Jun 3, 2018: Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) (B)

Corpus Christi

Introduction

On the feast of The Body and Blood of Christ, we celebrate the mystery, faith, and devotion surrounding the Eucharist and recall the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper.  While Holy Thursday marks the anniversary of the institution, the solemn nature of Holy Week and the focus on Christ’s Passion on Holy Friday suppresses the level of rejoicing that is proper to the occasion. Today’s observance, therefore, accents the joyous aspect of Holy Thursday.

The Mass and the Office for the feast of Corpus Christi was edited or composed by St. Thomas Aquinas upon the request of Pope Urban IV in the year 1264.  The official title of the Solemnity was changed in 1970 to The Body and Blood of Christ.

1st Reading – Exodus 24:3-8

When Moses came to the people
and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
“We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”
Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and,
rising early the next day,
he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar
and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites
to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls
as peace offerings to the LORD,
Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls;
the other half he splashed on the altar.
Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people,
who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.”
Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying,
“This is the blood of the covenant
that the LORD has made with you
in accordance with all these words of his.”

In today’s first reading, God’s ratification of his Sinai covenant with Israel is described in dramatic terms.

When Moses came to the people and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,

“The words” are the Ten Commandments, which were also known as “the ten words” (debārîm).  “The ordinances” are the Covenant Code (mishpātîm), a collection of civil and religious laws (see Exodus 21:1).  These were the laws that generally governed Israel’s life.

they all answered with one voice, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”

After hearing the laws read aloud, the people collectively agree to the terms and conditions of the covenant.

Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD

The spoken word is then made physical and permanent.  This was probably not done out of fear that the people might forget them (oral cultures have techniques that enhance retention) but in order to preserve a record of the covenant for later liturgical use.

and, rising early the next day, he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.

In preparation for the sacrifice that would seal the covenant, Moses erected symbols that represented the partners of the covenant: an altar to represent the presence of God and twelve pillars which stood for the totality of the people (i.e., all twelve tribes).

Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites

He chose young men, not priests or Levites, to offer the sacrifices.

Perhaps these were youths who were on the brink of manhood who had neither taken part in war nor entered into marriage.  They would be apt symbols of a nation that was about to enter into a lifelong relationship.

to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD,

Two different sacrifices were offered: the holocaust and the peace offering.

Holocausts were burnt offerings in which the whole animal was consumed by fire on the altar, signifying the worshiper’s total self-offering to God.

Peace offerings either established peace or celebrated a peace that had already been made. The latter was probably the case here.

Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls; the other half he splashed on the altar.

The pouring of the blood is the most solemn and binding part of the sacrifice, and seals the covenant.  Since it was God who initiated the covenant, and since God is the principal partner in the relationship, the altar is splashed first.

Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people,

Once again the people hear the law; this time it is read to them.  It’s almost as if Moses wants them to be very sure of what they are doing.

who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.”

The people have a second opportunity to say, “We will!”

Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people,

Since blood is the life force, it signifies the life that binds the covenant partners.  Through it they make two pledges: to lay down life itself, if necessary, for the sake of the covenant partner; and to surrender life to the partner if one is unfaithful to the covenant.

saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

The last pronouncement of Moses makes clear the relationship between the words of the covenant and the blood.  He maintains that the blood ritual ratifies the covenant, which the words both describe and fashion.

A covenant is a family bond, entered into freely, binding perpetually, and sealed in blood.  God promised to be the God of Israel; Israel promised to keep all the commands of the Lord.

2nd Reading – Hebrews 9:11-15

Brothers and sisters:
When Christ came as high priest
of the good things that have come to be,
passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle
not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation,
he entered once for all into the sanctuary,
not with the blood of goats and calves
but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls
and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes
can sanctify those who are defiled
so that their flesh is cleansed,
how much more will the blood of Christ,
who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God,
cleanse our consciences from dead works
to worship the living God.

For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant:
since a death has taken place for deliverance
from transgressions under the first covenant,
those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.

Today’s second reading incorporates several features of the ritual performed during the Day of Atonement, as a model for discussing the high priesthood of Christ.

