and all the people. There is the Lamb, who takes away sin; there is the Lamb, who makes all things new; there is the Lamb, who says to paralytics, “Rise and walk”; there is the Lamb, who says to lepers, “Be made clean”; there is the Lamb, who says to repentant sinners falling at his feet, “Go in peace, your faith has saved you.”
What about us? We live 2000 years after that revelation, and we stand in as much need of healing and salvation as those who were gathered at the Jordan to receive John’s baptism and his revelation. Blessed are we to be here tonight, for in a little while the main celebrant of this Mass will raise the Sacred Host and the precious Chalice, exclaiming: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world!” He is here, in our midst. We can eat from the Tree of Life and live forever, for the sacrifice of Christ stands perpetually before the Father in Heaven, and it is made present here on Earth at every altar where the ordained priesthood of Christ is validly exercised.
“Unless you eat my Flesh and drink my Blood, you do not have life in you,” said the Lord. So He invites us, urges us, to receive this divine life in Holy Communion, because He wants us to live with Him forever. He came to restore us to Paradise, to turn death, the penalty for sin, into the means of passing over to eternal life. We cannot overcome death if we do not have the life of Christ within us. That is why Hell is called in Scripture the “second death.” It is definitive and forever. But the second death cannot touch those who die in Christ, who leave this world with his divine life in their souls.
Having beheld and partaken of the Lamb of God in the Holy Eucharist, we now, as it says in the Book of Revelation, “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” For we are still on pilgrimage and have not yet attained our ultimate goal. This Eucharistic foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb prepares us to enter into his Kingdom and participate fully in this feast forever. For Heaven is thus described in Revelation, and it is the place where all the angels and saints worship God and the Lamb in the Holy Spirit with joy and thanksgiving forever and ever.
So this mystery is revealed throughout Holy Scripture and the life of the Church that Jesus founded: the symbolic sacrifice by Abraham, the revelation of the Lamb by St John and then by the whole Church in her Eucharistic worship, and finally the unending glory of the joyful feast of the Lamb in the mystery of the Holy Trinity as we are restored to Paradise, in a way that far exceeds the original Garden of Eden.
Let us, then, in communion with the whole mystical Body of Christ, those here in this world and those who have crossed the threshold of eternity, behold and worship the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Let us give ourselves wholly to Him, eat and drink his divine, sacramental Flesh and Blood—and live forever.