The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
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.