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28 December: The Carpenter’s Son, Part II.

The Holy Family by an unknown sculptor.

The continuation of Sister Johanna’s reflection on his own people’s rejection of the Jesus whom they thought they knew.

They said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely?” …And they would not accept him. (Matthew 13:54,57; New Jerusalem Bible).

We’ve been meditating on Matthew 13: 54, 57, and on the fact that no one much in Nazareth seems to recognise the fact that Jesus is a prodigy. They claim to know his relatives, and imply that the family is nothing special, and that Jesus has no reason to be giving himself airs and preaching in the synagogue.

As I ponder this message from Matthew and try to grasp what Jesus’ personality might have been like, I am mindful of the fact that there are some people who, even as children, have a propensity to be ‘out there’ in the public eye. They are always the centre of attention; in any group they are the ones who are doing the most talking, telling the jokes and voicing their thoughts. They are smart and able to manage situations so that people notice them. They’re natural politicians, good at influencing public opinion. But judging from today’s text, this ego-driven behaviour would not be an accurate way to imagine Jesus. Here was a man who had never been a show-off. Jesus was simply ‘the carpenter’s son.’ He was a carpenter himself, and fulfilled the obligations of his profession without calling attention to himself. His workmanship, surely, was of an excellence that resulted in plenty of work for himself and Joseph; it was self-supporting but not self-aggrandising.

Then, suddenly, the one who built the cupboards was teaching in the synagogue? This text from Matthew’s gospel seems to expose an undercurrent of resentment that the people of the town directed toward Jesus. He was stepping outside the role they had given him. How dare he! A carpenter’s son, in their opinion, wasn’t supposed to do this.

Moving back now from this train of thought, it seems to be time to ask myself what this short gospel passage tells me. My first answer can only be that it tells me that this is what people are like. It tells me that this is probably (though I’m loath to admit it) what I’m like. We don’t want anyone disrupting the order to which we’ve become accustomed, even if the disrupter is a prodigiously gifted preacher who thinks outside all the boxes, and who would open my mind to an exciting new spiritual world. To this, the Nazarenes said, ‘No thank you.’ As I ponder again the recognition that Elizabeth gives to the young Mary when Mary visited her, though, I realise that this story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his home town could have been very different if there had been enough people of true prayer living in Nazareth. It is Elizabeth’s communion with God that gave her the ability to recognise Mary as the great woman she was whose faith would change the world. This scares me and throws me back on myself, and on the responsibility I have to cultivate an attitude of prayerful openness to the surprising acts of God – and if I don’t? The consequences could be disastrous, as the gospel text points out.

The text says in verse 58 that Jesus ‘did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith.’ What a horrible indictment. But, yes, I see that this must be the inevitable conclusion to this tale. The Nazarenes’ faith extended only to what they were used to. It did not extend to what was truly revelatory and unforeseen – present in Jesus. This made it impossible for Jesus to be fully Jesus there. He could not do what he so longed to do: heal; lead his own people closer to the Father. They lacked faith on a profound level. This kind of lack of faith involves a determination to stay the same, a refusal to allow the unexpected to be a sign of God’s work, a deliberate closing of the mind, a turning away from something new without considering that it may be an offering from God. And when we say No in this ultimate sense, even God will not push. These few lines from Matthew’s gospel expose a tragedy.


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27 December: The Carpenter’s Son, Part I.

Saints Joseph and Etheldreda from their church, in Rugeley, Staffordshire.

Continuing the theme of the Holy Family, I’ve chosen for today and tomorrow this extended reflection from our friend, Sister Johanna OSB.

They said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely?” …And they would not accept him. (Matthew 13:54,57; New Jerusalem Bible).

The non-acceptance of Jesus by the people of his own home town of Nazareth seemed extremely sad to me as I pondered this passage for my lectio recently. It also seemed strange. And in the end it even seemed scary. I wondered why was there no sense of local pride in Jesus. I kept turning this over in my mind. When one of ‘our own’ boys becomes famous it reflects well on everyone, I thought. Here was Jesus; everybody knew he had notoriety as a preacher and healer. His reputation was well-established; he was not a beginner still trying to prove himself. Jesus’ ministry had been developing and his following had been growing for some time. He had chosen the Twelve, he had worked marvels. He was, in short, a sensation. Why didn’t the people of his village greet him with excitement and open arms? His name was a name they could have casually dropped to impress their cousins in the next village. It would have been only natural for some of them to brag a bit about, say, knowing Jesus when he was a small boy. Or would it?

