Fr Billy Swan
The annual Divine Mercy Conference takes place this weekend, Saturday 26th and 27th February. This will be the second year running that the conference will take place online because of the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. Hopefully, we will be back to the RDS next year. This is my first time speaking at the Conference and the topic of my talk will be:
'THE EUCHARIST - GOD'S WAY OF LOVING US
Welcome everyone and thank you for taking the time to join with me today for this virtual Divine Mercy Conference 2022. My name is Billy Swan and it is my privilege to address you at the Conference today. I would like to thank all who are responsible for organizing the Divine Mercy Conference each year and I would especially like to thank deacon Don Devaney for the invitation to speak at the conference this year. When I was working as a layman in Dublin 30 years ago, I used to enjoy my visits to the RDS for the Divine Mercy Conference each year. I heard some amazing talks and testimonies at those conferences and I thank God from my heart for the privilege it is to speak here today.
My talk this morning will be about the Eucharist and how it is God’s way of loving us. Perhaps you have never thought of the Mass as God’s way of loving us, but I believe that God’s gift to us of the Eucharist is the most real and invasive way of encountering us and changing us to become more loving like God Himself. From the Last Supper until this very day, the Eucharist is the everlasting source and fountain of God’s love and mercy that we can return to time and time again. In this talk I would like you to consider every individual part of the Mass and indeed the Mass as a whole, through the lens of love. It is my conviction that one of the main reasons why many stay away from the Eucharist is because it has never been explained to them as an act of love – God’s love for us, our love for Him and our love for each other. The famous German theologian Karl Rahner predicted in the1960’s that by the year 2000, the Christian of the future will be a mystic or they will not be a Christian at all. I would like to paraphrase the words of Rahner by saying that for the Catholic Christian of today and tomorrow, they will come and participate in the Eucharist because they will love it, or they will not come at all.
Let me begin by sharing a little of my own story. I have always loved the Mass. To the credit of my parents and religion teachers at school, my young mind grasped at an early age that somehow, the Mass was about God’s love and presence coming really close to us. My memories as a child were not so much of what was said at a given Mass but of the feeling of being enchanted by the atmosphere, the sounds, the bells and the smells that brought you in the touch with the sacred and the holy. I remember once asking my mother before I made my First Holy Communion why was there a red candle burning in the Church every time you came in. She explained that it was a sign that the Lord Jesus was always there in the tabernacle waiting for us when we come to pray. I will never forget that answer and to this day, when entering a Church or a chapel here at home or abroad, I look for the red sanctuary lamp that assures me that the Lord is there, waiting and willing to love and accept as He always does. When I made my First Holy Communion, it was a special moment of enchantment and joy. To realize that the God of love could come to me in such a personal and intimate way by uniting himself to us was something that has stayed with me to this day. For me, receiving holy communion was a perfect expression of what Jesus meant when he asked us to ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you’ (John 15:4). I could identify with how St Therese of Lisieux described the first time she received the Eucharist when she wrote: ‘I felt that I was loved and I said ‘I love you and I give myself to you forever’…it was no longer a look but a fusion…I wanted to be united forever to the Divine strength’ (Story of a Soul , IV, 77).
That said, we realize that sadly, not everyone experiences the Eucharist in this way. If they did, our Churches would be full, but they are not. For many, the Mass is dull, boring and lacking in engagement. Perhaps one of the reasons is because as a Church we have doe a poor job of explaining the Eucharist as God’s way of loving us.
