Here again we behold the infinite kindness of the Shepherd of our souls. Not alone has He deigned to stoop to our fallen state and restore us from death to life, not only did He take upon Himself our infirmities and bear our woes, but tenderly also has He provided for our constant direction, and for the daily needs of our lives.
The level to which the Saviour raised our lives and the dignity to which He invites us are far, indeed, above our natural powers. Left to ourselves, we could never attain the heavenly heights to which, in His goodness, He has called us. Through the infinite merits of His life and sacrifice we have been redeemed and reclaimed from the enemy of our souls; the gates of Heaven, closed against us before, have been opened wide; and our wayward race is again restored to the road that leads to our immortal home. But just because our celestial destiny is of so high and sublime a character, it is impossible, if left to our own abilities, that we should be able long to pursue it, and vastly beyond our sublimest hopes that we should ever finally attain it. We have, it is true, ever before us, the life and example of Him who has saved us; we know that His cross and death have delivered us from the wrath that frowned upon us. But we are weak and fragile mortals. With respect to things of the higher life -- of the supernatural world -- we, of ourselves, shall always remain as helpless and frail as infants. Not less unable is the babe of yesterday to traverse unaided and explore the material world, than the wisest of men would be to know and grasp by his natural powers the unrevealed good of the immortal human spirit. And as, in our natural state, we could not know the true end of our existence, without a divine revelation, so likewise, we could not pursue and attain our spiritual destiny without special assistance from on high.
How well all this was known to our kind and kingly Shepherd! How keenly did He appreciate our frailty and inability to walk alone the paths which He had trodden! Not unmindful, therefore, was He constantly to teach and direct the way which leads to unending life. When going before his flock and teaching them by force of example, He did not omit to give them that saving doctrine which, when He had disappeared, would be their guide, and the guide to their future shepherds in the direction of safety and truth. Hence He propounded a teaching which should be to its obedient followers a realization at once of all He had promised them, and of all their heart's desires. Not that it would make them rich or great in the eyes of the world and according to human standards, but that it would confer a truer and a higher greatness by lifting them above their weak and natural level and preparing them for eternal blessedness.
Men had the Law before the coming of Christ; they knew the ten commandments. But the state to which the God-man called them, and the eminence to which they were raised, were quite beyond anything the world till then had ever been able to conceive. Human nature, under the New Covenant, was invited to attain to perfection. Things which before were thought impossible, were now to be the objects of our daily strivings. It was no longer an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth; now not only was good to be done to those who were good to us, but to those also who did us evil; not only were we to love our friends, but to love and assist our enemies also; not only should evil deeds be avoided, but evil thoughts were likewise forbidden -- yea, we were asked to be, in all our thoughts and deeds, imitators of the Shepherd who leads us.(13)
Poor human nature, when raised so high above its natural powers, stood in perilous need of a shepherd's tender care. The new demands of every day made indispensible new and special daily helps. While our spirits can see and know the way, under the light of heavenly teaching, yet how weak and faltering is our flesh! We have the will to do; but to accomplish, we alone are not able. Therefore our Saviour said, "Of yourselves, you can do nothing, but in me all things are possible to you. The branches are nothing unless they abide in the vine; I am the vine, you the branches."(14) Thus He is our Leader, our divine Teacher and our source of strength. Without Him we can do nothing, but in Him we are strong. And daily and constantly He is near us, though we see Him not. It is He who sustains our very life and moves us to all that is good. Like an ever-present friend, He offers us constant assistance: He instructs and guides and helps us, and this is the strength and food of our souls. God's grace it is, always ready for our use, which makes possible all the high demands put upon our nature. Without it we should faint and starve on our journey, and hence He who has planned our high perfection, has provided the help to attain it. What are those seven wonderful sacraments which He has left us, but perennial channels of grace, constant fountains from which stream the life-giving waters that nourish our weary souls and make them strong for life eternal! Through these sacred means we are brought into contact with the life and merits of our Shepherd-Redeemer. They prolong His life and labors among us, they continue in our midst the strength of His sacred presence.