It suddenly hits me that we are looking at a different set of natural reactions that surfaced in the town of Nazareth. It seems that the people who knew Jesus from boyhood must have pigeon-holed him long before he showed up in Nazareth that day. According to the text, the people were saying, “This is the carpenter’s son.” In other words, Jesus is only a carpenter. Nothing more. We know his mother and his other relatives, they claimed. They are all ordinary people.

But did they know his mother and his other relatives? I wondered. Certainly his mother Mary was the greatest woman ever to have walked the earth. In saying her ‘fiat’ to the Angel Gabriel, she bore the very son of God. What immense treasures of wisdom and spirituality she must have possessed in her mind and heart. If anyone had had a heart-to-heart talk with her they’d have been bowled over. Did anyone bother to talk to her deeply? Probably not. They were blind to her greatness as they were blind to the greatness of Jesus. And Joseph. His courage in accepting Mary’s miraculous conception, and his docility to the message he received from an angel in a dream makes him too an exceptional human being in every sense. But no one seems to have recognised his greatness either.

It seems to me that this says something important about the life and character of Jesus and the Holy Family. Namely, that they seemed fairly unremarkable, unless you were a person of prayer and faith. Unless you made an effort to relate to them deeply. When the newly pregnant Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth alone knew, through her communion with God, that Mary was carrying the Messiah. But, otherwise, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not recognised. So they were superb at blending in. They did not draw attention to themselves.

As I continue my reflection, it occurs to me that this is still the case. Jesus, Mary and Joseph will abundantly reward our efforts to relate to them deeply through prayer and an active

spiritual life. But if we do not try to know them, they will remain only discreet presences in the background of our lives. Is that where I want them to be?

I would like to pause this meditation here and continue tomorrow.

SJC

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17 July, Review: Something nobody can explain.

The Catholic Guide to Miracles: Separating the: Adam Blai

Fifteen minutes walk from my home in England is a gallery in stained glass of healings at the tomb of  Saint Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral. Many miracle stories can still be traced there, almost 500 years since the martyr’s shrine was destroyed under Henry VIII. 

In 2020 a shrine was reinstated in Saint Thomas’s Catholic church, a hundred yards away, but I have not yet heard of any miracles there. On the other hand, there have been occasions when each of my children came close enough to accidental death for me to be immediately and eternally grateful to God for their preservation. Divine intervention? It felt like it!

This is a review of Adam Blai: The Catholic Guide to Miracles – Separating the Authentic from the Counterfeit. Manchester New Hampshire, SOPHIA INSTITUTE PRESS, 2012.

So what is a miracle? Adam Blai starts with Thomas Aquinas’s definition: ‘a true miracle is something that has a cause that is absolutely hidden from everyone, and that nobody, no matter how knowledgeable, can explain’. (p 2) Creation was the first miracle, the Universe made out of nothing. 

Adam Blai takes us through Old Testament Miracles: for example, the healing miracles brought about through the prayer of Elisha and Elijah before him, each restoring to life the son of a woman benefactor. Strangely though, Blai does not acknowledge that many of the Plagues of Egypt have plausibly been ascribed to natural causes.

It is the New Testament that tells of the greatest miracle:

And if Christ has not been raised, then empty [too] is our preaching; empty, too, your faith. (1 Cor. 15:14) 

In the years before the cross and resurrection, Christ performed many miracles, miracles that Blai tells us ‘were proofs beyond His words of who He was’ (p13). Those who see the Church’s preaching as empty will explain them away, and many of the healings at Thomas’s shrine could now be attributed to natural causes. The Church is well aware of this, which is why so few – 60 or 70 – healings at Lourdes in 160 years have been verified as miraculous, a minute proportion of the pilgrims who visit in hope of healing. Blai, like the Church herself, is not naive in the face of healing miracles, but he points out that they are the miracles most open to investigation and so are resorted to in the process of canonisation of saints.

