Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ: 6-18-17
Peace be with You,
The last two Sundays we have celebrated an unleashing of Heaven, as it were. Two weeks ago, the Easter Season culminated with the feast of Pentecost, celebrating the coming of the Holy Spirit. Then, last weekend we celebrated one of the two mysteries at the center of the Christian faith (the other being the Incarnation), the mystery of our Triune God; in essence one but in Persons three. Today, then, we come to the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, traditionally referred to as Corpus Christi. With this celebration, the cloud of mystery which has descended upon and enveloped us over the last two weeks now reaches its thickest state. For the mystery which we celebrate today is not only invisible, but visibly invisible.
The mystery daily made present at the Eucharistic liturgy of the Church and which She sets before us for more intense contemplation this day confronts us with the reality that the Son of God became Incarnate ‘not to bring peace, but a sword; to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…’ (Matt 10:34-35). I realize it may seem odd to begin a reflection upon the sacrament of unity in this fashion, but history makes this an unavoidable fact. The Church’s doctrine concerning the Eucharist has perhaps more than any other doctrine, caused much tension and division within the Body of Christ. The reasons for this are, no doubt, numerous. However, ultimately, the root of the problem seems to be that we suffer from what Augustine would call a pedestrian imagination (cf. Sermon 52.19).
Now, before I am misunderstood, I am not in any way suggesting that the mystery we speak of is somehow a fanciful creation of the mind, nor am I suggesting that the Presence made present upon the altar is a creation of faith, for the Lord animates the terrestrial elements with his divine Presence whether or not we choose to allow our hearts to experience what our senses cannot. Instead, this imagination I speak of is a true way of knowing, a method of discovery, which enables an encounter of the most profound kind, making present to us that which is out of the reach of the most advanced science and technology. Therefore, I would suggest that in order to even begin to appreciate the mystery brought before us for contemplation, we must leave behind our usually mundane form of knowing. Instead, we must allow the gift of faith we have received and the love which the Holy Spirit has ignited us with to lift up our hearts to a place where loving becomes knowing, and faith becomes seeing. To do so is to participate in the Eucharistic imagination which has animated the Church for centuries, and which, as we shall see has lead Her to an ever deeper understanding of the gift she receives daily. Animated by such faith and love we may have the firm hope that what the Church teaches us concerning this sacred mystery is true, for they are the words of the Beloved, whispering to us that which She has experienced in the embrace of the One who loved Her to the point of death, even death on the cross (Philippians 2:8).
As we begin, we would do well to recall the meaning of the word “eucharist.” The word “eucharist” comes from the Greek word “eukharistia” which means “thanksgiving.” And it is precisely a response of thanksgiving which the sacrament intends to evoke from us. Not however, on an emotional level, as though we are simply responding to a material gift or as a polite response to a gentle reminder brought to our attention of the price that has been paid for our salvation; but instead a thanksgiving that describes our existential orientation, animating our every movement; more on this later. We find this most crucial aspect of the Christian life highlighted by our readings for today. As always, it is important that we recall to mind that the same God made present during our Eucharistic celebration has been at work, educating and nourishing the human family since time immemorial, leading us towards an ever increasing state of perfection.
Our first reading finds us once again joining the people of Israel as they journey through the desert. Here, the people of God are nearing the end of their journey and are preparing to enter the Promised Land and their leader, Moses, is exhorting them not to forget the Divine Providence which had seen them this far. Why the reminder now? They are about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, the Promised Land, and though they will have to overcome much adversity in order to possess it for themselves, possess it they will in accordance with the promise made to them by God (cf. Ex 3:17). And, as humans are inclined to do, they will assume they have done this on their own, under their own power and according to their own volition; in short, they will become proud. This is precisely what Moses is trying to help them avoid by reminding the Israelites that they have been the special beneficiaries of the tender care of the Divine Love, and thus, what they are about to receive is sheer gift.
Unfortunately, as heard from the pew, there are several verses left out of Moses’ message to the people. I say unfortunately because though we are reminded of the manna in accordance with today’s solemnity, we miss a whole slew of other examples. In the omitted verses, Moses reminds the people how God has provided for their clothing and physical well being (Deuteronomy 8:4), and more than this, he has not simply acted as a sometimes present parent who sends a child-support check from afar, but instead he has been continually present, ‘disciplining them as a parent disciplines a child’ (Dt. 8:5), teaching them to live life as it was meant to be lived (Dt. 8:6). And this was all done precisely so that they could arrive at the point where they now found themselves, about to inherit a land of their own; a land where they could live in freedom, a land which would easily provide for all of their material needs (Dt. 8:7-10), a life whose description echoes that of Eden, provided that the people did not forget their God.
