This is the time of year for First Communion. Children all over are receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ for the first time. This is because in the Western church we have the tradition that no one can receive the Eucharist until they have reached the age of understanding. It is at this stage that a child can look at what seems to be bread and what seems to be wine and acknowledge the mystery that they are actually the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
This is our tradition in the Western Catholic Church, but in the Eastern Catholic Church, in Eastern Europe and Greece and the Middle East, children receive the Eucharist along with their baptism as babies. In some ways this makes sense because a seven-year-old does not really understand what it means that the bread has changed into the body of Christ. I do not really understand what that means. Not really.
Of course it is possible to say the right things, to learn the theological terminology and to understand certain analyses and ways of considering the Eucharist, but when it comes to understanding the Eucharist I do not have much advantage over newborn baby. This extends to my understanding of God entirely. I do not really know who God is, I cannot see him or comprehend him. For this reason, Jesus gives us images by which we can approach God.
The first image we have today is that of a stone rejected by the builders which became the cornerstone. Of course, we understand the analysis of this analogy. Jesus is the stone rejected by the builders, which is to say the leadership of Jerusalem, but nevertheless he is the cornerstone, the most important. But by analyzing the image we are back to trying to understand, trying to fit the infinite mystery in our finite minds.
When that line was written hundreds of years for Jesus Christ the author did not know what it was talking about but he was inspired nonetheless to write this line, to create this image, which was so perfectly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. I have heard, although I do not know for sure if it is true, that Mount Calvary, the place where Jesus died, was made of stone which when they were building Jerusalem the builders decided was inferior, unable to be used. So this stone which the builders actually rejected has become the cornerstone of our salvation.
In the second reading today St. John gives us an image of God. He says that we are “children of God”. This does not only mean that God is our father but something more. It is lost in English, but this image is referring to children. When I learned Spanish my teacher taught me that it is not possible to call an adults “a child” the way it is in English where we might look at an adult and say here is her child. Bn most languages “a child” refers to a young person. So it is also in Greek. This image teaches us not merely that God is our father but that we are the children of God. Like little children playing, but like his little children.
In the Gospel today, Jesus gives us the image of the good Shepherd. In John's image we are like little children but in this image we are like sheep which is not very complimentary. I have never kept sheep myself but I have seen and heard that they are filthy stupid animals. wandering all over, always needing to be gathered back into the flock. We forget this because we live in modern times but in Jesus time everyone would have known this image of a Shepherd and sheep.
All of these images are powerful images and we do not try to reduce them to ideas but we let them remain images. This is a major difference between the Catholic way of being a Christian and the way that others try to be Christian: Catholics practice religion not only in the minds but also in images, signs, and symbols. Every Mass we take the Eucharist and eat it. We do not receive it in order to understand it but in order to eat it.
For other Christians, faith is often something which happens in the mind, but we believe that faith is more than that. Faith is not a feeling or attitude that we take on ourselves. Faith is a gift from God. Faith is participating in the images and the signs. When we hear images like in Scripture today we believe that they are good images, and we allow those images to change the way that we understand God.
St. John tells us in the second reading today that someday we are going to see God face to face, and that when we do the experience will change us because we will become people who know God, who understand God. Just imagine that every person here, every one of you has the potential to someday be the sorts of person who understands God perfectly.
In the meantime we practice our faith even without understanding, we come receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ believing that it is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ but incapable of understanding how that is possible. We participate in the signs and symbols not only mentally, but physically, bodily. As we receive that true sign, the Eucharist, and the other signs in Scripture today, we believe that God will change us in spite of our limited understanding.