Today we celebrate the Feast of “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” (Corpus Christi). The body of Christ came about through his suffering, death and resurrection. When we eat his body, we proclaim the paschal mystery with the people gathered, the stories proclaimed and the priest who acts in Christ’s name for us. This is the church, the body of Christ! When we drink the blood of Christ, we say “Amen” (literally “so be it”) to our willingness to pour out our blood for the life of the members of Christ’s church and for the world, as he did. I want to look at the History, the Covenants, and Sacrifices concerning today’s Solemnity:
First, today’s solemnity. It is an unexpected solemnity. Unexpected for several reasons. Unexpected because Corpus Christi duplicates Holy Thursday. We are repeating the beautiful Last Supper celebration, but without the sadness of Holy Week. Unexpected because every Eucharist is a feast of the body and blood of Christ: “Take this, all of you, and eat it; for this is my body. Drink from this, all of you; for this is the cup of my blood.” Unexpected if you know how the solemnity came to be.
I have always advocated that to understand the present, you must know the history that preceded it. To understand The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, we need to understand the history of the Church. The reception of communion by lay persons from the time of Christ greatly diminished by the end of the fourth century. Some of the reasons for this decline were heresies and clericalism. Lay reception continued to decline until, in 1215, the Fourth General Council of the Lateran made a rule: Go to confession and communion at least once a year at Easter-time (“making your Easter duty.”)
By the thirteenth century, congregations watched and adored the Blessed Sacrament but rarely received communion. The laity felt unworthy to receive the Eucharist and had a need to at least see it in some way or other. Thus the popularity of pious devotions such as Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, perpetual adoration, and the Corpus Christi procession. Of course, “seeing” the Blessed Sacrament involved more than just the eyes. A rich spirituality of Christ’s presence developed from this period of history.
The Feast of Corpus Christi appeared about this time in the 13th century. About 1209, an Augustinian nun, Mother Juliana of Liege, reported a vision. She had seen the full moon in splendor, save for a dark area on one side. As she understood it, the moon was the Church, and one area was dark because there was no feast of the Blessed Sacrament. What did this vision mean to Mother Juliana? It was the realism of the words and meaning of the Lord on the night before he died. His word over bread, “This my body,” and his word over wine, “This my blood, the blood of the covenant.” Mother Juliana must have been one persuasive woman: Fifty-five years after her vision, this “feast of the Eucharist” became a feast of the universal Church. In 1264 Pope Urban IV prescribed the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, for the whole Church.
The Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession, not partaken of by the laity. “Take and eat” became the privilege of clergy only. Formerly, today’s solemnity did not incorporate the Blood of Christ. The chalice had been denied to lay people since the 13th century. Communion under both species was discussed at the Council of Trent but the final decision was to deny the cup once again to the laity. Martin Luther (1483–1546) argued for the restoration of the cup to the laity. It was decided that Christ was present in the forms of both bread and wine, whereas Luther argued that “the presence of Christ . . . was like the presence of fire in a heated bar of iron, in which ‘every part is both iron and fire” (The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, Collegeville: Michael Glazier Books, 1990, pp. 417–18). Vatican II restored the cup, and the feast became known, in English-speaking countries, as the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Today’s readings are not just about “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” Each of the three readings emphasize God’s covenant with his people: first, through the lamb sacrificed by Moses before the Israelites, the blood of which became the seal of the covenant, and later through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, whose blood has redeemed all mankind. This is the new covenant that we remember in the Eucharist, the Last Supper of the Lord and the banquet that God calls us to daily. Through the Eucharist, God makes himself present among us to be our food and sustenance.
Jesus gave a new and definitive meaning to the blessing of the bread and the cup when he instituted the “Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist”. He speaks of the presence of his body and blood in this new meal. When at the Last Supper Jesus described his blood “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28), he was explaining his coming crucifixion as a sacrifice for sins. His death on the cross fulfilled the sacrifice of the paschal lamb. That is why John the Baptist called him the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Jesus made himself an offering and sacrifice, a gift that was truly pleasing to the Father. He “offered himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14) and “gave himself as a sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). This meal was a memorial of his death and resurrection.
Jesus commands his disciples to “eat his flesh and drink his blood”, and then instructed them to “do this in remembrance of me”. These words establish every Lord’s Supper or Eucharist as a “remembrance” of Jesus’ atoning death, his resurrection, and his promise to return again. “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Our celebration of the Lord’s Supper anticipates the final day when the Lord Jesus will feast anew with his disciples in the heavenly marriage feast of the Lamb and his Bride. Mark ties the last supper meal with Jesus’ death and the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus transforms the Passover of the Old Covenant into the meal of the “new covenant in my blood”.
This brings us to the present. I am going to start out with a very profound statement: “If you truly believed that the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, was real – You would crave coming up here to receive Communion during Mass. You would crave it! You would beg to participate!
Profound statement? Illogical? Not a sign of our times? Unheard of in our secular society where belief is considered un-belief? Do you have beliefs that you call your own? Or do you believe what somebody tells you to believe? And we have to be honest; our culture much prefers things that are flashy, explosive, and spectacular.
Today we will participate in and consume the Body and Blood of the Jesus Christ. Do you believe that? 80% of the people who come to Mass, “do not believe that the bread and wine are changed to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ through Transubstantiation performed by the Priest.” And yet, miracle after miracle shows the bread to be human tissue and the wine to be human blood.
We all believe that following Christ is the only way to true, lasting happiness, but do we stay as close to him as we can? Is the Eucharist at the center of our individual lives, the way it is at the center of the Church’s life as a whole? If someone were to videotape us living our normal life for a whole week, how often would the Eucharist appear? The Eucharist, most of the time, is so quiet, so subtle, so gentle. Is it possible that we keep trying to solve all our problems all by ourselves, leaving him alone in the Tabernacle, not coming to visit him briefly during the week, just to talk things over, not come to adore him and to let him be our strength?
Jesus at the Last Supper took bread, blessed it, broke it, and said, “This is my body, take it, and eat it.” Then he took the cup of wine, blessed it and said, “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant.” Jesus invites us to become Eucharist for the world. In associating us with “(his) blood, the blood of the covenant,” Jesus links us to his sacrificial death. Sacrifice is self-donation, self-gift for another to the point of laying down one’s life. Sacrifice is the rhythm of the life of the Trinity, utter self-donation for the Other.
When we receive from the Lord’s table we unite ourselves to Jesus Christ, who makes us sharers in his body and blood. Ignatius of Antioch (35-107 A.D.) calls it the “one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live for ever in Jesus Christ” (Ad Eph. 20,2).