SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST (CORPUS CHRISTI)
Gen 14:18-20 1 Cor 11:23-26 Lk 9:11-17
The Meal that Fully Satisfies Hunger
Response to and Reverence for the Eucharist; Communication and Community; the Abundance of God’s Love.
And we hunger for spiritual nourishment. Sometimes people aren’t even aware that that exists. There was to be a baptismal party for the new baby of a soldier and his wife at their home on an Army base. Before the ceremony the post chaplain took the new father aside.
“Are you prepared for this solemn event?” he asked. “I guess so,” replied the soldier. “I’ve got two hams, pickles, bread, cake, cookies…” “No, no!” interrupted the chaplain. “I mean spiritually prepared!” “Well, I don’t know,” said the soldier thoughtfully. “Do you think two cases of whiskey are enough?”
Nevertheless, our spiritual hunger is the greatest of all hungers. Today’s liturgy of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is about that. Whereas on Holy Thursday we celebrate the origin of the Eucharist, today’s feast is a celebration of, and an act of faith in, the Real Presence of the risen Jesus with us in this sacrament. All of today’s readings are about meals – Abram’s victory meal, the Last Supper, and the feeding of the crowd. All refer to the “meal” we call the Eucharist – to what goes beyond people’s hunger for food, or for intellectual simulation, or for psychological growth.
So important to spiritual nourishment is Jesus’ multiplication of the food that it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles told by all four evangelists. Sharing food with your food with people isn’t as simple as it sounds. Ask any political candidate who has followed the campaign ritual, eating his way caterpillar-like through ethnic neighbourhoods. Food is tribal bonding – I eat what you eat; vote for me. And food can become a sounding board for politics. It can become a slogan: “A chicken in every pot.” An impulse to revolution: “Let them eat cake.” Or a derogatory nickname for an entire tribute: the “limeys” of England, “krauts” of Germany or “frogs” of France.
Social divisions were more pronounced in Jesus’ time than in ours – and yet, it would seem that he made sharing food on an equal footing with everyone one of the key points of his way of relating to the world of his time. Just think of the alien groupings who might have been present in the people Luke has sit down together. Men and woman of the time would normally not have eaten together, nor would those who were ritually pure with those who were unclean. Then there were Jews and Gentiles, not to mention peasants and those of a higher social order.
St Luke’s version shows many facets of Jesus in his attempt to satisfy hunger – Jesus’ compassion, for example, and the abundance of God’s generosity. Although he had taken the Apostles away from the crowd for a well-deserved rest, when over 5,000 people came to see him he not only tolerated their disturbing his plans but, in contrast to the abhorrence of the Twelve, actively welcomed them. You can get some idea of his kind of heroism if you imagine your hard-earned vacation being disturbed by a crowd of acquaintances, hangers-on, or unknowns coming to your vacation retreat to freeload.
Some say that the people wouldn’t have come to such an out-of-the-way place without having brought their own food with them; basically selfish, they wouldn’t break their rations out into the open, because they didn’t see anybody else’s provisions and so were afraid that they might have to share their own. Jesus’ miracle, according to this version, consisted in overcoming this selfishness by making the people share what they had.
But most believers interpret the miracle in the literal sense. Jesus took five loves and two fish and multiplied them into enough food for over five thousand people to eat. That we haven’t a clue as to how he did it we can easily find were we to try to cater a meal, even for ten, with a loaf a bread and a can of sardines. But that isn’t as important as knowing that he did it. And the overtones all refer to the Eucharist. The same God who could perform this miracle could do anything, including changing bread and wine into his body and blood.
The miracle show also the abundance of God’s love for individuals – each person ate, everybody had more than enough, and there was a lot left over. Scripture associated this abundance with the Messiah. God had given this same abundance in the manna which He had freely provided the hungry Hebrews as they wandered through the vast and trackless desert in their exodus from Egypt. God offers the same abundance of results today to all who use the Eucharist properly.
All the evangelists deliberately wrote in the same terms as the oldest written account of the institution of the Eucharist – today’s portion of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which antedates the Gospels. The brevity of this passage shouldn’t blind us to its tremendous importance. Paul was dealing here with a situation of disunity and selfish behaviour when the Corinthian community gathered at the Lord’s Supper. As an antidote to the Corinthians’ divisions, selfishness, and mindlessness – even as they celebrated their most sacred liturgical act – Paul presents the idea of self-sacrifice as being of central importance in the Lord’s Supper.