There are, of course, other miracles – he cites the appearances of Mary through the ages, and the healings and other phenomena that people other than the visionaries themselves have witnessed. There are also apparently supernatural events recorded around certain saints: stigmata, levitation, bodily incorruption, and miracles deriving from the Eucharistic elements. Although many such stories were reverently told in my Catholic school, a more mature faith leaves them open to question. Adam Blai accepts God’s interventions but he would not build his faith on these accounts. 

In fact Blai is at pains to point out that there are counterfeit miracles. Discerning the difference between supernatural miracles, counterfeits brought about by demons, and mental illness is an important part of his work for the Church (p129); for example, once correctly diagnosed the mentally ill person may be led to accept appropriate help. Yet there are those whose delusions are deep-rooted but also have the charisma to attract others to what becomes a dangerous cult.

Counterfeit, charismatic faith healers are another dangerous group who use people’s fascination – or gullibility – around miracles to line their own pockets, dividing families in the process. 

A greater concern for Blai in his work, if not for the average believer who may live a lifetime without coming across such people, is demonic possession and fake miracles. A devil cannot produce a real miracle, but can set up counterfeits, and during exorcism may cry out in protest at being evicted.

I knew someone who was using a ouija board which went silent when, unknown to her, the local priest called on her parents; another young woman was greatly distressed to be told that her boyfriend was soon to die horribly in a road accident. The spirit that may be conjured up in such seances cannot be relied on to be truthful, as I told her; the accident did not happen, but the distress was real and hurtful. The reader will find a full exposé of the ouija board in this volume.

If miracles and the supernatural interest you, this book will give substance to your enquiries. It’s important not to get carried away by miracles that add nothing to the revelation of God’s love for all women and men in Christ Jesus. See them as a new expression of his love, for one person or for many, often for a limited time, like the miracles at Becket’s tomb in Canterbury.

I was glad to read this wise paragraph from Adam Blai’s conclusion (p164).

Real miracles are proofs of God, but we cannot build a faith based only on them. We need a living relationship with God through His Church. The main vehicles of grace are the Word of God and the sacraments, instituted by Christ. The center and goal of Christian faith is a living relationship with Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

MMB

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23 January: Week of Prayer for Church Unity, Day VI, Welcoming Others.

Strasbourg Cathedral

“Go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” John 15:16

Genesis 18:1-5 Abraham hosts the angels at the Oak of Mamre

Mark 6:30-44 Jesus’ compassion for the crowds

Meditation

When we let ourselves be transformed by Christ, his love in us grows and bears fruit. Welcoming the other is a concrete way of sharing the love that is within us. Throughout his life, Jesus welcomed those he met. He listened to them and let himself be touched by them without being afraid of their suffering.

In the gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves, Jesus is moved with compassion after seeing the hungry crowd. He knows that the entire human person must be nourished, and that he alone can truly satisfy the hunger for bread and the thirst for life. But he does not wish to do this without his disciples, without that little something they can give him: five loaves and two fish.

Even today he draws us to be co-workers in his unconditional care. Sometimes something as small as a kind look, an open ear, or our presence is enough to make a person feel welcome. When we offer our poor abilities to Jesus, he uses them in a surprising way. We then experience what Abraham did, for it is by giving that we receive, and when we welcome others, we are blessed in abundance.

“It is Christ himself whom we receive in a guest.”

[The rule of Taizé in French and English (2012) p. 103]

“Will the people we welcome day after day find in us men and women radiant with Christ, our peace?”

[The Sources of Taizé (2000) p. 60]

Prayer

Jesus Christ, we desire to welcome fully
 the brothers and sisters who are with us. 
You know how often we feel helpless in the face of their suffering, 
yet you are always there ahead of us 
and you have already received them in your compassion. 
Speak to them through our words, 
support them through our actions, 
and let your blessing rest on us all.

Questions

  • When you meet new people do they find you “radiant with Christ”?
  • As we pray together for greater unity how are we showing Christ’s welcome to other Christians?
  • What are people hungry for in your community?

