June 10. Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ
Exod 24:3-8. This reading describes the solemn ratification by Moses and the people of the covenant God made with them on Mount Sinai.
Hebr 9:11-15. Through the redeeming work of Christ God has entered into a new and eternal covenant with his people.
Mk 14:12-16, 22-26. This describes the preparation and the celebration of the Passover meal Jesus ate with his disciples the night before he died.
Theme: God fed his people in the desert by providing them with food and drink. He continues to feed us with food and drink in the body and blood of his Son, which we celebrate in the feast of Corpus Christi.
Around the Table
We are all aware of the significance of meals, as a special way of being together. Each of us will have our own memories of table fellowship. Many of these will be happy, experiences of celebration and laughter, of love given and received. Some memories of table fellowship may be sad, times when we were more aware of one who was absent than of those who were present.
Jesus shared table many times with his disciples. It is likely that, when sharing food with his disciples, he also shared his vision of God’s kingdom with them. At table, the disciples imbibed something of Jesus’ mind and heart and spirit. Of all the meals he shared with the disciples, the meal that stayed in their memory more than any other was their last meal together, what came to be known as the last supper. Today’s gospel gives us Mark’s account, his word-picture, of that last supper.
This last meal Jesus shared with his disciples stood out in their memory, capturing the imagination of disciples right up to ourselves, because of what Jesus said and did at that meal. He did more than share his vision with the disciples; he gave them himself in a way he had never done before, and in a way that anticipated the death he would die for them and for all, on the following day. In giving himself in the form of the bread and wine of the meal, he was declaring himself to be their food and drink. In calling on them to take and eat, to take and drink, he was asking them to take their stand with him, to give themselves to him as he was giving himself to them.
It was because of that supper and of what went on there that we are here in this church today. Jesus intended his last supper to be a beginning rather than an end. It was the first Eucharist. Ever since that meal, the church has gathered regularly in his name, to do and say what he did and said at that last supper – taking bread and wine, blessing both, breaking the bread and giving both for disciples to eat and drink.
Jesus continues to give himself as food and drink to his followers. He also continues to put it up to his followers to take their stand with him, to take in all he stands for, living by his values, walking in his way, even if that means the cross. Whenever we come to Mass and receive the Eucharist, we are making a number of important statements. We are acknowledging Jesus as our bread of life, as the one who alone can satisfy our deepest hungers. We are also declaring that we will throw in our lot with him, as it were, that we will follow in his way and be faithful to him all our lives, in response to his faithfulness to us. In that sense, celebrating the Eucharist is not something we do lightly. Our familiarity with the Mass and the frequency with which we celebrate it can dull our senses to the full significance of what we are doing. Every time we gather for the Eucharist, we find ourselves once more in that upper room with the first disciples, and the last supper with all it signified is present again to us.
Not on Alien Soil
For devout Jews the world over, the greatest attraction in Jerusalem is not any Christian shrine but rather the Western Wall, the only surviving portion of the great Temple which once stood there and was central to their worship of God. Since the burning of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, it has been the custom of the Jews to express their grief over the destruction of this sacred place, the special sign of God’s presence in their midst. While the Temple stood it was a tradition for everyone to go up there at least once a year. This was not done grudgingly, but with great joy, as we see from the Psalms: “I rejoiced when I heard them say, “Let us go to God’s house,” and now our feet are standing within your gates, Oh Jerusalem.”
We might say that the destruction of the Temple was permitted in order to make way for a more real and uninterrupted visible presence of God in this world. There was a promise of this in Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman at the well, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… but true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:21).
Central to this new form of worship is not a building, but a person, the sacred Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the focus of all our attention in today’s feast. It was at the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, that Jesus made good his promise, both for his immediate followers and for all of us in this generation as well. By instituting the Eucharist he gave the Church a memorial of his death and resurrection, a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, so that the minds of all taking part in it would be filled with grace and thereafter rest secure in the pledge of future glory which it grants to people of faith. But there is another reason why we join in this celebration, and Jesus himself states it definitely. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you” (Jn 6:53).
Without the Eucharist we will become like dead branches that wither away, because they have ceased to draw sustenance from the parent stock. On the other hand, for one who receives Christ at the table of the Eucharist there is a solemn promise of eternal life, resurrection on the last day. The first reading today spoke of the manna by which God preserved the lives of the chosen people in the vast, inhospitable desert wastes, where they had been wandering for forty years. No matter how efficient the securities with which we surround our earthly existence, a life without Christ is a starved life, a meaningless journey with nothing at the end. Whereas for the person with faith and trust in the loving providence of God, this bread come down from heaven becomes the guarantee of life everlasting.
“Body of Christ”
A modern tourist in cities like Paris and Rome, and particularly the latter, cannot but be struck by the extraordinary number of churches and their close proximity to each other. They all derive from the devotion to Corpus Christi which originated in the twelfth century and whose feast we celebrate today. It began in the city of Liege in northern France and when a priest of that diocese became Pope Urban III, he made it a feast of the universal church in 1124. Gradually, the devotion spread throughout Christendom.
By the fifteenth century Corpus Christi had become the principal feast of the church almost everywhere. Every city, town and village held its Corpus Christi procession. In some places it became the social event on the calendar. Months were spent preparing for it. Guilds competed with each other to provide the most colourful contribution. Cities like Paris, with their timber-built houses arranged in narrow streets, where humans and animals lived closely together in squalor, in such a world, it was little wonder that the Corpus Christi devotion had such enormous appeal. What greater protection could they ask for than the Body of Christ, carried in procession through their streets to inoculate them against all such infections?
