Servant of God, Walter Ciszek, was a Polish-American priest who served as a missionary in Poland and Russia for 24 years, from 1939 to 1963. For 15 of those years, he was a prisoner in the gulags of Siberia having been convicted of being a Vatican spy. He was put to work in labor brigades doing outdoor construction in the extreme arctic cold, or in coal and copper mines, ill clothed, ill fed, and poorly housed in timber barracks surrounded by barbed wire.
When he was finally released in a prisoner exchange for a Russian operative, he was asked to write the story of what happened during those years. What stands out in both of the two books he wrote is his determination to keep his humanity in the most dehumanizing of conditions and the central belief that God makes us and gives us the strength to remain human in the truest sense.
In the dark artic nights, Fr. Ciszek and a few others would slip out of the barracks – only a few so that the guards would not notice them gone. They crept into abandoned buildings or outside in barns to pray the Mass using tiny bits of bread saved from their meager dinner and wine made from a few raisins carefully hidden. They risked punishment or death if caught, since atheist Russia banned all religious ceremonies and had already murdered thousands of Russian Orthodox priests, religious, deacons, catechists, and lay people.
These men did not risk what little freedom they had to consume a tiny crumb of bread or a drop of wine. Nor did they not risk frostbite and worse for a mere symbol. They who had so little of their lives left to sacrifice worshiped at the Mass led by their priest to consume the body and blood of Jesus. They did not worship only in their minds or even as a community, as beneficial as those are. They clung to the command that Jesus gave the apostles on Holy Thursday – “Take it; this is my body.” The members of Fr. Ciszek’s congregation knew that when we receive the body and blood, Jesus’ life permeates ours down to the depths of our being, not just in a spiritual manner but substantially and corporeally.
In all this, they rejoiced. For these men, the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist was not an abstract philosophical idea or the province of theologians. The Mass to them was, as it is to us today, the means that Jesus, who lived on earth and served the people, continues to live and to serve us today. Those shivering prisoners in Siberia knew that Jesus’ sacrifice is not something that happened long ago, but a present reality made real at the hands of their priest.
A present reality. A reality rooted in the fruit of the earth, in the wheat and the grape, and simultaneously seated in heaven. Can there be a religion in which God is closer to man than our Catholic Christianity? A religion earthy in its most complete sense and at the same time sacred in its most complete sense. Jesus gave us the sacraments, including the Blessed Sacrament we worship today on the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Jesus; simultaneously earthy and sacred because we as humans have an earthly and a spiritual reality. The bread and the wine become the Body and Blood.
So then, how are we to live, we who worship the body and the blood? We live our celebration of the Eucharist, of the Body and Blood of Christ, not simply as a commemoration of what happened to the ‘historical’ Jesus 2,000 years ago. It is, in a spirit of remembrance and thanksgiving, a celebration of what makes us what we are today, central to our identity as human beings. The Eucharist is the celebration of a living Body, of which we are a part and who makes us who we are.
We who worship the body and the blood live by spiritual sight, seeing in our neighbors not the accidents of body and personality but their true nature as children of the same God. Just as numerous grains of wheat are pounded together to make the host, and many grapes are crushed together to make the wine, so we become unified in this sacrifice, yet retain our human identity. Our Lord chose these elements to show us that we ought to seek union with one another, to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into Our Lord Jesus Christ and to work with Him in the process.
We who worship the body and the blood live in expectation of miracles. Witnesses to the bread and wine changed into the body and blood, as we are at every Mass and will do again in a few moments, can never doubt that God can change the most earthy and base experiences of our lives into the most holy. We can never doubt that our God who changed the suffering death of his Son into the most glorious resurrection and triumph can and will and will change our sufferings and pain into something far better in according with his glorious will.
We who worship the blood poured and Flesh broken live in thanksgiving, rejoicing in the presence of Jesus who serves and feeds us still. The bread and wine become Jesus as we gather around the risen and glorified Lord. The Eucharist heals and purifies us so that we can share in the life of the God we worship. We receive Holy Communion with fervent love and respect and not merely as a matter of routine.
We worship and praise, and we join the prisoner companions of Fr. Ciszek and the millions who through over 20 centuries and more worship and praise in joy the risen Lord who comes to live not just with his people but remaining in us, and we in him.