Corpus Christi Sunday — 2016

Another belated post, this one about the assigned readings for last Sunday’s Mass.

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, to give its official title has traditionally been celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, but it is considered important enough that in the United States (and in some other places perhaps) it has been transferred to the following Sunday. In some countries it is also a civil holiday, so there is good reason to keep it on the traditional date.

Up to now, the former Latin title of the feast, Corpus Christi has remained in general use. It’s certainly more succinct than the current full name.

Although Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper, at which the Eucharist was established, it is in the context of Jesus passion, death, and resurrection. This feast focuses only on the sacrament. Juliana of Liege, a nun who had visions telling her that this feast should be established, persuaded the bishop of Liege to institute the feast for his diocese in 1246. It spread from there, and in 1264 it was declared a feast for the whole Latin Church. St. Thomas Aquinas composed texts for the feast, including the hymns Pange Lingua (whose last two verses are sung separately as Tantum Ergo) and Verbum Supernum Prodiens (from which O Salutaris Hostia is extracted), as well as the impressive sequence for the Mass, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, which has been a favorite of mine for over 50 years.

People sometimes say, “I don’t get anything out of Mass,” and that may well be true, if they’re just going through the motions. When someone receives a sacrament, they have to be open to the grace God always offers for the sacrament to be really effective. So on this feast, the Church invites us to reflect on these readings so we can better appreciate what the Blessed Sacrament is and can do.

The first reading — Genesis 14:18-20 — presents a foreshadowing of the Eucharist. The priest-king Melchisedek performs a sacrifice of bread and wine for Abram, who has just been victorious over five kings who had captured his nephew Lot. Since there is nothing said about Melchizedek’s origin, parents, descendants, or death, Psalm 110, which gives us our responsorial psalm, speaks of him as a priest forever, and the New Testament applies that scripture to Jesus. So the first reading has us reflecting on a sacrifice of bread and wine offered by an everlasting priest.

The gospel — Luke 9:11b-17 — gives us another foreshadowing of the Eucharist. Jesus feeds 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Normally that would be impossible, but Jesus performs a miracle, one which foreshadows the miracle of feeding us all with his body and blood. It would have been possible for him to increase the amount of food without any words or gestures, but he chose to use a ritual similar to the one he would use at the Last Supper of blessing and breaking the bread. He gave the crowds all the food they could eat. He gives us all the spiritual nourishment, all the grace we can use. But the crowds wouldn’t have “gotten anything out of” the miraculous food if they hadn’t eaten it; and we don’t get anything out of the Eucharistic meal if we aren’t open to it.

St. Paul’s account of Jesus’ words and actions with the bread and wine at the Last Supper — 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 — is the first account that was written down. Here we learn that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Jesus said that’s what he was doing and told his apostles to do the same. That evening, as a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek, he gave the sacrifice of his body and blood sacramentally to the apostles. The next day, on the cross, he offered the same sacrifice physically. So when we participate in the sacramental sacrifice, we are receiving the sacrifice Jesus offered on Calvary. That is why the words we most often use to proclaim the Mystery of Faith paraphrase this reading: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again,”

In other words, Calvary and the Last Supper become present at Mass. Jesus becomes present sacramentally with enough grace to fill all people’s souls. This isn’t a new thought of mine. This is what we’ve been taught all along. As St. Thomas put it in a stanza of the “Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem” — one which a college professor of Government loved to quote — “Quod non capis, quod non vides,/ Animosa firmat fides/ Praeter rerum ordinem,” that is, “Lively faith, going beyond the order of nature, confirms what you neither touch nor see.” So why aren’t people of faith more excited? Why don’t they get more out of being at Mass? For one thing, it becomes habitual. We don’t physically see Jesus in the upper room and on Calvary. Maybe our everyday concerns distract us. Whatever the cause, we should try to be more mindful of the sacramental reality.

Jesus says, in John 6:54, that whoever eats his body and drinks his blood has eternal life — not merely “will have,” but “has.” To be sure, that life culminates at the resurrection Jesus promises on the last day, but it has already begun. The Body and Blood of Christ sustain that life in us.

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