It is very likely that the Hebrews to whom this epistle is addressed were Christians of Jewish background, possibly former priests. That being the case, they certainly would have been familiar with the ceremonies of Mosaic worship.

Brothers and sisters: When Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be,

The author contrasts Christ with the high priesthood, a comparison of the heavenly with the earthly.  As we will see, he does this not to show the similarities, but the differences.

passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation,

The tabernacle within which the high priest performed his duties was made by human hands and it belonged to earth; Christ passed through a greater and more perfect tabernacle, the heavenly or spiritual archetype of all other sacred tents or temples.

he entered once for all into the sanctuary,

The high priest entered the Holy of Holies once a year, on the Day of Atonement, in order to sprinkle blood on the mercy seat.  Here, Christ is said to have entered the Holy of Holies “once for all.”

Both ritual acts were meditative, and both were expiatory.  The fundamental similarities end there.

not with the blood of goats and calves

The Day of Atonement ritual included the sacrifice of goats, offered for the sins of the people, and calves, offered for the sins of the priests.

Leviticus 9:2-4 prescribes the offering which Aaron, the first high priest is to offer every year upon entering the Holy of Holies.

but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.

In contrast to the goats and calves, the atoning blood that Christ brings is his own, and the expiation he achieves is eschatological: he does it only once.

For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed,

The ashes were mixed with water and used to cleanse those who had become defiled by contact with corpses, human bones, or graves (see Numbers 19:9-21).

how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.

This a fortiori reasoning (Latin for “from the stronger [argument]”) does not negate the sacrifices of the past.  “How much more” implies that they did achieve the purposes for which they were intended; they removed the ceremonial defilement.

However, the external cleansing they accomplished cannot be compared with the cleansing of consciences that Christ achieves.  His is a more valuable sacrifice; it is the sacrifice of his very self, his whole self, which was completely without sin.

Although there is no trinitarian theology explicitly developed here, note the references to God and to the eternal Spirit through whom Christ offered himself.

For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant: since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.

The focus of this reading is the sacrifice of Christ and its atoning effects in our lives.  Our consciences, not merely our bodies, are purified, and we are made acceptable for a manner of worship that is no longer temporary or provisional.

Since some kind of sacrifice is the foundation of any covenant, the action of Christ not only atones for sin but also inaugurates a new covenant.  Whereas the old covenant provided temporary and provisional atonement, the new covenant provides complete atonement, and therefore, an eternal inheritance.

Gospel – Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
Jesus’ disciples said to him,
“Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Follow him.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there.”
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.

While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them,
“This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
Amen, I say to you,
I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Today’s gospel reading consists of two parts: a description of the Passover meal preparation and the institution the Eucharist, which took place during the meal itself.  The first part sets the stage for the second, not only from a literary point of view but from a theological perspective as well.

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,

The Passover sacrifice took place on the 14th of Nisan, which was also the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He sent two of his disciples

Luke 22:8 informs us that these two were Peter and John.

and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.

This is a unique image, since men didn’t carry water in jars (as women did), they carried it in skins.  However, the Greek word used here implies simply a person and not necessarily a male.

Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.”

It is obvious at the outset that Jesus is in charge.  He initiates the preparations, directs the disciples, and gives orders to the master of the house.  Note that he even claims the guest room as his own.

We don’t know the significance of the person carrying water in a jar, nor are we told why his master unquestioningly offered a room in his home for the meal.  He was likely a follower of Jesus, at least in some sense, based on the reference to Jesus as simply “the Teacher.”

The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; 

Jesus has described in advance the circumstances surrounding the preparations for the Passover meal.  The fact that no amazement is expressed by the disciples causes some commentators to believe that everything had been prearranged.

and they prepared the Passover.

This would consist of obtaining the Paschal lamb and taking it to the temple to be sacrificed by the priests. It would then be brought to the house to be cooked; the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the wine would have to be provided, as well as the water for purification.

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing,

The traditional Passover blessing over the bread would have been: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.”

broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”

This is the first indication to the disciples that this is not the typical Passover meal.  Jesus tells them that the bread is now his body (sōma, meaning “person,” rather than sárx, meaning “flesh”).

