#3: Hungering for Jesus in Holy Communion with St. Augustine

The third way we can awaken our hungry heart for the Banquet Meal of the Eucharist like St. Augustine is through our reception of Holy Communion.

My mother, Monica, has always loved eating healthy food. From my earliest memories of childhood, I can recall countless times in which she tried her best to convince me that eating healthy is always the way to go. “Yam fries are just like candy!” she’d often say. In addition to her noble effort of trying to instill this good habit in my life by providing healthy meals and snacks at home, she would frequently remind me of the negative effects of eating unhealthy food. “You are what you eat,” she’d often say – which is an effective strategy when you’re about to eat some junk food!

We all know that the saying, “You are what you eat”, is not literally true regarding physical food – what we feed our bellies. But did you know that the saying, “You are what you eat,” is meant to be literally true regarding spiritual food – what you feed your soul?

In his classic work, Confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) communicates this truth about spiritual food to us by sharing a spiritual experience in which he imagines Jesus saying to him: “I am the food of grown men: grow, and you shall eat Me. And you shall not change Me into yourself as bodily food, but into Me you shall be changed” (7, X).

Commenting on this quote, Pope Benedict XVI states: “It is not the Eucharistic food that is changed into us, but rather we who are mysteriously transformed by it” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 70). Yes, exactly! Whereas material food changes into the one who eats it (“what you eat becomes what you are”), spiritual food, by contrast, changes the one who eats it into itself (“you are what you eat”).

Jesus alluded to this amazing truth during His Eucharistic discourse when He said to the people:

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:54–56 NRSVCE).

Isn’t it amazing that Jesus desires to change us into Himself so much that He has become food for us to eat? Isn’t it fascinating that Jesus gives Himself to us in Holy Communion so that we may be “mysteriously transformed by it” in such a way we literally “have eternal life” inside of us? Isn’t it astonishing that Jesus takes the principle “You are what you eat,” so seriously, that we can eat Him as our spiritual food every single day?

What a gift. Thank you, Jesus! 

With all of this in mind, I can imagine St. Monica (332-387) telling her son: “Augustine, my dear son, stop eating the junk food of the passing pleasures of this world and the heretical teaching of the Manichees. You are what you eat. Go to Bishop Ambrose. Get baptized. You need the real spiritual Food of the Eucharist for your soul.”

One of the obvious objections, though, to simply stating that “you are what you eat” with regard to spiritual Food is a problem many of us face after receiving Holy Communion over a long period of time.

While reading the above reflection, you might have thought something along the lines of: “But I have received Holy Communion for years and I don’t feel like I’m being transformed into Jesus at all. No one is saying I look like Jesus or act like Jesus or even remind them of Jesus. What’s wrong?”

Thankfully, St. Augustine, who certainly experienced this difficulty as well, made an important clarifying statement. He said: “If we receive the Eucharist worthily, we become what we receive” (my italics, Easter Sermon 227).

Therefore, a more complete statement can be said: “If you receive the Eucharist well, you are what you eat.”

In reflecting upon what it means to receive the Eucharist well, St. Augustine said:

“You are the Body of Christ. That is to say, in you and through you the work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken, consecrated, broken, and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and vehicles of Eternal Charity.”

For St. Augustine, receiving the Eucharist well means that we are living out the reality of this quote. In particular, St. Augustine gives us four key verbs that are essential characteristics of living the Eucharist well: taken, consecrated, broken, and distributed.  

For today’s reflection, we will consider what it means to live out these four key verbs: 

Taken and consecrated: I remember once in high school asking a girl out on a date and her response was: “Sorry, I’m taken.” My offer to her was immediately rejected because she clearly knew that she was already “taken” by another guy who had an exclusive dating relationship with her. For Christians, we can take this one step further. We not only have been “taken” by Jesus to be in an exclusive spiritual dating relationship with Him but we are actually “consecrated” to belong totally to Him in an exclusive spiritual marriage (see 1 Peter 2:9; 1 Corinthians 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 11:2). Remember, every time you receive the Eucharist, the two – you and Jesus – become one flesh. Sounds like being “consecrated” in a spiritual marriage, right? As a result, when Satan tempts us through sin, we should respond with something along the lines of: “Sorry, I’m taken.” 

Receiving the Eucharist well means that we are living this truth in our lives. 

Questions for reflection: Are you intentionally giving into any sin right now? If so, what sin is it? And is it venial or mortal? Venial sin is like flirting with the enemy. Mortal sin is like choosing to enter into a relationship with him. If so, you are not living the Eucharist well

To receive the Eucharist well, start rejecting sin with the words: “Sorry, I’m taken.” Remember, every time you reject sin, you’re not just saying “no, sorry!” to something bad but you’re also saying “yes, please!” to something truly great – an intimate and exclusive relationship with Jesus, who has “taken and consecrated” you to belong totally to Him. Why else would Jesus give Himself to us 100% in Holy Communion if not for this type of relationship? 

Broken and distributed: I remember once distributing Holy Communion when I felt my heart break. Here’s what happened: I had placed the Eucharist in a little girl’s hand and she just stared at “it”, not knowing what to do. I asked her if she had received her first Holy Communion before. No response. The grandmother beside her, though, nodded “yes” – yet the little girl remained motionless. So, I asked again. Eventually, the grand-mother directed her grand-daughter’s hand and placed the Eucharist in her mouth. I asked the grand-mother directly this time whether this little girl had received her first Holy Communion before and the grand-mother nodded “yes” and told me that today was the day of her first Holy Communion. She then asked for Holy Communion and I asked her whether she is a practicing Catholic and she said “no”. So I gave her a blessing. Over the next 24 hours, my heart broke multiple times at the thought of all of the ignorance and disrespect shown to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I wanted to examine everyone who came to Holy Communion and refuse the Eucharist to anyone who was not in a state of sanctifying grace. Reflecting back on this experience, I am now humbled and amazed at how Jesus allows Himself to be “broken and distributed” in total self-sacrificial love to everyone who comes to Him. 

Receiving the Eucharist well means that we are living this truth in our lives. When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19), He was requesting not just the daily sacrifice of the Mass but also the daily sacrifice of our lives. We are to imitate Jesus’ perfect charity – actively seeking to lay down our lives for others (see John 15:13). This is why St. Augustine said that by receiving the Eucharist well, we will “be the means of grace and vehicles of Eternal Charity.”

Questions for reflection: Are you holding back from allowing yourself to be “broken and distributed” in total self-sacrificial love to anyone in your life right now? If so, you are not living the Eucharist well

To receive the Eucharist well, charitable works are an essential practice to live out the truth that Jesus gives Himself to you in Holy Communion so that “in you and through you the work of the Incarnation must go forward.” When the priest says, “Go forth the Mass is ended,” we should really “go forth” with at least one specific act of charity that we plan to act upon.

Today’s challenge is to prayerfully read today’s reflection again after your next reception of Holy Communion as part of your thanksgiving prayers. And for a thought to meditate upon for the rest of the day: “If you receive the Eucharist well, you are what you eat.” 

To conclude: What is 1 thing you want to remember from this reflection?

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