In a manner altogether special is this true of the Holy Sacrament of the altar. By the Holy Eucharist, Christ still is with us, and will so remain till the end of time, as really and as truly as He dwelt on earth in the days of His mortal life. Bound down as we are by the things of sense, we may, at times, be tempted to complain that Christ in this sacrament is all invisible to us. We can not see Him directly and immediately. His voice is silent and we do not hear Him; we do not feel the caress of His hand. But nevertheless we know He is present, for He has said it, and His word must remain, though heaven and earth should pass away. Even were we privileged to see the sacred humanity as it was seen of old in Palestine, we should not then, more than now in this sacrament, directly see the divinity concealed by the human frame. Faith then was required as well as now -- faith in His sacred words, made evident by His sacred deeds. This is not strange; it is not too much to ask. The same demand of faith is daily made upon us in much of our intercourse with our fellow mortals. Much that we do not clearly see we must perforce believe, else life would be impossible. The same, in a measure, is also true in all our human friendships. That which is most precious in our friends, that which is the source of life and beauty, of holy words and loving actions, of all we love and cherish in them, is the soul, the spirit that quickens and moves; and this we do not see.
Thus Christ in the Eucharist is truly present, though faith alone can apprehend Him. He requires of us this faith -- this humble subjection of our sensible faculties to the power and truth of His words. It is all for our good that now He is hidden from our sight. He is not the less truly present, not less truly kind, not less loving, not less merciful and forbearing; but He wishes to exercise our faith, to prove our fidelity and trust in His teaching and promises, and hence He is hidden from the powers of our senses.
In the sacrament of the Eucharist the gracious Shepherd of our souls performs in particular three offices for us: He is our sacrifice, our silent patient friend, and in communion He becomes the actual spiritual food of our souls. As a victim He is daily and constantly, from the rising to the setting of the sun, lifted up for us in the holy sacrifice of the mass. The mass is the perpetuation of the sacrifice He offered long ago for our redemption. All the altars throughout the world, on which He is ever born and dies again in mystic repetition, are but an extension of the one great altar of Calvary, where first He gave His life for our salvation. And in this real and awful sacrifice, forever repeated in our midst, He pleads again our cause with God, the eternal Father. Again in a mystic manner He suffers for us, again He bleeds, again He is nailed to the cross and raised on high, and in that same abandoned, pitiable state, to which His love for His flock has reduced Him, ever and anon in our behalf He pleads: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!(15) Holy Father, Powerful God, stay Thy avenging hand! and save the souls which Thou hast created for Thyself, and for which till the end of time I die!" He lifts, as it were, before the great white throne, His bruised and blood-stained hands, He shows those wounded feet, the scar of the spear in His sacred side; He points again to the agony in the garden, to the scourging at the pillar, to the cruel crown of thorns, to the weary way of the cross, and exclaims to Him who sits upon the throne, "Behold, my Father, and see the price of my sheep, the tears and sorrow and blood they have cost me! and spare them and save them for the sake of Thy Son!"
Through the holy sacrifice of the mass, identical as it is with the sacrifice of Calvary, all the merits of Christ's life and death are applied to our souls. By His physical and bloody immolation on Calvary, Christ purchased for us infinite treasures of grace, and it is His will that these graces shall be dispensed to us, even till the end of the world, through the august sacrament of the altar. Moreover, except for the mass, we should not be blessed with the abiding actual presence of our divine Shepherd among us -- that is, we should not possess Him in that special, intimate manner in which we now have Him in the Eucharist. For it is only in the mass that the sacred species are consecrated; and consequently it is through the mass alone that He takes up His sacramental presence in our midst and becomes our food in holy communion. He could, indeed, have ordained it otherwise, but such has been His blessed will, and such the condition in which we are placed by the direction of His holy Church.