I remember an occasion in a school in the parish having a lively discussion with teenagers on the Mass. Naturally, I was encouraging them to take part each Sunday and was trying to help them understand what it’s about. At one point, a young man blurted out his frustration: ‘But Father, the Mass is boring! It’s the same thing every time!’ Boom! How does one respond to that? In a moment of inspiration from the Holy Spirit, I responded with something like this. ‘Well, in one sense you are right. It is the same thing every time. But let me ask you a question. If you were a husband and as you went out to work every morning you told your wife that you loved her, would she say something like ‘please stop saying that! It’s boring! You told me that yesterday. There is no need to repeat it’. Of course, she wouldn’t! If she knew that those words were from your heart and that you meant them every time you said ‘I love you’ then it would never be boring for her to hear them again. As her husband, the love you are offering her is for the moment that counts most – that moment and that day. In the same way, the Mass might appear to be the same every time but it is God’s way of saying to us ‘I love you’ at that moment and on that day’. A silence descended on the class. A chord had been struck.
Let’s explore this further. If the Mass is God’s way of loving us, then how do we experience this love? Here I would like to lead you through the Mass one step at a time and unpack how each part and indeed the whole Mass itself mediates God’s love in real way.
The first place to start is when we come to the Eucharist to begin with. In an age when we place such a value on our choices, we automatically think of going to Mass as something we do or don’t do, like whether or not we go to the shops or to the cinema. However, when it comes to the Mass, the crucial difference is that coming to participate in the Eucharist is a response on our part to an invitation from Christ that comes first. This is the invitation he gave us at the Last Supper when he asked us to come and ‘Do this in memory of Me’ (Mk. 14:22; Luke 22:18-20). Whether we come to Eucharist or whether we don’t, our actions are a response to that invitation that comes first. In the words of St John, God loved us first and it is God who makes the first move to encounter us and love us.
Here we come to a crucially important point – God accepts us and welcomes us into that space of the Eucharist. Imagine for a moment the love of God being a circle of love where the Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father and the Holy Spirit is the love between them. This is the divine life we see represented in the famous icon of Rublev where the Father, Son and Spirit are all seated at a table on which there is bread and wine. In the front of the table there is a vacant space reserved for us to enter and sit down with them. Here is the moment when God’s circle of love has been opened up and where we are welcomed and accepted into that exchange love that is shared by the Father, Son and Spirit. Here we enter into the heart of God, into the center of the life of the Trinity. There in that space is where we enter when we come to the Mass. Precisely at the very beginning of the Mass, because of our presence, we experience the love of God as unconditional welcome and acceptance. Our God welcomes us and accepts us. What power there is in knowing this! What joy! God’s joy is like a great father or mother who rejoices to sit down to Sunday dinner, surrounded by all their children.
This welcoming acceptance of God has the power to change us. Many think that if we emphasize the unconditional love of God too much then we are gone soft on sin or that we ignore the truth of the darker side of our human nature. Thankfully, people like St Irenaeus come to our help here. He insisted that God ‘loves us just as we are but to such a degree that he will not leave us as we are’.
I have known people who have been scarred and wounded because they felt they were never accepted by loved ones – it hurts. I think here of people who married into families who were made feel as if they weren’t good enough or didn’t measure up. I think of people who feel hurt by the Church because they feel that the Church doesn’t fully accept them. Rejection hurts but acceptance has a wonderful power to heal. And that was why Jesus touched the lives of so many – because he accepted them as he accepted Zacchaeus - as children of Abraham and beloved children of God the Father.
And while God accepts us unconditionally, he knows that we are imperfect and stand before him in need of mercy. That is why the gift of forgiveness is offered shortly after we are welcomed by the priest in Christ’s name. The Lord forgives our sins when we ask him. He forgives us because he loves us. It’s that simple and that beautiful. This is a gift that we receive freely but one which has cost Christ dearly. It was the price he was willing to pay out of love for you and me. The forgiveness we need also has a very important horizontal dimension. We are a people who have been forgiven by God but are also a people who are forgiving. This means that we ask the forgiveness of each other for divisions and hurts that we have caused. We have no right to withhold the mercy that we have freely received.
The next experience of God’s love in the Mass comes as he speaks to us through his Word. In the readings, the dramatic love story is told once again of God and his people, as recorded in the Bible. It is a story of a faithful God who never stops reaching out to his people, who desires our trust and faith, and who communicates his love to us in ways we can understand. Contained in these stories from the Old and New Testaments is the power of love that affirms, blesses and yet challenges us to grow more perfectly in love itself. When necessary, his Word warns us when we are tempted to stray from the source of love who is God himself and to settle for less than what God has called us to be.
