In his homily was offered at the concluding Mass of the Eucharistic Congress ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age,’ Sunday, Sept. 17, in Magness Arena at the University of Denver’s Daniel L. Ritchie Center.
The day’s readings were:
First: Isaiah 50:4c-9a
Psalm: Psalm 116:1-2,3-4,5-6,8-9
Second: James 2:14-18
Gospel: Mark 8:27-35
“The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear, and I have not rebelled, have not turned back . . .” Those are the first words of our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and in preparing my thoughts for today, they led me to a story.
In 1936, a young Jewish boy named Aaron found a hiding place in his home where his parents kept a key. It was the key to a locked bookcase near the piano in his living room. And being an avid reader, and because he slept in the living room each night, he began to secretly read the books. His parents were Jewish by birth and proud of their heritage. But they had no particular religious beliefs. For some reason, though, they had a copy of a Christian Bible in their bookcase — and Aaron began to read it.
Many years later, Aaron wrote that:
“What particularly impressed me was that there was a continuity between what is called the ‘Old Testament’ and the New one. From that time on, the reading of the New Testament took a place in my Jewish consciousness. For me, it dealt with the same spiritual subject, the same benediction, the same stakes — the salvation of men, the love of God, the knowledge of God . . .
“[I saw immediately that] Christianity is the fruit of Judaism . . . I believed in Christ, the Messiah of Israel . . . And I knew that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ of God.”
In 1940, against the will of his parents and without any coercion — or even an invitation — from his Christian friends, Aaron presented himself for baptism. And, like Isaiah, he never rebelled and never turned back. He persevered in his love for Jesus Christ despite the Holocaust; despite the anti-Semitism of people who called themselves “Christian” but didn’t know the Gospel; and even despite the murder of his own mother at Auschwitz.
The hunger for God he found locked in that bookcase led him from the written word to the Word made flesh; from baptism to seminary to priesthood, and to the miracle of holding the body and blood of the Living God in his hands in the Eucharist — the body of Jesus Christ, which redeems the world and feeds God’s people.
Today, more than 60 years after first opening that Bible and hearing the Word of God, and more than 50 years after encountering God’s Word incarnate in the Eucharist, that young Jewish boy is Jean-Marie Aaron Lustiger . . . the cardinal archbishop of Paris, and one of the great witnesses of the Catholic faith in our lifetime.
Now, there are two lessons to this story.
First, God’s Word has power. It “opens our ears that we may hear.” It not only changed Aaron’s life, but through him, tens of thousands of others. And there’s a reason for that. Christian faith is not a set of ideas or moral principles. It’s an encounter with a living person, Jesus Christ, whom we find both in Scripture and the Eucharist.
Jesus Christ lives. Here, today, now. He lives tangibly — flesh and blood — in the Communion we receive. That’s why we call Jesus “Emmanuel” — the Hebrew word for “God with us.” The Eucharist is more than just a symbol, more than just a community meal, more than just a sign of our unity. It’s all of those things, but much more than those things. The Eucharist is not “like” the flesh and blood of God, or a “reminder” of the flesh and blood of God. The Eucharist is the flesh and blood of God.
During Pope John Paul II’s Spiritual Exercises in March this year, Vietnamese Archbishop François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân preached on the Eucharist with stories from his 13 years in prison at the hands of the communists.
He said: “When they imprisoned me in 1975, a terrible question came to my mind: ‘Will I be able to celebrate Mass?’”
The former archbishop of Saigon explained that when he was arrested, he was not permitted to take any of his personal belongings. But the following day he was allowed to write his family to request essentials like clothes and toothpaste. He wrote, “Please send me some wine as medication for my stomach problems.” His family understood immediately what he wanted, and they sent him a small bottle labeled “Medicine for Stomachache.” They also concealed some hosts among his clothes.
The police asked him: “Do you have a stomach problem?”
He replied that he did.
“Then here is your medicine.”
He said, “I shall never be able to express my joy. Every day I celebrated Mass with three drops of wine and one drop of water in the palm of my hand. Every day I was able to kneel before the Cross with Jesus, drink with him his most bitter chalice. Every day, when reciting the Consecration, I confirmed with all my heart and with all my soul a new pact, an eternal pact between Jesus and me, through his blood mixed with mine. They were the most beautiful Masses of my life.”
