29May 29 May. The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Sunday)

Today we honour the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), the food which sustains us on our journey through life.

1st Reading: Genesis 14:18-20

The bread and wine offered by Melchizedek foreshadow the Eucharist

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: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

When we celebrate the Eucharist we re-enact Christ’s saving death

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

Jesus feeds the people who followed him to hear his word

The crowds followed Jesus; 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 think-tanks, dreaming up ways to keep the public focused on products or concepts. Egyptian Pharaohs built mammoth stone structures in the middle of the desert so that their names would never be forgotten. Yet, the success of a marketing professional is measurable by the number of seconds a consumer looks at the product or concept – rather than by the number of years. And who knows the names of the Pharaohs which the Great Pyramids commemorate?  Yet 2000 years ago Jesus took two staples of household food – Bread and Wine – and told his friends that each time they gathered for a meal with prayer they would be consuming his body and blood, asking them to do this regularly so as not to forget him. How well it has worked!

In early Christian communities they met in family homes to eat the bread and drink the wine.  But for our Eucharist these days we do not meet in homes, nor do we recline at tables for this meal. For practical reasons we now gather in large buildings specifically built for worship gatherings. We sit in pews facing a distant table. At the offertory we present round hosts made of unleavened bread for the priest to consecrate and Eucharistic ministers to distribute. Thank God, our parish numbers require this larger context.

In spite of all the difference in the ritual, we still gather in the millions around the world each weekend and remember him. We remember Jesus, his compassion, his life, his forgiveness, his teachings, his miracles, and his love.He wanted to be remembered – and he is. If you want a new starting place to begin thinking about the body and blood of Christ try his own words: DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME. And, we do.

Not on Alien Soil

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 some non-Jews prefer to call it, the Wailing Wall.) Its importance is that it is the only surviving portion of the great Temple which once stood in that place 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 publicly express their grief here, over the destruction of this sacred place, which was a cherished sign of God’s presence in their midst. While the Temple stood it was traditional for everyone in the land to go up there at least once a year. This was not done grudgingly, but with  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, O Jerusalem.” Even during their 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)

When it was first consecrated the glory of the Lord enveloped the Temple – a sign that God had taken possession of his sanctuary. The most sacred area was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. It comes as a surprise to read in the Book of Kings (1 Kg 8:9) that there was nothing in the Ark except the two stone tablets Moses had placed in it at Mount Sinai. In a sense we might say that the destruction of the Temple made way for a more spiritual, uninterrupted  presence of God in this world. There was a hint of this in what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman at the well. “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father, neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… when 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 person of Jesus Christ, the focus of today’s feast. At his Last Supper, Jesus left a legacy, both for his immediate followers and for all of us  as well. By instituting the Eucharist he gave the Church a memorial of his saving presence, a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, so that those taking part in it would be filled with grace and rest secure in the pledge of future life with God.

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 later God raised him up, and let him be seen, not by all, but only by such witnesses as God had chosen beforehand — we who ate and drank with him after his resurrection from the dead” (Acts 10:40f). In other words, they could witness to Jesus’ resurrection because they shared in the Eucharistic meal with him, after God had raised him up. And every time we celebrate Mass together we too are telling the world about the risen Jesus. But there is another reason why we join in this celebration, and Our Lord stated it clearly, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you” (Jn 6:53).

Whoever receives Christ at the table of the Eucharist receives a promise of eternal life, of resurrection on the last day. The first reading spoke of the manna by which God fed the chosen people in the barren desert wastes, where they had to wander for forty years. No matter how efficient the securities with which we surround our earthly existence, a life without Christ would be a meaningless journey with nothing at the end. Whereas for the person with faith and trust in the loving providence of God, this bread from heaven becomes the guarantee of life everlasting.

The most comforting Presence

A modern tourist in cities like Paris or Rome or Venice, cannot but be struck by the extraordinary number of churches and their nearness to each other. Many of them date from the late Middle Ages. Their sheer number, and much of their exuberance,  derives from the devotion to Corpus Christi which we celebrate today. After  Pope Urban IV made it a feast of the universal church in 1124, the devotion of Corpus Christi spread throughout Europe. By the fifteenth century  had become a joyful Feast everywhere. Every city, town and village held its Corpus Christi procession and it also became a major social event in the heart of the city. Where medicine was primitive or non-existent, it was little wonder that this devotion had such enormous appeal. What greater protection could people have than the Body of Christ in their midst, carried in procession through their streets to inoculate them against plague and all  infections?