At this point we would do well to briefly expand on the manna which plays a central role in all of this; a food which the Bible calls the bread from heaven (cf. Ex. 16:4), and the bread of angels (cf. Psalm 78:23-25). And for this we go outside of today’s first reading back to chapter 16 of the Book of Exodus, where this miraculous food first appears. Here I want to highlight two things. First, this miraculous bread from heaven was provided by God for the people daily, and in the amount that each needed to satisfy their hunger (Ex. 16:12 & 21). This was true except for on the sixth day of the week, on this day the people were to gather double what they needed in order to be able to refrain from the work of collection on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:5). And in order to ensure that these rules were followed, if the people tried to store up more than needed, planning ahead as it were to avoid not having any the following day, this miraculous bread would spoil after a day (Ex. 16:20), except of course on the Sabbath when God had told them to keep extra (Ex 16:24). The miraculous qualities of the bread bring us to our second point. By acting in such a way, the manna was much more than physical sustenance. Instead, the manna was a sign of a much deeper truth. For our purposes we can break this into two points. First, the people could not plan ahead, as it were, and store up the necessary food that would provide them with another day of life because the food would spoil. This is a sign of the reality that we are radically dependent upon God for every day and every moment of our lives, if he should cease to provide us with daily and even momentary installments of the force that animates us, we would simply perish. Secondly, the people are given this gift of life for one purpose, to give honor, glory, and praise to their God. We see this in that the people were not to collect food on the Sabbath, but instead dedicate themselves to observing this weekly celebration. Taken together then, the message becomes clear, the people are given life precisely to fulfill the purpose for which God had set them free from slavery in Egypt which was repeatedly stated to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go that they may worship me’ (cf. Ex. 3:12, 3:18, 4:22-23, 5:12, etc.).
With all of this in mind, we now turn to our gospel reading for today. There, we find ourselves near the end of John chapter 6, the famous “Bread of Life Discourse.” Our particular passage, which is only a very, very small section of the entire discourse, begins with Jesus uttering the words, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Here, two things are of special note. First, the phrase with which our Lord begins here should immediately remind us of the manna because he describes himself with literally the same words God had described the manna to Moses, i.e. ‘bread from heaven.’ The second element to notice is a bit more veiled due to translation. The verb here rendered as “eats” is a translation of the Greek very phago, which means to eat, carrying the connotation of plain old eating. This is perhaps odd enough when approached with a pedestrian imagination, however, it becomes even more so when we take a closer look at Jesus’ response following the objection of his listeners who suffering from this same malady ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52); the very same question which would not so implicitly be asked by some Christians roughly 1500 years later, and which some still ask today. Now, one would think if these individuals had the wrong idea, Jesus would clarify. But instead, he intensifies his language, and in verse 54 Jesus changes the verb form from phago to trógó, which means to gnaw, munch or crunch. Then after intensifying his language Jesus assures the listeners, “the one who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).
We have one last question to ask then; when was this bread given? On the night before he died, the Savior of the world “took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’ (Matt 26:26; cf. Luke 22:19). He then did the same with a cup of wine saying “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:27-28; cf. Luke 22:20). For brevity’s sake we may point out two things here. First, we should notice Jesus is offering his whole self to his disciples, his whole life, in order that they might literally take it into themselves so that they be united to him in a manner more profound than had ever been imagined; a unity whose implication is so profound and impenetrable that if not accepted in love goes unnoticed, and wasted. The second point follows and is found in the words of the Savior himself; this gift is given for the forgiveness of sins. If we understand that sin is separation from God, what else can this mean than that this bread gives true life because it eliminates the separation between us and God by actualizing this very unity! If we may be so bold, we can in a certain sense say that the purpose of the life, death and resurrection of the Incarnate Son is the Eucharist; for it actualizes the purpose for which we have been created in a real way here and now; unity with the God who loved us into being. Of course, we experience this reality surrounded in a veil of mystery here and now, yet this makes it no less the very same reality which the saints will experience for eternity, taking in the Love which called us into being from the first moment of conception and which will call us home the moment we draw our last breath.
My friends, the reception of the Eucharist is an foretaste of heaven for it is unity with our God! To be sure, we will never fully appreciate nor understand this gift this side of eternity, I suppose if we could, the experience would be so overwhelming our hearts would cease to beat as it too would have paused to contemplate the wonder before it. Coming back full circle to where we began then, we make this final point. After God had created Adam and Eve in the garden, he set them free to experience all the beauty the masterpiece he had just called forth had to offer with one exception (Gen. 2:16-17). Tragically, in defiance of that exception, our first parents proudly reached up into a tree and attempted to seize life for themselves on their own terms in the form of an apple, opening the door for death to enter the world. Today, we receive stand at the foot of another tree, the tree of life, our Savior’s cross; and there we receive the bread of life which will keep us safe for life eternal! Such a gift is not seen with human eyes, but only with the Church’s Eucharistic imagination, an imagination which when nourished by the very life of Christ leads us intuitively to respond in thanksgiving. It is this thanksgiving which becomes our constant form of worship, animating every moment, every action, every word, every breath of our lives.
Heavenly Father, you so loved the world that you sent your only Begotten Son to provide your children the cure of all ills, his very life manifest to us under the appearances of bread and wine. We ask you now, enkindle within us the fire of your love, the Holy Spirit, so that we may approach this heavenly banquet with a burning desire for your Life which through us loving bathes the world in the radiance of your glory by living the Love we receive.
Your servant in Christ,