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26 November: Taken by Surprise, II.

Yesterday we were looking at the feeding of the five thousand. If you weren’t here, perhaps it would be a good idea if you scrolled back to it. I would like to take a different tack now, and look at the miracle from the angle of its healing effect on Jesus’ disciples. I had been unable to get them out of my head yesterday in my lectio of this passage. Neither had Jesus, it would seem.

As we saw in yesterday’s post, the disciples had been left in a state of miserable suspension the whole day. News of John the Baptist’s execution had made them deeply sad, and it also would have made them feel the bite of fear. Would this kind of thing happen to Jesus? To them? The needy crowd had seemingly absorbed all of Jesus’ attention and energy, just when the disciples needed him most. Or so it might have seemed to the Twelve.

But Jesus does eventually give the disciples the reassurance they need. He does not forget them. He includes them most wonderfully in this miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. How? First, Jesus takes the disciples’ insufficiency (five loaves, two fish, and no joy) and turns it into a joyful feast of such lavish proportions that the leftovers alone could have fed a small village. And this stupendous feat is performed right under the disciples’ noses: they have front-row seats, and are able to see this miracle, and behold its wonder close-up. What could be more healing?

Then, in obedience to Jesus, they distribute the food. They’re the ones who receive everybody’s thanks, therefore, and they were probably given the credit for the meal being delicious and plentiful. What must this have been like for the disciples? Their wonder as the food kept coming: enough, and more than enough for five thousand, not even counting women and children? Did they begin to weep as they kept reaching into the basket of bread that never emptied? Did they laugh? Become giddy? Exchange stunned glances with each other across the crowds, as it gradually dawned on the Twelve that they were in the middle of a mind-boggling miracle? In any case, they were taken by surprise, once again, by Jesus, and in the process, healed of their grief as their joy in the miracle builds; they are strengthened physically and emotionally, and released from their fear by witnessing this manifestation of Jesus’ prodigious compassion and power. I imagine that they were never the same after this miracle.

And now I’m able to look at the question of what this says to me about the Lord’s work in my life. As my thoughts have moved more fully into the events recounted here by Matthew, I’ve become aware of the fact that Jesus heals his disciples ‘obliquely,’ in this instance. They don’t actually sit down with Jesus in a quiet and lonely place as they had all planned, and talk and cry and do whatever else they wanted to do to express their grief over John the Baptist’s death. Jesus had wanted this for them; there is nothing wrong with it. But circumstances took their course, and did not allow it. Jesus will not forget them, though: he remains concerned about them, and ultimately reaches their grief in a surprising way, by involving them in his miraculous work of feeding people.

When I think of this in relation to my life-experience, this story speaks of the healing power of the Eucharist in my life. Life does not always provide an opportunity for emotional healing that addresses my wounds in the way I had planned – if I even had any plans. But just as Jesus did not forget his disciples that day, Jesus does not forget me. He is present in the Eucharistic meal, and through it, has dealt compassionately with the wounds and the grief I have carried at different stages in my life. Through the Eucharist, and through my full experience of being part of the community of the Church formed by the Eucharist, Jesus has been transforming my insufficiency into something capable of providing a joyful meal. This is ongoing, but it is a joy that can still take me by surprise, because it usually comes from a direction I do not expect. But the joy is real, and will deepen as I acknowledge it and allow the deep wonder of it to well up like a spring in my heart.

SJC

Broadstairs Baptist Church, near Minster.

Thank you again, and always, Sister Johanna!

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10 October, Little Flowers LXXXII: Dens in the Woods 6.

Mary Mother from Hales Place Jesuit Chapel, Canterbury

And the feast of the Assumption being now come, Saint Francis began the holy fast with great abstinence and severity, mortifying his body and comforting his spirit with fervent prayers, vigils, and scourglngs ; and in these prayers ever growing from virtue to virtue he made ready his soul to receive the divine mysteries and the divine splendours, and his body to endure the cruel assaults of the demons, with whom he oftentimes fought in sensible form.

