The Supersubstance

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

Fr. Gereon Goldmann was not yet a priest, but was preparing to become one, when World War II broke out in Germany. Soon after, he and his fellow seminarians, despite their chosen vocation, were drafted into the German army. Faced with a difficult moral dilemma, and despite the risk to their own lives and the lives of their families, they nonetheless committed to remaining faithful to their Catholic faith and to resisting the Nazi propaganda. By the grace of God, Goldmann was able to keep this commitment, despite tremendous opposition from his superiors and many of his fellow soldiers. Goldmann later served as a medic and, with permission from a bishop, was permitted to carry Holy Communion with him to give to the dying. In his memoirs from the war, titled The Shadow of His Wings, Goldmann recounts one of the experiences he had while doing this:

“Once a bomb fell in the midst of a battalion. The sight was terrible. My faithful driver…brought me to the place [and] [w]e found that all but two of the men were dead. The two living we quickly put on stretchers and loaded on the truck. I told [my driver] to drive as fast as he could, for it would be only a matter of minutes for these two men. He raced on, unheedful of the fire from the [enemy]. I sat with the wounded men and watched them. But it was too late to do anything to save them, and I finally told him to stop, to ease them at least from the jostling pain of the driving. One of the soldiers looked at me quietly. I took his paybook from his breast pocket; he was the son of a farmer…and a Catholic. I told him his condition was serious and asked if he wished to receive Holy Communion. “Are you a priest?” he asked. “No, but I have Holy Communion.” He smiled with joy, and whispered, “Hurry, hurry, sir.” I prayed an act of contrition with him and gave him Holy [Communion]. He whispered something I could hear only by putting my ear to his mouth. His last thoughts were about his mother. “Please write her and tell her, ‘I die with the Savior in my heart.’” What a death, I thought. I looked after the other solider. He, too, was a Catholic…“You should receive Holy Communion, also,” I said. With effort, he replied scornfully: “Such a piece of bread will not save me. Rather, put a cigarette in my mouth.” I took one from my pocket, lit it, and gave it to him. He took three puffs, dropped the cigarette from his lips, and died. He was with the other soldier now, before the judgment seat of God” (pp. 119-20).

Although Goldmann was not yet a priest, he was a spiritual father to these soldiers and countless others whom he ministered to. And like any good father, Goldmann wanted to provide for his children. He wanted to ensure their wellbeing, both physical and spiritual. But even as the best of fathers knows, sometimes your children don’t want to receive what you have to give them. Sometimes they want something different, and reject what you have to offer, even if it is truly best for them. Sometimes they are ungrateful and receive what you have to give them with indifference. This can be challenging for a father’s identity, because when his children reject his gift, it can feel like they are rejecting him, and when they receive his gift with indifference, he himself can feel unappreciated.

In our gospel today, Jesus teaches us to ask our Heavenly Father to provide for us. He teaches us to ask for “daily bread.” And like a good father, our Heavenly Father wants to do this for us. He wants to provide for our needs, both physical and spiritual. But this “daily bread” that Jesus teaches us to ask for is no ordinary bread. The Greek word which is translated “daily” in our gospel is a word which literally means, “supersubstantial.” The Greek word is “epiousion,” from “epi,” which means “above,” and “ouisa,” which means “substance.”

“Give us each day our [supersubstantial] bread.” Our heavenly Father doesn’t just want to give us ordinary, substantial bread, he wants to give us extraordinary, supersubstantial bread. When we pray the Our Father, and we ask God to give us “daily bread,” we are ultimately asking Him to feed us with the Holy Eucharist. We are ultimately asking God to give us Himself, which is the greatest gift, the greatest “super-substance,” that God can give us. “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” This is what God wants to give us: the greatest gift of all, the gift of Himself.

One of the most hurtful things we can do to our Heavenly Father is to reject this gift or to receive it with indifference. The Holy Eucharist isn’t just one gift among many other gifts that God can give us. The Eucharist is the gift, because it is God Himself. When we reject the gifts which our earthly fathers give us, it may still hurt them, but we are not rejecting them directly, because they are not identical with the gifts they give us. But this is not true when it comes to the Eucharist. When we reject the Eucharist, we are rejecting God Himself. And when we receive the Eucharist with indifference, we are treating God Himself with indifference. That is because the Eucharist is the one gift where the giver of the gift and the gift itself are identical. When our earthly fathers put food on the table, they themselves are not literally on the table. But when our Heavenly Father puts food on the altar at Mass, His own Divinity, which He shares with His Son, is literally on the altar.

One of the most painful things in my first year as a priest was when our parishes were closed because of COVID, and I couldn’t give the Holy Eucharist to those who hungered for Him. As a spiritual father, the greatest gift I could provide my spiritual children was unavailable for me to give. Yes, I could still preach the Word to them. Yes, I could still hear their confessions. But the greatest gift of God is God Himself and the only gift that is like that on this earth is the Eucharist.

It now pains me as a priest, and I know that it saddens the heart of our Heavenly Father, that not everyone who can has returned to Mass. We need the supersubstantial food of the Eucharist. Jesus taught us to ask for it. And our Heavenly Father wants to provide this greatest of gifts to us. But like the two soldiers whom Goldmann ministered to in World War II, we are faced with a choice: to receive the Savior into our heart with love and devotion, or to reject the gift for some fleeting pleasure which cannot save us. Let’s receive the Savior into our heart at this Mass. Let’s not treat the Eucharist like ordinary bread, but as if it is God Himself—because it is. It is the greatest gift that God could have given us, and it is available to us at every Mass. Let’s not treat this gift with coldness or indifference, but with as much love and devotion as we can. Amen.