After well over a thousand years of Christianity, the Real Presence, Christ’s continuing presence in the consecrated bread, came to dominate the devotional life of the people. New devotions were developed such as visits to and exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The idea that no place was too good to house the body of Christ, led to the building of larger and more ornate churches. It became the age of the great Cathedrals, like Notre Dame and Chartres. Changes were introduced into the Mass itself to reflect this new devotion, in particular the elevation was introduced after the consecration. For medieval Christians, there were real and down-to-earth reasons why the Body and Blood of Christ should be raised. Blindness was a common affliction then and people believed that looking at the Body of Christ was the best protection against it. Bowing to popular pressure, the church permitted it. The elevation of the chalice was an after-thought because the church feared that the people might believe in only one species.
This background helps to explain the close proximity of churches in cities like Paris and Rome. Elevations were much in demand and people rushed from one church to another just to watch the elevation. Such Eucharistic devotions dominated religious practice right down to the Second Vatican Council. There the church wisely decided that the Mass needed to be restored as the centre of Eucharistic devotion and, perhaps unwittingly, the other forms were down-graded. Within a generation, visits, benedictions, expositions and Corpus Christi processions had virtually disappeared. The bread remained, the circuses had gone. And we are the poorer for it.
One cannot pray with others unless one has learned to pray alone. And visits, exposition and benediction were par excellence occasions for private prayer. Our Sunday liturgies, no matter how well prepared or executed, are lacking in devotional content. For virtually the first time in the history of the Mass, the complaint is heard: “I don’t get anything out of it.” A new generation has been deprived of a thousand year heritage of prayer and contemplation.
We don’t suffer much today from blindness, or cholera or plague, at least in the western world, as our medieval ancestors did. Modern medicine has taken care of that. But we suffer from other things, loneliness, alienation, depersonalisation, despair, for which medicine has no cure. As much as ever, we need the comfort of the Real Presence and the protection of Corpus Christi.
His Presence Among Us
From the burning bush to the gentle breeze, God has made his presence known among us since the beginning of time. Being among us as Eucharist is a significant way of being present. The Eucharistic presence is represented by bread and wine. Without wishing to be irreverent, if bacon and cabbage had an appropriate significance, it could serve as it is just another way of the Lord being present among us. Bread is the result of a process that begins with seeds of wheat. These are brought together and, after several stages of development, they end up as a unit which we call bread. Wine begins as a cluster of grapes. These also are processed and, again when the process is completed, they end up as a unit which we call wine. A group of people gather together in a church. Each individual is uniquely different. After a certain process, which is the work of God’s Spirit, they become a unit, which we call church, or the Body of Christ. In communion, the Body of Christ is being nourished by the Body of Christ. If I stood on top of the altar here, and invited you all to gather around me, as close as you can, because I was going to whisper something to you, something else would take place of which you might be unaware. You would notice that the closer you come to me the closer you are to each other. When you ended up gathered closely around me, you would find that you were touching shoulders with each other. That is how community or the Body of Christ is formed. It is not a question of bringing people closer to each other; rather is it a question of bringing people closer to the Lord and, as a direct result of that, they end up being closer to each other.
Throughout history, God has spoken to his people through many and varied ways. He spoke to Elijah through the gentle breeze, and he spoke to Moses in the burning bush. The natives of Bethlehem weren’t too excited to hear that a new baby had been born and, later on, Herod would treat him as a fool, and the soldiers would jeer him as a mock king. After the resurrection, Mary Magdalene thought he was a gardener, Peter thought he was a ghost, and the disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he was a stranger passing through. That he should present himself under the form of food and drink is nothing really wonderful for one who is often called “The God of Surprises.” “Not on bread alone do people live.” He was referring to their deep-down real hungers. There is a hole in the heart, as it were, and, through the ages, many people have tried to fill that with everything other than God, and have never succeeded. Mother Teresa often said that the greatest hunger on earth was the need to be loved. It is not surprising, then, that God should choose to come to us in the form of food and drink.
I know it’s not easy, but it is essential, that we grasp the full implications of what Jesus says in today’s gospel. “I live by the power of the living Father who sent me; in the same way, those who partake of me, will live, because of me. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.” That is an extraordinary statement, and one that requires serious and genuine reflection. To put it simply and directly, if that statement is true, and if I believe it, then my heaven has begun. That’s what Jesus means when he says that we have eternal life. In other words, the quality of life we now enjoy is an eternal quality; it is a life that will never end.
From a physical point of view, when I receive communion, I must, of necessity, open my mouth. What is most important, however, is that I open my heart. This is a most sacred moment, because it is a mutually agreed encounter between God and myself, between sinner and saviour. (This raises a question, without willing to be judgmental, on the habit some people have developed of walking out the door immediately they return from receiving Communion. Some may have good reason to leave at that time. However, for those who have no urgent or pressing business needing attention, this can be an op opportunity for a few moments of quiet, sincere, and silent prayer.) Jesus didn’t come on earth to be locked in a tabernacle. Of course he is present in the tabernacle; but he is also present in the worshipping community. In fact, if I dare use the expression, he is more present (if such were possible) among the worshipping community than he is in the tabernacle. “Christ be before me, Christ be around me …” When I turn to those around me with a sign of peace, for example, I can touch him, hug him, hurt him, help him, or hear him. l am standing four square within the Body of Christ, and I am a living and significant member of that Body.
First Reading: Book of Exodus 24:3-8
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Second Reading: Epistle to the Hebrews 9:11-15
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
Now if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
Gospel: Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.