It befell on a time during that fast, that Saint Francis leaving his cell one day in fervour of spirit and going aside a little to pray in a hollow of the rock, from the which down to the ground is an exceeding deep descent and a horrible and fearful precipice, suddenly the devil came in terrible shape, with a tempest and exceeding loud roar, and struck at him for to push him down thence. Saint Francis, not having where to flee, and not being able to endure the grim aspect of the demon, he turned him quickly with hands and face and all his body pressed to the rock, commending himself to God, and groping with his hands, if perchance he might find aught to cling to. But as it pleased God, who suffereth not His servants to be tempted above that they are able to bear, suddenly by a miracle the rock to which he clung hollowed itself out in fashion as the shape of his body, and so received him into itself, and like as if he had put his hands and face in melted wax, even so was the form of the face and hands of Saint Francis imprinted on the rock; and thuswise helped of God he escaped out of the hands of the demon.

But that which the demon could not then do unto Saint Francis, to wit, push him down thence, he did a good while after the death of Saint Francis, unto one of his dear and pious brothers, who was setting in order some pieces of wood in the selfsame place, to the end that it might be possible to win there without peril, out of devotion to Saint Francis and the miracle that was wrought there, on a day the demon pushed him, while he had on his head a great log that he wished to set there, and made him fall down thence with the log upon his head. But God that had preserved and delivered Saint Francis from falling, through his merits delivered and preserved his pious brother from the peril of his fall; for the brother, as he fell, with exceeding great devotion commended himself in a loud voice unto Saint Francis; and straightway he appeared unto him, and catching him, set him down upon the rocks, without suffering him to feel or shock or any hurt.

Then the other brothers having heard his cry as he fell, and deeming him dead and dashed in pieces by reason of his fall from such a height upon the sharp rocks, with great sorrow and weeping took up the bier and came from the other side of the mountain for to gather up the fragments of his body and bury them. When they were come down from the mountain, that brother that had fallen met them with the log upon his head wherewith he had fallen, and he was singing Te Deum laudamus1 in a loud voice.

1We praise you, O God.

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16 January: Thomas Traherne XXV, a little Heaven in the creatures.

earthnasa

Entering thus far into the nature of the sun, we may see a little Heaven in the creatures.

Were all the earth filthy mires, or devouring quicksands, firm land would be an unspeakable treasure. Were it all beaten gold it would be of no value. It is a treasure therefore of far greater value to a noble spirit than if the globe of the earth were all gold. A noble spirit being only that which can survey it all, and comprehend its uses.

The air is better being a living miracle as it now is than if it were crammed and filled with crowns and sceptres. The mountains are better than solid diamonds, and those things which scarcity maketh jewels (when you enjoy these) are yours in their places. Why should you not render thanks to God for them all?

You are the Adam or the Eve that enjoy them. Why should you not exult and triumph in His love who hath done so great things for you? Why should you not rejoice and sing His praises? Learn Adam&Eve (391x640)to enjoy what you have first, and covet more if you can afterwards.

Meditations 2:12

Adam and Eve had been given all that was in the garden, except that they might not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, covetable though it was.

How long does the pleasure last when we get hold of the riches or other things we desire? 

We like the idea of the living air, so we’ll return to Thomas Traherne, since his reflections challenge as well as please us; apologies that we left it so long since last time.

Will T

Images: NASA; stone at Dryburgh Abbey, Scottish Borders, MMB.

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5 September. Little Flowers of Saint Francis XXXIV: Crowd Control at Rieti.

And when he drew nigh to Rieti, so great a press of people came out to meet him, that he would not for this cause enter into the city; but gat him to a church that lay without the city, it might be a two miles’ space. The city folk, coming to know that he was gone to the said church, ran together for to see him, in such sort that the vineyard of the church was spoiled altogether, and the grapes of it were all plucked; whereof the priest was sore grieving in his heart, and repented him that he had received Saint Francis into the church.

The thought of the priest being revealed of God unto Saint Francis, he let call him, and said: “Dear father, how many measures of wine doth this vineyard yield thee, the year it yields its best?”

