02Jun 2 June 2013 (Sunday). The Body and Blood of Christ

Gen 14:18-20. Melchizedek, a pagan priest-king, gives Abraham bread and wine and confesses faith in the one true God. Christian tradition sees this bread and wine as foreshadowing the Eucharist.

1 Cor 11:23-26. Whenever we celebrate the Eucharist we have present Christ’s Body and Blood, and we re-enact the death by which he saved us.

Luke 9:11-17. Jesus provides a celebration meal for the people who followed him to the desert, to hear his word. In the Eucharist the Church continues the mission of Christ to teach and nourish the People of God.

See Kieran O’Mahony’s website (TARSUS.ie) for detailed, scholarly commentary of this Sunday’s readings. his reflections on Melchizedek, the king of Salem, are given below# after some homily ideas for today.

First Reading: Book of Genesis 14:18-20

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!” And Abram gave him one tenth of everything.

Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Gospel: Luke 9:11-17

When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured.

The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish-unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.”
They did so and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were filled. What was left over was gathered up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

Not to be Forgotten 

One could focus today on the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, about Eucharist being a channel of grace, about Eucharist being a source of spiritual nourishment, about the shared receiving of Eucharist making us the body of Christ. But I can’t help remembering that Jesus did not want his message and his love to be forgotten. And so my Corpus Christi thoughts today are tied to a verse from the Eucharistic Prayer: Do this in memory of me. Why is this verse so central? Because it worked. It succeeded brilliantly.

He did not want his words to be forgotten. He did not want his example of mercy to be forgotten. He did not want his sacrifice to be forgotten. He did not want his miracles to be forgotten. He did not want his teachings to be forgotten. He did not want his command to love one another to be forgotten. He did not want his life to be forgotten. What he did worked. It was brilliant.

Marketing professionals brainstorm in thinktanks dreaming up ideas to keep the public interested in products or concepts. Egyptian Pharaohs built mammoth triangular, stone structures in the middle of the desert so that their names would never be forgotten – even after death. Yet, the success of every creative marketing professional seems to be only measurable by the number of weeks or months a consumer is captivated by a product or concept – rather than by the number of years. Who knows the names of the Pharaohs which the Great Pyramids commemorate? I do not. Yet 2000 years ago Jesus took a couple staples of societal sustenance – Bread and Wine – and told his friends that each time they especially gathered to consume this food and drink that they would be consuming his body and blood – and that they should do this regularly so as not to forget him. It worked. It was brilliant.

In early Christian communities people met in homes to eat bread and drink wine. Jesus did not want to be forgotten and He wanted to dwell in his brothers and sisters after his ascension into heaven. Jesus asked that they take his body and blood into their bodies.

But these days we do not meet in homes. We do not recline at tables. We do not consume something that really looks like bread. For practical reasons we now gather in buildings constructed specifically for gathering and worship. We sit in a series of pews facing a sometimes distant table. at the offertory we present perfectly round, flat, quarter-sized objects made of the ingredients of unleaven bread to the priest to consecrate and distribute as the congregation stands in lines. Sometimes practicality demands compromise.

Still, there is no getting around the fact that 2000 years later we gather in the millions each weekend and remember him. We remember Jesus, his compassion, his life, his forgiveness, his teachings, his miracles, and his love. It worked. It was brilliant. Nothing can compare to it. Jesus wanted to be remembered – and He is. He is. If you want a new starting place to begin thinking about the body and blood of Christ try this one: Jesus said – DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME. And, we do.

Our Experience At Table

We all have our own memories of table fellowship. Many of those memories will be happy. We remember celebration and laughter at tables, love given and received. Some of those memories of table fellowship may be sad. We might remember table experiences when we were more aware of the person 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, Jesus 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, Jesus shared with the disciples, the meal that stayed in their memory more than any other was the last meal they ate together, what came to be known as the last supper. Today’s gospel gives us Mark’s account, Mark’s picture in words, of that last supper. Many great artists over the last two thousand years have attempted to express that moment on canvas, to paint it. One of my favourite depictions of the last supper is that by a German artist, a priest, who is still alive, a man called Sieger Koder. I have left a copy of it here in front and you might like to look at it after Mass. This last meal Jesus shared with his disciples stood out in their memory, and captured the imagination of subsequent generations of disciples, because of what Jesus said and did at that meal. He did more than share his vision with the disciples; he did more than give them some teaching. 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 afternoon. In giving the disciples 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 last 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. The last supper was the first Eucharist. Ever since that night, in response to Jesus’ command, the church has gathered in his name, and has done and said 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. In this way, 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 to celebrate 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.