Besides being our daily sacrifice, then, under the appearance of bread and wine, besides ever prolonging in our midst that wondrous act of Calvary by which at once He liberated our race and reopened to us the gates of Heaven, the bounteous Shepherd of our souls enters into the tabernacles of our churches, and there in silent patient waiting He craves the love of our hearts and longs for our intimate friendship. He is not content alone to plead for us with God, His Father; He is not content continually to renew in our presence the tragic mystery by which at the end of His earthly labors, He procured us every blessing -- no, over and above these sovereign acts of kindest benediction, He wishes to remain among us, and to converse with us, each and all, as a friend would converse with his friend. This is what He meant when He said by the mouth of His inspired writer, "my delights are to be with the children of men."(16) As a Shepherd, His chiefest pleasure, as well as His supremest care, is to be with the flock He has purchased and loves. Yet it is a lonely life for our Shepherd-King, this abode in the silent tabernacle; but it is all for love of us. He wishes to be there where we can find Him, where we can come to Him at any hour and speak to Him, to praise and thank Him for all His dear and endless gifts, to tell Him our needs and our sorrows, to open our breaking hearts to Him and reveal the secrets of our souls. This it is that He desires from us -- the outpouring of our hearts and souls in His presence. This it is which renders unto Him that homage of faith and love and devotion that He came into the world to inspire. It will not do to say that, being God, He is acquainted with all our thoughts and aware of all our wants, for it is intimacy and confidence that He desires, the intimacy and confidence which alone can create a true and noble friendship. "I will call you no longer servants," He said to His disciples, "but I have called you friends; the servant knoweth not what his Master doth, but a friend is admitted to confidence."(17) Christ in the tabernacle is our friend; He has loved us unto the end, and He yearns for our love in return. Why is this? Why are we so precious in His eyes? What are we that the great Creator should at all be mindful of us?(18) We must remember and ever bear in mind the lofty purpose which the Creator had in view when first He called us into being -- the same purpose it was which prompted our redemption and all the gracious dispensations that have followed thereupon -- namely, that God, while achieving His own eternal honor and glory, might communicate to us a portion of His own ineffable blessedness. We were made for God, and not for the world, or for creatures, or for ourselves. And precisely because we are the possession and property of God, He wants us, soul and body, for Himself; and in this blessed sacrament He calls to us individually, "Son, give Me thy heart;"(19) "come to Me, all you who are burdened, and I will refresh you."(20) "come to Me and find rest for your souls, I will lead you beside the waters of quietness."
But the excesses of our Shepherd's love and care do not stop with the altar and with the tabernacle. He is not satisfied with being our daily sacrifice and our abiding friend, not satisfied until He enters into our very bosom and unites us to Himself. Union with the beloved object and delight in its presence are characteristic of all true friendship, whether human or divine. That which we really love we desire to have, to possess, to be united with; and hence it is that Christ, the lover of our souls, has not only given His life to purchase us for Himself and Heaven, but has so extended His loving-kindness as to become Himself our actual food.
It is incomprehensible, in a human way, that the love of a shepherd for his flock, the love of God for His creatures, should be so extraordinary as to provide the wondrous benefits which Christ in the Eucharist has wrought for us. We simply cannot grasp with our feeble minds the prodigality of such enduring love. But the Saviour knew His purpose with us, and He knew the needs of our souls. As guests destined for an eternal banquet, and as heirs to celestial thrones, it is needful for us, amid the rough ways and perils of life, to be constantly reminded of our royal destiny and strengthened against our daily foes. This world of ours is an arena in which each one must contend for his eternal prize; and it is not possible, considering our natural frailty and the enemies that oppose our forward march, that we alone, without an added strength, should ever be able to win the battle of life.
Hence, as the body, to maintain its vigor and perform its work, needs its material and earthly food, so the soul, to live and be strong, must be nourished with the bread of Heaven. "The bread that I will give," said our Lord, "is my flesh for the life of the world ... unless you eat of this bread you cannot have life in you ... and he that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day."(21)
In order, then, to sustain our spiritual life on earth and to make us strong for our daily conflicts, our heavenly Shepherd has left us a food which is none other than His own body and blood. What a prodigy of love! What could He do for us that He has not done? But, besides giving us strength, He had another purpose in becoming our food. Since He has chosen us for Himself, and has provided, in another world, eternal mansions for our souls,(22) He wishes to make certain, not only the happy issue of our lives, but our ever-increasing resemblance to Himself. He is therefore preparing us, He is fitting us, through communion in the Holy Eucharist, for our celestial home, and for visible companionship with Himself. Intercourse, communion, intimate relationship produce likeness, even here on earth, and it is a singular effect of Holy Communion that, unlike earthly food, it changes into itself all those who partake of it. Material, natural food becomes the substance of our flesh and blood, but frequent participation in the heavenly nourishment of Christ in the Eucharist transmutes our whole being -- our lives and thoughts and actions -- into its own supernatural character.
Thus by living much with Christ on earth, by intimate converse with Him, by allowing Him to enter into our lives and thoughts, and shape our conduct and actions; and above all, by frequent and fervent communion with Him in the sacrament of His love, we become like unto Him, even here in our state of exile. And this likeness to Christ, which His faithful servants assume here below, is a forestate of future blessedness; it is a preparation for the great reunion and the eternal banquet which await us in Heaven. Already we are led beside the waters of rest; we are directed to pastures of sweetest nourishment; and through the calm and vigor that reign in the soul we experience even now a taste of joys unseen.