Very strong is the language and powerful the imagery that we hear in our readings today. We can’t help but feel personally chastised and convicted by the directness of it all. Our Lord exclaims through the prophet Amos in our First Reading: “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” But because the readings in every Mass take on a present character—they happen and are spoken to us here and now—the Lord addresses us in this gathered assembly, saying: “Woe to the complacent in St. Joseph’s Parish, at the 7:30 a.m. Mass!” He is speaking to me and to you. Woe to the complacent… enjoying the good things of life without being made ill by the sufferings of those around us. The strength of the message only increases in the Gospel Reading from Luke, wherein Jesus tells the Pharisees the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Rich Man, who dresses in the finest clothing and dines on the best foods, does nothing for the poor man, Lazarus, lying at his very door. In the end, the fortunes of these two are reversed. After death, Lazarus is taken to a place of rest and peace where he suffers no longer. The uncompassionate Rich Man, however, is sent to a place of eternal torment because, as Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospel of Matthew, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me,” and “what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me” (Mt. 25:40, 45). Jesus is rebuking and exiling the rich and powerful—not for their wealth, but for their refusal to share it; not for their power but for their indifference to the suffering at their door. Wealth and power are not bad things! But complacency, indifference, and ultimately the failure to love are.
Now, the surface-level message of today’s readings is clear: Jesus wants us to act to alleviate the sufferings of our brothers and sisters around us. But why? This brings us to the real heart of the matter for us as Christians. Because you see, there is a difference between the Church’s care for the poor and the government’s, or that of any other secular institution or person. The real problem here is not simply the Rich Man’s failure to give a handout to a poor person. The problem is his failure to recognize the presence of Christ … in this man at his door. Even if he had obliged Lazarus’ simple desire by giving him the “scraps that fell from his table,” the problem would persist. He does not see Christ in this poor man’s face, and he is unmoved. We are called to recognize and respond to the face of Christ present in one another, to act out of love for one another because Christ is in each of us and loves each of us, especially the poorest among us. As Christians, we don’t get off the hook by simply passing a five-dollar bill to the homeless man in the parking lot so he’ll leave us alone. We don’t satisfy our Christian calling by dropping off an old, worn-out sweater at the Salvation Army, or by begrudgingly signing a check for a second collection. Our Lord calls us to look into each other’s eyes, to recognize Him, and to act out love…
Our problem, I think—yours and mine—is that we have bad eyes and weak hearts. We often do not see with the eyes of faith or respond with the passionate love of Christ. For most people, for most Christians, there is no malice or bad intention in this. We just all too easily become lukewarm, desensitized, and complacent. Like the Rich Man in today’s Gospel, we step right over the Lazaruses at our door on our way to the next event, the next errand, or any other seemingly urgent thing in our day. We don’t see Christ coming to us. We don’t stop. We don’t respond out of love.
Now this problem of our bad eyes and our weak hearts does not only affect our ability to recognize Christ in one another, and especially the poor. A central teaching of our Catholic faith is that Christ has three bodies, and these three are one [repeat]. There is the historical body of Christ, now glorified and ascended into Heaven. There is the mystical body of Christ, which is all of us, the body of believers. And there is also the sacramental body of Christ, the Eucharist. These three bodies of Christ are all mysteriously one. Failure to recognize Christ present in any one of these will necessarily have an affect on our ability to recognize Christ present in the others. The Catechism points out even more ways that Christ is present: in His word, in His Church’s prayer, in the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, in the sacraments… But most especially in the Eucharistic species of bread and wine, “by which Christ, both God and man, makes Himself wholly and entirely present” (CCC 1373-74).
It is astonishing to realize that the greatest social action champions of our Church all had a profound love for and devotion to the Blessed Sacrament—a profound reverence for the Eucharist. Think of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, who attended daily Mass to adore and receive Christ present in the Eucharist. Think of St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who spent her life caring for the sick and dying in the slums of India. She had an intense devotion to Our Lord present in the Holy Eucharist, and she fostered this same devotion in the nuns who worked with her. She wrote: “Unless we believe and see Jesus in the appearance of bread on the altar, we will not be able to see Him in the distressing disguise of the poor.” Precisely because of this, Mother Teresa and her sisters started every day with Eucharistic Adoration. When asked why, she said, “We go to meet Christ in the Eucharist before we go out to meet Him on the streets.” Think also of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, the very young “man of the Beatitudes,” who was an extraordinary friend to the poor on the streets of Turin, Italy. He was known not only for his social concern but for his fervent Eucharistic devotion. He stated that Eucharistic Adoration is the training ground for being able to find Jesus in the streets.