The last supper had a powerfully unifying effect on the disciples. In that last supper together, they became conscious in a new way that they belonged not only to the Lord, and also to each other. Similarly, our weekly celebration of the Eucharist can and must have a bonding effect on ourselves. As St. Paul says, “we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.” As together we take the body of Christ in our Eucharist, we become more aware of ourselves as members of one body, the body of Christ. Our Mass together inspires and urges us, to relate to each other as members of one body, Christ’s body, Corpus Christi.

Those words Corpus Christi, Body of Christ – express who we are in this parish. In this year of Faith we might commit ourselves again to being Corpus Christi, members of one body, the body of Christ. St. Paul spells out what that means in practice. He says that the members of Christ’s body are to “have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” On this feast of Corpus Christi here is a vision of church worth reminding ourselves of and recommitting ourselves to.


Not on Alien Soil (John Walsh)

For devout Jews, the world over, the place of greatest attraction in Jerusalem is not of course any Christian shrine but rather the Western Wall, or as non-Jews prefer to call it, the Wailing Wall. The reason is that it is the only surviving portion of the great Temple which once stood there for over a thousand years, and which was central to Jewish worship of God. Since the final burning of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD, it has been the custom of devout Jews to express publicly here their grief over the destruction of this sacred place, which they looked on as the sign of God’s presence in their midst. While the Temple stood it was a tradition that everyone, young or old, should 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.” Even during the exile in Babylon, when the Temple lay in ruins for close on 70 years, their thoughts kept going back to it. “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion,” Zion being the hill on which Solomon erected the first Temple. “It was there they asked us, our captors, for songs. “Sing to us,” they said, “one of Sion’s songs.” Oh how could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil?” (Ps 137)

We are told in the Old Testament that when it was first consecrated the “glory of the Lord” enveloped it – a sign that God had taken possession of his sanctuary. The most sacred part of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, the place in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant, which Moses had made. But to us, it comes almost as an anti-climax to read in the Book of Kings (1 Kg 8:9): “There was nothing in the Ark except the two stone tablets Moses had placed in it at Mount Sinai.” Hence 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 the discourse of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. “The hour is coming,” he said, “when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. The hour will come when true worshippers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth” (Jn 4:21).

Central to this 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. St Peter in his discourse to the household of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, said, “they killed Jesus by hanging him on a tree. Three days afterwards God raised him up, and allowed him to be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as God had chosen beforehand, by us who ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead” (Acts 10:40f). In other words, a witness to Jesus’ resurrection was one who shared in the Eucharistic meal with Jesus, after God had raised him from the dead. And so it is that every time we celebrate Mass together we too are giving witness before the world to the resurrection of Jesus. 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 Mass you will become like dead branches that wither away because they have ceased to draw sustenance from the parent stock. On the other hand, for the person who receives Christ at the table of the Eucharist there is a solemn promise of eternal life, of 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 and inhospitable desert wastes, where they had been wandering for forty years. But no matter how extensive and 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.

The Body of Christ (Liam Swords)

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. Many of these churches date from the Middle Ages: They all derive from the devotion to Corpus Christi which originated in the twelfth century and whose feast we celebrate today.

After the French Pope Urban IV made Corpus Christi a feast of the universal church in 1124, the devotion spread throughout Europe. By the fifteenth century Corpus Christi had become the principal church feast everywhere. Every city, town and village held its Corpus Christi procession and it also became a major social event with a popular procession through the heart of the city. When medicine was primitive or non-existent, 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 plague and all such infections?