Then he took a cup, gave thanks,

The blessing he spoke was probably also traditional: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.”

and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant,

The only time that Jesus speaks of “covenant” is at the Last Supper. A covenant is a family bond which is sealed in blood and the sharing of a communal meal.

The disciples must have realized that something profound was taking place, because they did not object to what would have been scandalous and offensive commands (“this is my body” … “this is my blood of the covenant”) during the sacred observance of Passover.

which will be shed for many.

Hyper, the Greek preposition used here “for many,” is different one from the one used in Matthew’s account of the Last Supper, but the same as that found in Luke’s.  The sense of both words is vicarious, and it is difficult in Hellenistic Greek to distinguish between them.

In either case, “many” does not mean that some are excluded, but is a Semitism designating the collectivity who benefit from the service of the one, and is equivalent to “all.”

Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

A foreshadowing of Jesus’ impending death, and perhaps also an allusion to the messianic banquet of the future, which will be enjoyed by all when the reign of God is brought to fulfillment.

Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Traditionally, the Great Hallel (Psalms 114 through 118), songs of thanksgiving, are sung to conclude the Passover meal.  The Mount of Olives is a hill east of Jerusalem beyond the Kidron Valley, where Jesus often went in the evening to pray (see Luke 21:37).

The symbolism in this ceremony both recalls the covenant of old and reinterprets it.  Eating bread was a common ritual expression of companionship; the reference to the blood of the covenant recalls the ratification of the earlier covenant through the blood of the sacrifice in our first reading (Exodus 24:6-8).

Connections and Themes

  • In each of today’s readings, blood plays a central role.  However repulsive the thought of blood rituals might be, the purpose of these rituals — the creation of blood bonds —remains hugely relevant.  Those we share blood bonds with are some of the most treasured relationships we have, and they carry social and legal status with them which are quite binding.  In the medical world, we know that a blood transfusion from a gracious donor can save a life.  There’s no mistaking that blood is a life force.
  • Under both the old covenant (first reading) and new covenant (second reading), God makes a binding agreement with us and seals it with the recognized life force of blood.  In both cases, the blood of a substitute is used in the place of our own.  However, since Christ was without sin, when he offered himself in our place, for our sins, the atonement achieved was perfect and eternal: once and for all.
  • The feast today celebrates several aspects of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  We celebrate the incarnation itself, the fact that God became one of us, taking on a body like our own.  He didn’t just appear on earth, fully formed: he was born of a woman, just as each of us were.  He developed and grew, just as we do.  He took on a body as frail as ours, prone to physical injury and weakness, and he relinquished that body to death, just as we will.
  • At the Last Supper, Jesus identified his body and blood with the bread and wine, and then gave them to us as our food of faith.  When we take Communion, we literally take into our own bodies the body of the Savior.  In a very real way, this re-enacts the Incarnation: God once again takes human flesh.  We are the indwelling.¹
  • The blood of Communion reminds us of and renews the blood covenant by which our redemption was achieved.  We have a blood bond with God; we are co-heirs with Christ.
  • The ramifications of this reality are profound: it transforms our vision of humanity.  Not only are we an indwelling of God and co-heir with Christ, we also see each other as such.  Christ’s body is hidden not only in the bread and wine, but also in the least of our brothers and sisters.  When we work for justice, when we provide for the poor, when we reach out to the criminal, we are serving each other and God incarnate.  This brings new meaning to Christ’s words in Matthew 25: Insofar as you did it to the least of these, you have done it to me.
  • We have been chosen and given a covenant promise sealed by God’s own blood.  In the Eucharist, we have a tangible reminder of this covenant and an eternally renewing indwelling of God in our own bodies.  How can we begin to express our gratitude for the lovingkindess of this sacrifice, for this tremendous outpouring of grace?  The only response is thanksgiving (eucharistía) – a life of gratitude lived in the presence of God, in union with our brothers and sisters who eat the same bread and drink from the same cup.²

Notes
1 – John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. (1996), The Word Encountered (Year B), 76.
2 – Dianne Bergant (1999), Preaching the New Lectionary (Year B), 419.

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