In the stories of infidelity to God in the Scriptures, we recognize the dynamics of sin and grace in our own lives and in the history of human behaviour. These are not just stories from the ancient past but moments that reveal who we are and who God is. Take for example the passion narratives in the Gospels. In these accounts we see all that is dysfunctional in the human condition – betrayal, injustice, cruelty, mob rule, violence, scapegoating and lies. These are the fault lines of the fallen human condition that we know them only too well. And yet in the passion accounts we see the response of God that is not sentimental but robust and brave. Through Jesus, God engages with these powers of darkness, suffers because of them and confronts evil and sin like a warrior in order to break their power and to restore healing and peace to humanity.
Here is a love on display that is truly effective in doing what it wants – to heal, forgive, unite and reconcile. Here is where God’s love does not stand at a safe distance from our fallen humanity but invades us with his grace in order to enter into every nook and cranny of our wills and souls to correct what is in error, to mend what is broken and to heal what is wounded. That is why the letter to the Hebrews describes God’s Word as being ‘sharper than a double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12).
This means that God’s love is up close and more invasive than we would sometimes like it to be; seeking to penetrate every aspect of our being with its transforming power. I love the following words from C.S. Lewis that describe the action of God’s grace in us as a kind of ‘good infection’:
‘A real Person, Christ, here and now, in that very room where you are saying your prayers, is doing things to you. It is not a question of a good man who died two thousand years ago. It is a living Man, still as much a man as you, and still as much God as He was when He created the world, really coming and interfering with your very self; killing the old natural self in you and replacing it with the kind of self He has. At first, only for moments. Then for longer periods. Finally, if all goes well, turning you permanently into a different sort of thing; into a new little Christ, a being which, in its own small way, has the same kind of life as God; which shares in His power, joy, knowledge and eternity’ (Mere Christianity).
At the Eucharist, this is the love of God that is active in us, offered by the Father through his Son in the Spirit, accepted in gratitude by us, shared and increased.
Following the homily and having listened to God’s Word of love, we stand to profess our faith in the creed which is a creed of love. It is summary of what we believe and what we have come to know and love. It is our way of saying that our faith is not based on myths but on real events that took place in history and yet transcend time to become effective in every space and age.
Then, in the prayers of intercession, we call to mind those who really need our love and support as we present the needs of humanity to the Father through Jesus in the Spirit. As our high priest, Jesus intercedes for us for he knows well the anguish of suffering humanity from his ministry and from the cross. This is not to say that we are absolved from our responsibilities to play our part to meet those needs. For example, we might pray for an end to hunger and for peace. We might pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life. But making these prayers and asking the Lord to hear us, prods to consider how we can feed the hungry and be peacemakers ourselves. By making a prayer for vocations, we are nudged to consider how we can play our part in creating a culture of vocations in our families and parishes.
Having heard and accepted God’s Word of love for us, at the offertory we join with Jesus in offering ourselves back to the Father in thanksgiving. Because God never loves us by half but completely, so he asks us to give ourselves completely in love to Him. Therefore, with the bread and wine we offer ourselves totally, all we have and all we are.
Just after the bread is offered, the wine is then poured into the chalice followed by the addition by the priest or deacon of a small amount of water as he prays these words: ‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity’. When I make this prayer at the Mass and watch how the water commingles with the wine as it enters the chalice, I am awestruck of how this deeply symbolic action and prayer express the faith of the Church – that by the Eucharist we celebrate and his Body and Blood we receive, we hope to participate in the divinity of Him who humbled himself to share in our humanity. This commingling of the water with the wine at Mass is symbolic of the commingling of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus that was brought about because of the mystery of the incarnation that we celebrate at Christmas. Again, it is a ritual within the Mass that speaks of the nature of love itself – that a higher love seeks to unite itself to a lesser love and by doing so, it takes, purifies and raises the beloved into itself. This is what God does with us at the Mass.
