I recently read a book called “Priest block 25487.” It was written by Fr. Jean Bernard and in this book he writes about his imprisonment in Dachau. He was there from January of ’41 until May of ‘42. Somehow his brother secured his release, but many of his priest friends died at the Nazi’s hands in Dachau.
Fr. Jean was arrested for denouncing the Nazis and was sent to Dachau’s priest block a barrack that housed more than 3,000 priests. In this book he writes about his starvation, his torture, and the inhuman treatment he received. But he also writes about his faith and since today is the great Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, I want to share with you what he said about the Christmas he celebrated in Dachau.
For Christmas he said they were allowed to stay up late. So he and small group of priests made some crude candlesticks from left over margarine. A priest with a good voice sang the Gloria. A Bishop gave a homily. And that was Christmas, but then excitement came when it was whispered that someone had smuggled in a consecrated Host hidden carefully within a piece of folded paper. After the evening meal when it was quiet, he and a few friends met in the darkness outside the barracks. They opened the folded piece of paper and stood there adoring our Lord, lying on a humble monstrance of paper. Fr. Bernard then said, “We carefully divided the precious Host into as many particles as humanly possible to share with one another. And then as we tenderly partook of Him, the Christ Child entered our hearts.” He said that they then prayed that their sacrifice would contribute to bringing peace to the world.
Fr. Jean Bernard showed a great love and devotion to our Lord present in the Holy Eucharist. He showed a great attentiveness and tenderness. And in his heart that Christmas night he even felt the peace of Christ, even in the midst of a death camp.
As our faith tells us, in the Eucharist God is both truly present and hidden. Not only in the Eucharist but in all of life, God both reveals himself and at the same time conceals himself. Why does God do this? The answer is, to draw out from us our free response of faith and trust. Even true human lovers don’t give or demand proofs or guarantees. God gives just enough light for lovers, who can find him when they seek him, but not so much as to compel non-lovers and non-seekers to find him against their will. The lover, God himself, respects the beloved’s freedom. God respects our free will. He will not force us.
Again the greatness of the Eucharist is known only to faith, not to the feelings or the senses or the sciences. Its being (reality) is far greater than its seeming appearances. The presence of Christ’s true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, and this rests upon Divine authority, in scripture Jesus told us so. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, there are many “once in a lifetime” experiences in this world that feel more heavenly to us than what happens every Sunday when we receive the Holy Eucharist. There are many experiences that move us to tears of joy and remain in our memory throughout our lives: births, deaths, weddings, honeymoons, reunions, sunsets, even winning a baseball game. In contrast, most of us usually feel very little when we receive the very Body of God incarnate; even though we know that this reality is infinitely greater than anything else in our lives.
This is normal, and God lets this happen for a reason. God does not always give us heavenly feelings when we receive the Eucharist for the same reason he doesn’t always give us sights of heaven. We neither feel nor see Christ as he really is so that faith, not feelings or sight but that faith can be exercised, strengthened, trained, and emerge triumphant. The Eucharist doesn’t look like Christ; and so it tests, not our sight, but our faith: Do we believe Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and John chapter six or do we believe our human senses? St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, “Sight, taste, and touch in Thee are deceived; the ear alone most safely is believed; I believe all the Son of God has spoken: than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.”
Just as the Eucharist does not look like Christ to our outer senses; it does not always feel like Christ to our emotions. Here again our faith is tested. A faith that doesn’t go beyond human feeling is not faith at all, just as faith that doesn’t go beyond seeing is no faith at all. Now sometimes God does send us special graces that can be felt when we receive the Eucharist or adore the Eucharist in a Monstrance or the Tabernacle. Just like Fr. Jean on that Christmas night in Dachau. And when that happens, it’s an awesome experience. But he doesn’t always send us these graces that can be felt, not because he’s stingy or unloving, but because he knows exactly what each of us needs, and most of the time we need to exercise our faith, and not to go after good feelings. A priest I know in Kokomo, a man of deep faith who always prays to himself at the elevation of the Host saying, “I believe but help me in my unbelief.” He says this three times. He wants always an ever deeper faith. As a saint once said, these good feelings we go after are like sugary sweets, but they’re not our food. Christ himself is our food, feelings are like sugary jelly, and Christ is our bread.
As St. Therese of Lisieux once said, “This holy bread the Eucharist is not meant to remain in a golden ciborium within the tabernacle. At Mass He comes down to us from Heaven… to find another heaven, infinitely more dear to Him than the first: the heaven of our soul, made to his image, the living temple of the adorable Trinity (St. Therese of Lisieux). Come, let us receive Him in great faith. Living in gratitude and trust.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley