Monday, June 7, 2010

Miracles, Mass, Bread and Wine

Most folks living in the Western world probably agree that today is June 6, 2010.1

Catholics around the world, if we're paying attention, recognize today as The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharist is always a big deal for us: today, more so.

Or, maybe more accurately, today we ought to take some time paying special attention to the Eucharist, and what happens during Mass - whether or not we believe transubstantiation is happening.

It's also the day when we're reminded of Melchizedek. (Genesis 15:18-18) And there's that reminder of the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.

But what I've been running into most over the last couple of days - or noticing and remembering, at any rate - is that improbable account in Luke 9:11b-17. You may have heard about that: when the apostles started out with five loaves and two fish, and ended up with 12 baskets of leftovers? After hosting a sit-down banquet of well upwards of 5,000 people?

I said "improbable," not "impossible."

Aren't Intelligent People Supposed to 'Know' that Miracles Don't Happen?

That loaves-and-fishes incident is one of many things that 'intelligent' people aren't supposed to believe these days.

Depending on who you listen to, sometimes the loaves and fishes story is supposed to be a pack of lies, like everything else that doesn't support the current intellectual fashion. Sometimes the 'intelligent' idea is that all those folks must have really had a whole lot of food with them. After which the apostles told a pack of lies about what 'really' happened.

When someone starts with the assumption that miracles aren't supposed to happen, that approach sort of makes sense.

After all, five loaves and two fish couldn't possible be spread over that many people for a meal. Without some help.

And if someone is really committed to the idea that miracles shouldn't exist - any evidence supporting their existence can't possibly be true.

Miracles Happened a Long Time Ago, in a Faraway Kingdom, Right?

Right, in some cases. Some miracles did take place centuries ago, in kingdoms and empires far removed from Minnesota (or California, or Calcutta, or wherever you are).

Others are more here-and-now.

Juarez Jail and Five Gallons of Lemonade for 200 Prisoners

El Paso, Texas, is across the river from Juarez. A few days ago, I followed a link from CatholicNewsSvc, on Twitter, and read about an experience Jesuit Father Rick Thomas had. He'd been in Juarez, with some of his fellow-Jesuits, following the invitation Jesus gave us: to visit the sick and imprisoned, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.

Nothing special there. Catholics are - notorious? - for paying attention to folks who simply aren't the 'right sort.' Think Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or Maywood's St. Rose of Lima parish.

Once, those Jesuits went to a Juarez jail. They planned to give lemonade and tortillas to the inmates.

They'd checked with the authorities, and were told to expect 120 inmates. So, they brought a five-gallon stainless steel pot full of lemonade. That would have given 120 inmates a little over 0.04 gallon each - a third of a pint. That's not a huge serving: a little less than 0.16 liter; but still more than 'just a taste.'

The "120" count of inmates turned out to be a low-end estimate. The prisoners came out of cellblocks in groups of 50 or 60: for a total of over 200.

Each of the 200-plus inmates dipped into that 5-gallon container with a 1-quart milk jug to "save some for later." Filling the quart container. (One U.S. liquid quart is just under 0.95 liter, or 1/4 of a gallon.) Okay: 'filled his container,' in colloquial American English, might not mean 'filled his container to the top.' But it sure could.

At the end of the visit, over 200 prisoners had "filled" their one-quart containers from that 5-gallon stainless steel pot.

Assuming the CNS piece was using U.S. liquid measures, and assuming that nothing miraculous took place, that's less than 1/40 of a gallon per prisoner: about 1/5 of a pint each. That's not much lemonade.

If you're not familiar with U.S. measures, 1/5 of a pint is around 4/5 of a gill, or 0.09 liter. (A half-liter is just over 1.05 U.S. liquid pints.)

A determined secularist could say that the Jesuits couldn't count, or mistook a five-gallon pot for a 50-gallon drum: or simply made up the whole story.

That could be what happened. I wasn't there.

In fact I've never been to Juarez - or El Paso. For all I know, those two cities don't really exist: and are part of a plausible story that Mexico and Texas cooked up for some conspiratorial reason.

Or, I could assume that Juarez is a real place. And that what happened with the oddly-sufficient five-gallon pot was a miracle.

Then, There are the Spectacular Eucharistic Miracles

Father Statz told about Peter of Prague in today's homily at Our Lady of the Angels church, here in Sauk Centre. Peter of Prague, like many others in his day, wasn't at all sure that Jesus was really present in the Eucharist. Then, during Mass in the church of Saint Christina in Bolsena, he consecrated the host. That's simply routine - it happens at every Mass. What made this consecration stand out was that the unleavened bread turned to flesh. And was bleeding - a lot. The year was 1263.

There's a bit more about Peter of Prague's reality check, and other Eucharistic miracles, in an article from Catholic Insight (1996), available online at the Free Online Library.

Over the nearly-2,000 years that the Catholic Church has been around, a fair number of these "Eucharistic miracles" have happened. Like the eighth-century event at Lanciano. The flesh and coagulated blood had been preserved, and examined in the 20th century. In 1971, a doctor reported that the flesh was tissue from a human heart, and the blood was from someone with blood type AB. (ZENIT, via

You don't have to believe that, of course. Maybe the doctor was lying, or the heart tissue and blood that had been stored for over a thousand years was a clever hoax perpetrated by somebody or other. Who knows? Maybe Lanciano doesn't really exist. I haven't been there, myself: I just assume that what credible witnesses say about the place is true.

You Don't have to Believe Any of This

I've never seen the consecrated host start bleeding - profusely or otherwise. I don't expect to. Events like that are of the low-probability variety.

Even so, I'm convinced that what I receive at every Mass is the body of my Lord, Jesus. That makes me a credulous fool in some of America's more 'sophisticated' circles. But, as I've written before: that, I can deal with.

The idea of transubstantiation is a bit controversial - and distinctly counter-cultural in 21st century America. It's a case where our senses really aren't showing us everything.

Paraphrasing a sort of Q & A from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), transubstantiation is a case of the essence of the unleavened bread changing while the accidental properties stay the same.

Which gets us into philosophical terminology. "Essence" is what a thing is - essentially. If I had a white shirt it would - among other things - be a shirt, a white shirt. "Shirt" is its essential nature, "white" is an "accidental" property. If I dyed the shirt blue, I'd have changed its accidental properties - it would now be a blue shirt - but left its essence the same: it would still be a shirt.

What happens at the consecration in each Mass is that the accidental properties of the unleavened bread and wine - their appearance, how they taste, what temperature they are - all that - don't change (except in really rare cases). Their essential nature, however, does change. Through the authority given Peter the fisherman by Jesus, handed down over the ages from Pope to Pope, the bread becomes flesh and the wine becomes blood. There's a longer discussion of this on that USCCB page.

As I've said before, we've got free will. You don't have to believe anything. What Jesus set up, though? I wouldn't recommend rejecting that.

Somewhat-related posts:

A tip of the hat to CatholicNewsSvc, on Twitter, for the heads-up on their June 6, 2010, reflection.

1 "June 6??" But today's the seventh.

Right you are!

But this post was written on the 6th, and would have been published then. If a technical glitch hadn't happened. I'm about 17 hours behind on everything now. More, at "Lemming Tracks: Where was the Lemming?," Apathetic Lemming of the North (June 7, 2010).

Thanks for your patience!

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