We hear much today about the importance of the environment and the care for the earth. At the offertory of the Mass, our whole lives are offered to the Father represented by the bread and wine. But what the bread and wine also represent is the whole of creation, all of the material world. This means that Jesus came not just to redeem humanity out of love but all creation and indeed the whole universe.
Then begins the great Eucharistic prayer where the priest, in the name of the Church present, asks the Father to pour out his Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine we have offered, transforming them into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Here we arrive at the consecration of the Mass where the love of God is so powerful that it changes elements and changes people to become more like the love that changes them. Just as the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, so do we become more radiant images or icons of the Lord himself as the Holy Spirit transforms us and absorbs us further into the life of the Trinity. The Eucharistic prayer asks God to unite us closer to himself and all those citizens in heaven who have gone before us and who pray with us at the Mass. Through the Spirit’s power of love at work in the Mass, the Church is united in heaven and on earth, lead along the path that leads closer to our final union with God’s radiant beauty. In the Eucharistic prayer we offer our prayer of thanksgiving to the Father and Creator of the universe and the Lord of all. Then, the end of the Eucharistic prayer climaxes with the great Amen when we profess: ‘Through Him and with Him and in Him; O God Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours forever and ever. Amen.’ Here we express our faith that we are not outside the love of the Trinity but are enfolded within the mystery of God’s love. In the words of Julian of Norwich, we are ‘enfolded by the Father, enfolded by the Son and enfolded by the Holy Spirit’. So rather than God being a distant deity ‘up-there’ or ‘out-there’ somewhere, God is the mystery of love in which we are immersed. In him we love and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
At the Our Father, we realize that we cannot love God as our Father without loving each other as brothers and sisters. At the Mass we go to God together for God is not just ‘My Father’ but ‘Our Father’. With the sign of peace, we turn and recognize each other as family and realize that together we are a living reflection of God who in his deepest mystery is a family of love, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At the Mass God’s love unites us closer as family. As a family we are drawn into unity that is shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Then comes the sublime moment when we receive Holy Communion as the love of the Father gives itself away to us through his Son. Here is the Son of God given by the Father in humble and self-emptying love ‘for you’, ‘for me’ and ‘for the world’. The Eucharist is God’s way of uniting himself to us as food and drink. Just as food and drink are digested and whose nutrients are carried to every cell in the body, so the power of God’s Spirit and love can reach, as food, every nook and cranny of our bodies, soul, minds, hearts and wills. By receiving the Eucharist with an open heart, no part of us is left untouched by God as the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ floods and changes our body, blood, soul and humanity. Just as a mother feeds her young so does God feed us whom he loves, not just with food but with himself (see Hos. 11:1, 3-4). That is why the Pelican is often used as a symbol of the Eucharist because the mother pelican will injure itself and feed its young with her own blood.
Here is an intimacy with God that no words can fully describe but is the experience and amazing privilege of those who take part in the Mass. For those who know this moment, no words are necessary. For those who don’t, no words are possible. Yet this is only a taste of what is to come. It is but a partial sharing in the fuller joy that awaits us in the heavenly banquet in the future.
What the distribution of holy communion also expresses is God’s overflowing generosity and self-giving. His love is not measured or calculated. It is not given in proportion to what we deserve. It is lavish and extravagant or in the words of St John Paul II, ‘The Eucharist shows us a love…which knows no measure’ (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 11). Borrowing from an early Church writer, St Bonaventure understood God’s love as ‘Bonum diffusivum sui…Goodness poured out on itself’. I remember a visit to Sicily a number of years ago and during our visit, the Mount Etna volcano was erupting. By day you could see a plume of ash reaching into the sky but by night, you could see the molten red lava bubbling over the top of the volcano. You could also see the lava slowly pouring down the side of the volcano, turning over on itself as it cascaded downwards. This memory reminds me of what God’s love is like at the Mass – a force of love and goodness giving itself away abundantly and liberally, giving itself to those who would receive it.
