Which word would you use if you wanted to convey permanence: change or transform?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, while the word transform is defined using the word change, change has three synonyms to convey subtle differences in meaning: alter, transform and switch. Defining change using the word transform includes a more precise nuance: to make radically different. And for “transform” itself, the definition is to change completely. This past Sunday’s gospel was the beginning of the Bread of Life discourse in John’s gospel. It sets the stage for the next four weeks as Jesus teaches this difficult concept. We know it today as the Eucharist, but reaction of the people to Jesus’ proclamation was anything but welcoming.
How can He give us His flesh to eat? It’s not about puzzling the technicality of it, but rather thinking how utterly revolting the thought of eating the flesh of another human being would be. It was hard for those who had just feasted on the bread and fish that Jesus multiplied to hear they would need to eat His flesh one day. Many remained faithful in spite of this, learning only later how this could be accomplished. It has never been an easy concept. Even after 2,000 years people can still find it hard to believe the little, white wisp of bread is Jesus: body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is not the priest himself who changes the bread into the Body of Jesus. Rather it is the priest using his ordained faculties, in the person of Christ, calling down from Heaven for the hosts to be transformed, to be changed completely, to be radically different than flour, water, and the juice of grapes.
As Catholics we believe that once the bread and wine are consecrated, they become and remain the Body and Blood of Jesus. From an outward appearance, they still look like bread and wine, but they have been permanently changed. Some Protestant denominations believe in this change, but they think of it as only temporary, lasting for just as long as the worship service. As I was reading a reflection about Sunday’s gospel, one of Jesus’ directives caught my attention, “Gather the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted.” (John 6:12) I don’t think this was Jesus just being frugal. The leftovers in this case were not transformed into Jesus’ Body and Blood, but they were the result of a miracle, and a miracle should not be tossed away in the trash or given to the animals to eat. Likewise when at Mass more hosts are consecrated than are needed, they are gathered up and stored in the tabernacle.
If we truly believe in Jesus’ permanent presence in the Eucharist, can we expect to stay the same person we are today after we receive Him? While our transformation may happen slowly over time, we can’t expect to believe, receive and stay the same. Jesus will never force us to change, but just a little opening in our heart to welcome Him in the reception of host and chalice is an opportunity for grace. Little by little, we too will not just be changed, but will be transformed, will be radically different, doing God’s will rather than our own will.