After well over a thousand years of Christianity, the Real Presence, the mysterious divine presence that transformed the consecrated bread by trans-substantiation, came to dominate the devotional life of Catholics New devotions were based on it, such as visits to and exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. It also led to the building of larger and more ornate churches, to the age of the great Cathedrals, like Notre Dame and Chartres. Changes were introduced into the Mass to reflect this new devotion, in particular the elevation of the Host and the Chalice after the consecration. There were good reasons why the Body and Blood of Christ should be raised for worship, since people felt that looking with adoration at the Body of Christ would protect them from harm.  The elevation at Mass was so highly revered that some people rushed from one church to another just to see it.

This kind of eucharistic worship dominated religious practice right down to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. At that Council, the bishops decided that the Mass itself needed to be restored as the centre of church life and other forms of eucharistic devotion were relatively down-graded. Within a generation, benedictions, expositions and Corpus Christi processions virtually disappeared. And church life seems the poorer for this well-intentioned change. One cannot pray with others unless one has learned to pray alone. Those visits, exposition and benediction were occasions for private prayer. Our Sunday liturgies, no matter how well prepared, don’t quite fill the void that was left. Often the complaint is heard of the Mass: “I don’t get anything out of it.” A new generation needs a new injection of forms of prayer and contemplation.

In the western world at least, we don’t suffer from blindness, or cholera or plague,  as our medieval ancestors did. Modern medicine takes care of that. But we suffer from other things, loneliness, alienation, confusion, even 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.

Sharing at the table of fellowship

Sitting down together to a meal can generate a special sense of togetherness. Each of us will have our own memories of table companionship or fellowship. Many of these will be happy experiences of celebration and laughter, of love received and shared. 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 with them his vision of God’s kingdom . At table, the disciples imbibed something of Jesus’ mind and heart and spirit. Of all the meals he shared with them, 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 generations of disciples right up to ourselves. 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.

2 Responses

  1. Padraig McCarthy

    1. Jesus does not distribute the food. He tells the twelve to do that. They looked at their very limited resources and decided that they could not provide for everyone. The church today seems to have made a similar decision: we do not have the resources to provide the Bread of Life for all, so we cut back to what we think we can provide. We need to hear Jesus say: “Your job is to provide what is necessary.” If we hold on to our limited perception of resources, our five loaves and two fish for the 5,000+, we lose. It seems a contradiction of this Gospel reading to say that we are not permitted to draw on the cooperation of many others to ensure that all without exception can receive the food.
    If we distribute our resources, calling many others to be providers of the Bread of Life, we can discover what the twelve discovered: they received back a full basket for each of the givers.

    2. Jesus did not pitch his tent among us to live in a tabernacle or ciborium, nor in bread and wine. Food is for the feeding of the people. The purpose of the Real Presence in the Eucharist is to feed the people, so that we will be the living Real Presence in the world today. We are the Bread that is to be broken for the life of the world.

  2. Paddy Ferry

    Padraig, thank you for that excellent and enlightened interpretation of today’s gospel. I really needed that. At the moment I am half way through my second reading of Garry Wills’ book, “Why Priests?”. I reckon it has to be read at least twice to fully understand it’s true import.
    So, as it happened, quite by chance, I spent time last night reading about what Garry Wills calls “the Melchizedek Myth” and a very detailed analysis of Hebrews with copious references to people like Raymond Brown, John Meier and Joseph Fitzmeyer, never expecting to meet Melchizedek at every corner at Mass this morning. You just could not get away from him. He was in the 1st reading — that very fleeting encounter with Abraham as Abraham returned from sorting out Lot’s enemies and, of course, he was in every response of the Psalm. I think it was John who said a few months ago that we were all “moulded in immaturity”. Well, I think I must have been near the top of the Premier League of immaturity, and, you know John, it is not an easy process to break loose. Until a few years ago I think I still thought that Paul had written the “letter” if it is that, to “the” Hebrews, such was the extent of my ignorance. I am so grateful to Tony Flannery for mentioning Garry Wills’ book in his own book and to Joe O’Leary for initially arousing my curiosity when, a few years ago, he wrote about “the murky origins of the priesthood”. We are blessed Padraig, to have people like yourself and Joe and Tony and others contributing to this site and continuing to educate us. We may disagree on one particular issue but I respect and admire all of you greatly.
    I am sorry for rabitting on like this late on a Sunday night but I just knew that nobody else would listen to me.

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