We also note from the Mass that the Bread of Life that we receive is bread that is broken and shared. The bread is broken because we are broken. We are frail human beings and in that fragility, Christ comes to us in our brokenness and incompleteness to heal us and make us whole. That is why before we receive the Eucharist, we acknowledge the truth that: ‘Lord I am not worthy to receive you but only say the word and my soul shall be healed’.
The Eucharist is also a prayer that in shared. We don’t come to Jesus alone but together. Our common brokenness is shared by us together and is united to the Saviour who restores our wholeness and peace. For that reason, John Paul II could write that:
‘The Christian who takes part in the Eucharist learns to become a promoter of communion, peace and solidarity in every situation. It demands that Christians learn to experience the Eucharist as a great school of peace’ (MANE NOBISCUM DOMINE, 27). This is why the Eucharist as God’s way of loving us becomes a sign of how united we can be in Him and be a sign of hope in a divided world.
At the end of Mass, we experience God’s love once again with a blessing as the celebration ends. With his blessing we re-enter the world of our work, families and daily routine. But we do so as different people. Experiencing God’s love changes us. It changes us to become more like the love we have received. As God has truly given Himself to us in the Mass as self-sacrificing love, so we go and be Eucharist for others, emptied of ourselves, filled with God and ready to serve. In this way the amazing love of God spreads and intensifies like a fire that has been ignited in the awesome prayer of the Mass.
Friends, I would like to conclude this talk by sharing with you a witness to the Eucharist that was given by a friend of mine who loved the Eucharist and who died just after celebrating it in his parish in Mosul, Iraq on 3rd June 2007. I speak of Fr Ragheed Ganni with whom I lived at the Irish College in Rome before his return to his homeland in June 2003. In May 2005, Fr Ragheed was invited to speak at a Eucharistic Congress in Bari in the South-East of Italy to share his experience of living as a Christian under persecution. On that occasion, he shared two profoundly inspiring insights that will always stay with me. Concerning the Eucharist and what it meant for the Christians of Iraq, Ragheed said: ‘For us Christians in Iraq, the terrorists take life, but the Eucharist gives it back’. He also shared on that occasion:
‘There are days when I feel frail and full of fear. But when, holding the Eucharist, I say 'Behold the Lamb of God. Behold He who takes away the sin of the world'. Then I feel His strength in me. When I hold the Host in my hands, it is really He who is holding me’.
It is people like Fr Ragheed Ganni who teach us that the Eucharist is God’s way of loving us. It is people like him and other saints who remind us that the experience of God’s love is never boring. It engages us completely. Because the Mass is an experience of God’s love, it should not be boring either. Sadly, for the plucky but honest teenager I met in class that day and for many more, this is how it is experienced. Maybe, just maybe, the reason for this is that we fail to appreciate the Mass as a direct experience of God’s love. In the Mass the Lord waits for us and opens the circle of his divine life, allowing us to take our place at table. There he welcomes us, accepts us, forgives us, affirms us, teaches us, corrects us, renews us, transforms us, feeds us, blesses us and finally sends us back into the world again to be witnesses and instruments of that same love. Going to Mass may seem like ‘the same thing every time’ but it is God’s way of saying ‘I love you’ at that moment and time. This truth changes everything.
I finish with an old Irish prayer that was prayed by the people of Ireland in penal times during the celebration of the Mass. Let us join with our ancestors in faith whose love for the Mass burned in their hearts:
‘Mo ghradh , Thu, a Iosa! Cead mile failte romhat, a Thighearna! Cead mile failte romhat, a ghradh ghil mo chroidhe ‘stigh!’….You are my love, O Jesus! A hundred thousand welcomes before You, O Lord! A hundred thousand welcomes before You, O bright love of my heart within!’