After well over a thousand years of Christianity, the Real Presence, God’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. It also 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 of the Host and the Chalice after the consecration. For a medieval, there were powerful reasons why the Body and Blood of Christ should be raised for worship. 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 allowed it. The elevation of the chalice was an after-thought because the church feared that the people might believe in only one species. All of which 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.

This kind of eucharistic devotion 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 church life and other kinds of eucharistic devotion were wittingly or unwittingly down-graded. Within a generation, visits, benedictions, expositions and Corpus Christi processions virtually disappeared. 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. 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 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.

A Case of Both-And (Andrew Greeley)

Some liturgical purists don’t care much for this feast. It is medieval in origin and arose when people tended to separate the Eucharist as sacrament from the Eucharist as ceremony. The Mass as continuation of the Last Supper was thought to be largely distinct from the Body and Blood of Jesus. So today’s feast with its great processions and its marvelous hymns really ought to be phased out because it is not liturgically correct. However, instead of a sharp “either…or,” it is the genius of Catholicism at its best to say “both…and.” We can honour both the mass as our central worship and devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ as central to our worship. There is no reason in principle why the feast cannot be integrated into our new understanding of the liturgy, no reason other than that some people find it hard to say “both…and.”

Once in a summer resort parish there was a deacon from the seminary assigned to help out during the summer rush. He was a nice young man, though a little shy and kind of conservative. On a hot Sunday he lost his temper with the way people dressed. None of the men wore a coat and tie. None of the women wore dresses and stockings the adults came in shorts and polo shirts, the women even in sleeveless dresses. The kids appear in swim trucks and T-shirts and bare feet, some teenage girls even wore T-shirts over their bikinis. The deacon shouted at them, “Have you no respect for the Body and Blood of Christ? How dare you desecrate the Eucharist with such inappropriate clothes? If you go out for dinner tonight, won’t you dress up for your hosts? If people should come to your house for dinner, wouldn’t you be deeply offended if they came in swim suits? Why shouldn’t God be offended by your lack of reverence? What makes you think that God’s house is a cabana on the beach?”

The people were a little surprised but they figured he didn’t really understand. Besides, they thought they had a lot of respect for the Body of Christ? They had come to receive it, had they not? At supper that night the wise old monsignor said to him, “You have a good point but have you ever gone to Mass in a church near a European resort? There’s hardly anyone there. At least our people come. They may look a little sloppy sometimes. Yet I believe that God loves them no matter how they’re dressed.”

#The Melchizedek text

Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him …

Initial Observations

The superficial link with the feast is the mention of bread and wine. There is, of course, a much deeper connection familiar from the Letter to the Hebrews which we can explore in these notes.

Where does the reading come from?

The book of Genesis is made up of two large sections, as follows:

Primeval History

Gen 1: origin of the world;  Gen 2-11: origin of the nations

Origin of Israel

Gen 12-25 the Abraham cycle Gen 26-36; the Jacob cycle Gen 36-50; the Joseph cycle.

Our reading comes from early in the Abraham cycle of tales.

What kind of writing is this?

The full scene (vv.17-24) is carefully choreographed:

v. 17 King of Sodom arrives. A

v. 18 King of Salem arrives B

vv. 19-20 King of Salem speaks B*

v. 21 King of Sodom speaks A*

vv. 22-24 Abraham replies

In the context of the time of writing, this encounter is meant to legitimate the Jerusalem priesthood as ancient (predating Abraham’s arrival) and centred in the holy city from time immemorial. Very likely, the priests of the time of writing are staking a claim over agains the “secular” rulers of Judah under the Persians. With this unique appearance, Melchizedek is a bit of a mystery figure, giving rise to a great deal of speculation later on. The king is an otherwise unknown figure and even “Salem” is unknown. Within the full story, the generosity of the king of Salem is contrasted with lack of generosity of the king of Sodom. In Qumran, Melchizedek was a source of further speculation and evolution, with even one document dedicated to him, 1QMelch. He enjoys both a high place in heaven and a role in eschatological judgment.

Hebrews exploits Melchizedek as eternal high priest of mysterious origin and issue: Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever. (Heb 7:3) See also Psalm 110.