If and when devotion to the Eucharist is compromised, so will commitment to the poor be compromised, or it will devolve into merely a type of social work. The Church’s mission given to her by Christ is to worship, to evangelize, and to care for the poor. We can’t isolate any one of these three and say this one is what the Church is all about. If we have lost a sense of the Eucharist, the other two will fall away as well.
This inseparable connection between recognizing Christ present in the Eucharist and recognizing Christ present in the poor is precisely why the recent statistics about Catholic belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist are so alarming. You’ve probably all heard about it by now. The Pew Research Center published their findings that 69% of American Catholics do not believe that Jesus is truly present—body, blood, soul, and divinity—in the Eucharist at Mass. 69%!! And among young Catholics, that number is 80%. 80% of young Catholics believe that Jesus is only symbolically present in the bread and wine at Mass. Talk about a problem of bad eyes and weak hearts!
So many of us are not able to discern Christ’s presence, even in the most tangible and real way that He presents Himself, in the Eucharist. And even for those of us who do really believe, just like our subtle lukewarmness and desensitization to Christ present in one another, so also do we become complacent about and desensitized to Jesus’ presence in the Holy Eucharist. The two are interrelated. And again, for the most part this lukewarmness and complacency does not develop in us out of malice or bad intention. But our indifference to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, played out Sunday after Sunday, weekday after weekday, eventually affects our belief and our behavior, perhaps without us even realizing it. Like the complacent Rich Man stepping over the presence of Jesus in the poor man, Lazarus, without a second glance, so we step over the presence of Jesus when we come up for Communion with Jesus as the last thing on our mind at that moment, or when we pass in front of the tabernacle with no act of reverence to Jesus there.
So what is the solution to all of this, to our bad eyes and weak hearts? How can we recognize and respond to the presence of Jesus in all the ways that He comes to us? Some have said, “Well if the bread at Mass would physically, in appearance, become a piece of bleeding flesh at the consecration, then I would believe in Jesus’ true presence. This sounds a lot like the Rich Man at the end of today’s Gospel reading, when from his place of torment he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to appear to his relatives so that they might be converted. He says, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Basically, that means, “God, do tricks! And then we will believe.” But Abraham wisely responds: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” And similarly for us and the Eucharist, we have had Eucharistic miracles up and down the ages all around the world when the bread actually has turned into physical, bleeding flesh on the altar. And still we don’t believe. Jesus is risen from the dead, as He promised! And still we don’t believe Him, that He could make this bread and wine His body and His blood, as He promised.
We need to pray, to beg for faith. We need to study our faith. We need to cry out with the man in the Gospel of Mark, who said to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” We need to approach Our Lord in Holy Communion reverently, giving a resounding, “Amen!” when the minister holds up the host and says, “The Body of Christ.” “Amen! I do believe! I would stake my life on what you have just said.” Pope St. John Paul II told millions of youth at World Youth Day in 2004: “If you learn to discover Jesus in the Eucharist, you will also know how to discover Him in your brothers and sisters, particularly in the very poor.” Mother Teresa said this process of growing in faith and service begins with silence and prayer in front of the Eucharist. “The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace. This is the way to meet Christ.”
Christ’s action of pouring Himself out for us in the Holy Eucharist teaches us how to pour ourselves out in love for others, to love others with Christ’s love, and not simply our own. The goal for us as Catholics is to be able to recognize and receive our brothers and sisters around us, especially the poor, with the same reverence and love with which we recognize and receive Our Lord in Holy Communion. If we look with eyes of faith at Christ present in the Eucharist, we will be able to look with eyes of faith at Christ present in the poor. Only then will the dismissal at the end of Mass take on its full weight and significance in our lives: your encounter with Love Himself here has changed you; now go out and transform the world with that love. You have seen and received Christ present here; now go out and recognize and respond to Christ present in those around you.