Later, the archbishop was assigned to a group of 50 prisoners. They slept in a common bunk. Each one had the right to 50 centimeters of space. He said, “We arranged it so that five Catholics were next to me. Lights went out at 21:30 and everyone had to go to sleep. In bed, I celebrated Mass by heart, and distributed Communion by passing my hand under the mosquito net. We made envelopes with cigar paper to conserve the Most Blessed Sacrament. I always carried the Eucharistic Christ in the pocket of my shirt.”
With the help of his Catholic companions, the archbishop gradually passed the Eucharist to dozens of other prisoners. “They all knew Jesus was among them, and that He cures all physical and mental sufferings. At night, the prisoners took turns at Adoration. The Eucharistic Christ helped in an unimaginable way with His silent presence: Many Catholics began to believe again enthusiastically. Their testimony of service and love made an ever greater impact on the other prisoners, and even some Buddhists and non-Christians embraced the faith. Jesus’ force is irresistible. The darkness of the prison became a paschal light.”
For the archbishop, “Jesus began a revolution on the cross. The revolution of the civilization of love must begin in the Eucharist, and from here it must derive its force.”
That’s the power of the Eucharist. How often do we even begin to approach the gratitude we should feel for such a gift?
And so too with Scripture. St. Jerome wrote that “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The Second Vatican Council said “the Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures as she venerated the body of the Lord” (DV, 21). So the liturgy we celebrate today is not two separate acts — one where we listen to the Bible, and then another where we receive Communion. It’s one liturgy, one act of worship and thanksgiving, “one table of the Word of God and the Body of Christ” (DV, 21) in which Christ offers us Himself, the bread of life, for our strength and salvation.
Jesus Christ — God’s Word made flesh — said, “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” How can that be true? But it is true. It’s true in the Eucharist and in Scripture. And that brings us to the second and final lesson in young Aaron Lustiger’s story, and it’s this: Faith has consequences.
In our Gospel today, Jesus asks, “Who do people say that I am?” The answers we hear now aren’t much different from 2,000 years ago. The world says: Jesus was a teacher, a prophet, a minor rabbi, a marginal Jew, a political revolutionary. Take your pick. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter — what matters eternally — is His next question: “But who do you say that I am?” You see, if Jesus is just a minor prophet, He’s a footnote to history. If He’s God, He’s the author of history.
Understand what’s happening here today. These readings today are not just interesting moral stories from the past. They’re God’s living Word. Jesus is here, in this assembly, right now — and He’s asking each one of us: “But who do you say that I am?” If our answer is Peter’s answer — “You are the Christ” — then our lives need to change as deeply as young Aaron’s life changed. And that means we need to think as God thinks, not as the world thinks.
It means that we need to take up the cross, not avoid it. It means that if our Catholic faith doesn’t bear fruit in actions which prove our love for God and His children, then our faith is dead. It’s worthless. If we ignore the poor and the hungry, we don’t love Christ. If we vote for political candidates who methodically go along with the killing of unborn children, we don’t love Christ. We need to understand that today’s second reading from James is meant for each one of us: “ . . . faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
This is why Isaiah wrote:
“I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” God called Isaiah to be a messenger to His people. Isaiah obeyed and followed. And Isaiah was willing to bear the cost of that mission, because he believed that “ . . .the Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced.” That’s faith. That’s what Peter had such a hard time understanding at first. That’s what the young boy Aaron decided to embrace. That’s what God asks each one of us to choose.
In the last days of World War II, the Third Reich martyred a young German pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran, but his words about “the cost of discipleship” should be engraved in the heart of every Christian believer, and all of us here today. Bonhoeffer wrote:
“Cheap grace” — easy Christianity — “is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field . . . the pearl of great price . . . the call of Jesus Christ, at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, [and] it is costly because it cost God the life of His son — ‘Ye were bought at a great price’ — and what has cost God much, cannot be cheap for us.”
Jesus asks us today: “Who do you say that I am?” If our answer is: “You are the Christ,” then God’s will for us is clear: “Go make disciples of all nations.” And the source of our confidence and joy is also clear: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Jesus Christ is with us always — in the love we share with each other in His name, in the power of the Scriptures, and above all, in the Eucharist.
God grant that our lives prove that to the world.
Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.