Replied the priest: “Twelve measures.” Quoth Saint Francis: “I pray thee, Father, that thou bear patiently with me if I tarry here some days, seeing that I find here much repose; and let whoso will pluck of the grapes of this thy vineyard, for the love of God and me, his poor little one; and I promise thee, in the name of my Lord Jesu Christ, that it shall yield thee twenty measures every year.” And thus did Saint Francis in return for his sojourning there, because of the great fruit of souls that was manifestly gathered of the folk that resorted thither; whereof many departed drunken with love divine, and abandoned the world.

The priest trusted the promise of Saint Francis, and freely gave up the garden unto all that came to him. And it was a marvel to see how the vineyard was all spoiled and plucked, so that
scarce any bunches of grapes were found left.

The time of the vintage came ; and the priest gathered in such bunches as remained, and put
them in the vat and trod them out, and according to the promise of Saint Francis got thereout twenty measures of the best wine. By this miracle it was manifestly set forth, for men to understand, that even as the vineyard despoiled of grapes abounded in wine, through the merits of Saint Francis; even so the Christian people, that had grown barren of virtue by reason of sin, through the merits and teaching of Saint Francis oftentimes abounded in the good fruits of penitence.

People still come looking for God’s Word to be shared with them. African pilgrims at St Maurice; L’Arche at Canterbury, and World Youth Pilgrims in Poland.

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November 23: Jesus Beyond Dogma II: xxiii – Science has not invented beauty.

 

There is a tremendous wonder about the way creation works. Science has not invented the beauty in creation, merely discovered what was already there. Creation seems to have been on the brink of destruction so many times, yet things never come to nought. Birth, death, rebirth flourish at an astounding rate – forever to be reborn. The secret of miracle is not divine magic but the unlimited potential of cosmic energy. Miracles belong to the ordinary not the extraordinary – miracle is where life is lived fully – the baby gurgling and happy, the serenity of an elderly face… Where love and trust are cherished sharing is always the result – miracle is what happens when love, trust and truth are life’s guides.

There are many whose poverty is ill health of body, mind and spirit; and it is short-sighted to equate curing with healing. We can and we do wonderful things in curing bodily illness – but we need also to attend to the need for overall healing of body, mind and spirit. There has to be inner healing from pain, abuse, and hurt… to set free a spirit longing for wholeness. Many people experience this new found freedom whilst still being constrained by physical limitation. I can be fully alive while being severely constrained physically.

For centuries there has been awareness of spirit power – especially to do with air, wind and water – with the rhythm of the seasons and the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. For ancient folk the Spirit was at once benign and fierce, near and distant, tangible yet ethereal – totally unpredictable. Because those ancient folk lived in tune with Creation they accommodated to life with the spirit world. But once we became owner occupiers with the agricultural revolution, and broke up the land into possessions, we lost contact with Creation and its Spirit centre, replacing it with the man-made spirit of divide and conquer – and having disconnected from the cycle of birth-death-rebirth, death was seen as the supreme evil.

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June 22: Shared Table V, A big Miracle.

bread-fish-strasbg

Do I need to add that it was another true story? One of the most spectacular shared meals of all time, that puts into the shade our small miracle recalled in Tuesday’s post – and it happened in the unforgiving Galilean sunshine. 5,000 men, not to mention women and children, all of them fed from  five loaves and two little fish.

John’s account (Chapter 6) tells us that the food was offered by a small boy. So even then, the Lord depended on others to complete his work.

John also tells us that Jesus spoke about himself as real food:

For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.

Well, they did not get it, those who walked no more with him. But do we get it? Remember  Herbert McCabe:

The doctrine of transubstantiation, as I see it, is that the bread and wine become more radically food and drink.

To the naked eye the Eucharist is nothing like as spectacular as the feeding of the five thousand, at which Jesus floated the idea of his body as food to his followers. But consider how we feel more alive in the company of loved ones, as part of a crowd with a purpose such as cheering on a sports team; breathing the same air, hearing and singing the same chants, sharing conversation. We feel energised.

We can be less than 100% attentive to what is being said and done at Mass, receiving the Sacrament in a daze of fatigue or fret. But our presence, our extended hand, are there not just in the moment, but more radically are on the brink of the eternal moment.

(I doubt the loaves and fish were as big as these carved on Strasbourg Cathedral)

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