Paul presents a profound theology. He uses the Greek word anamnesis, which we translate as “remembrance”, or “memory”. This in turn translates the Hebrew ziccaron, a First Testament word which means “memorial sacrifice”. Among the Hebrews, these words came to be used of one memorial sacrifice par excellence – their Passover. Paul is trying to convey the concept that the celebration of the Eucharist is a memorial sacrifice by which God remembers to show mercy upon us because of the death of His Son. Through the Eucharist, Christians of all times have found themselves again with their Saviour in making present Jesus’ great redeeming sacrifice. We have so often heard the words of the Eucharist at every Mass that we could easily taken them for granted; imagine the amazement, if not the incredulity, of the Apostles when they heard them for the first time.
In the last sentence of this reading, Paul uses the word “proclaim” – that, every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Well, Paul’s word (katangellete) means “to celebrate in a living way, to bring to the present and make effective here and now.” In other words, when we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes, we are bringing Christ’s death to the present and making it effective in ourselves.
So the Eucharist is not only to be a memory, but a living contact with Jesus. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, one cannot at the same time be self-centered and truly celebrate the Eucharist. Paul’s understanding was that this sacrifice was functional. It is for you. This understands the egalitarian aspect of Jesus’ activity, and addresses the question of social divisions in the group with regard to eating together. This rich Christians who had plenty of leisure came early and ate the best food, not waiting for their fellow Christians who were slaves to arrive. And this is a new covenant. It is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Jeremiah (31:31) to replace God’s Mosaic covenant.
The church points out that Jesus was in a unique position to do this. The line of Jesus’ priesthood wasn’t from Moses’ brother Aaron, from whom the First Testament priesthood derived, but – as we heard in today’s reading from Genesis and in the Responsorial Psalm – from mysterious First Testament priest Melchizedek, who in his sacrifice to God used, instead of the customary bulls and heifers, bread and wine. Today’s first Reading commemorates Melchizedek’s sharing a meal of blessed bread and wine with Abram to memorialize Abram’s victory as God’s instrument over four powerful kings.
The Eucharist, the most exalted of all the sacraments, is essentially a meal, like the one that Jesus share with the people in the meadow. It intends to bring together not only us with God, but us with one another. St Thomas Aquinas said that the ultimate change that God sought in the Eucharist isn’t the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood, but the transformation of ourselves into Jesus’ presence. Our communication means that we receive the body of Christ in the Eucharist and perceive the body of Christ in our neighbor. We can’t share fruitfully in the first if we are unmindful of the second.
When as a family we have a meal at home together, we’re drawn closer by that sharing more than by anything else. When we provide hospitality to friends by way of a meal – or they for us – we have the opportunity for closeness with them that nothing else has. In the Eucharist, God is providing the same opportunity, with the addition that the closeness, intimacy, union, and other rewards are provided by God and with His unique abundance.
If we want the Eucharist to contribute to our spiritual nourishment, intimacy, and love – as Jesus intended – we must approach it with reverence and awe. Jesus’ request at the last Supper, that we do this in memory of him, is among the most poignant of his statements in the entire New Testament. What he meant by this is what he himself did – to bless and thank god for his life, death, and resurrection. This is to last forever.
And this is a simple thing that has gone on throughout Christian history. Christians have found nothing better than this to do for condemned Christians as the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; for kings at their crowing and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph and for wedding couples in little country churches; for a sick old woman about to die and for Columbus setting sail; for an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp and for an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows. The Eucharist has been celebrated in every conceivable human circumstance and for every conceivable human need, in every century since Jesus, on every continent, and among every race on earth.
It is as though Jesus said, “Remember me, and all that I have said and done in your presence. Remember my love. If at first some people don’t understand, have them remember the yearnings of all people’s hearts and the need of sacrifice to express their love. And I hope all of you will remember that I in turn love you so much that I am giving all I have, my very blood, for you.”
Without the Eucharist, there can be no sufficient satisfaction for our hunger for peace, or justice, or love.