Jun 23, 2019: Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) (C)

Corpus Christi

Introduction

On the feast of The Body and Blood of Christ, we celebrate the living presence of Christ in the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist and recall the institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion at the Last Supper.  While Holy Thursday also marks the anniversary of the institution, the solemn nature of Holy Week and the focus on Christ’s Passion suppresses the level of rejoicing that is proper to the occasion. Today’s observance, therefore, accents the joyous aspects of Holy Thursday, in order to deepen our attachment to the unique and unending event that transforms our lives.

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.

We will see that all of today’s readings are about meals: Abram’s victory meal, the Last Supper, and the feeding of the five thousand.

1st Reading – Genesis 14:18-20

In those days, Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine,
and being a priest of God Most High,
he blessed Abram with these words:
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
the creator of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your foes into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Today’s first reading is about a king of Salem, Melchizedek, who brought bread and wine as gifts to Abraham after Abraham had defeated his political enemies.  The enemies had captured Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and had taken his goods.

The existence of Melchizedek is known only from these three verses in scripture (and referenced in the Letter to the Hebrews), nestled into an account of Abram’s meeting with the King of Sodom, whom Abram freed by defeating their mutual enemy in battle.

In those days, Melchizedek,

Names play an important role in this account; their meanings reveal the significance of the actions performed.  The name Melchizedek is a compound of two Hebrew words: melek (the alpha of a complex, stratified society, i.e., the king) and sadeq (righteous).  It describes the character of the man’s governance.

king of Salem,

Although there is a valley named Salem (see Judith 4:4), the reference in both places is probably a shortened version of the name Jerusalem, the Jebusite city that was captured by David and made the capital of his kingdom (2 Samuel 5:6-8).

brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High,

Note that Melchizedek both a king and a priest. He is the first priest mentioned in the Bible.

It is not clear that the bread and wine are brought out as a cultic offering (versus simply for sustenance), but the association that with the title “priest of God Most High” certainly points in that direction.  If so, this likely would have been a thanksgiving offering for Abram’s victory over his foes.

We read this passage on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ because the mysterious figure of Melchizedek is a type for Christ; that is, he prefigures or foreshadows Christ in some way.  Melchizedek foreshadows Christ in two ways: 1) he is both king and priest, and 2) he offers bread and wine as a gift and a blessing.  Of course, the bread and wine that Jesus offers are his own body and blood.

he blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High,

Melchizedek’s full identity is unclear.  It seems that the deity in whose name he blesses Abram (God Most High) is not the God of Israel, but rather the deity associated with the cult that was practiced in Jerusalem at that time.  If that is the case, Abram might have participated in this worship because he was in the land of this god, and because of the status of Melchizedek.

However, Jewish tradition hints that Melchizedek might be Shem, the son of Noah, who would have outlived Abram according to the genealogies in Genesis.  If that is the case, this might be the priestly blessing which the father traditionally gives to the righteous son, although in this case, Shem would be something like Abram’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.

the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.”

The words proclaimed by Melchizedek are both a blessing for Abram and an exclamation of praise of God Most High.

Regardless of the identity of Melchizedek or the deity being worshipped, Abram’s victory is acknowledged as not being the result of his own hand, but God’s intervention.

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

A tithe. Abram, the most powerful warrior, who has defeated the four kings who had
defeated the five kings, doesn’t accept a tithe, but gives one showing that he recognizes
Melchizedek not as an inferior or equal, but as a superior (or as a representative of one).

In the ancient world, tithes were offered both at sanctuaries and to rulers.  Here the tithing is probably a tenth of the war spoils, offered as part of the thank-offering.  We are not told of what it consists, or exactly what is done with the bread and wine.

The episode concludes as abruptly as it began.  All we are sure of is the victory of Abram and his acculturation into the customs of the land into which he has migrated.  And of course, it introduces us to the importance of the city of Jerusalem, which will play such a pivotal role in salvation history.

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, 
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, 
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, 
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Our second reading contains the words of consecration which we hear at every Mass.  This letter from Paul was written about eight years before the first gospel account, making this passage the oldest written account of the institution of the Eucharist.

Brothers and sisters: I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,

The language used here by Saint Paul is technical and formulaic: what he received he now hands down.  Recall that Paul was a convert; he was not among The Twelve at the Last Supper. He received this tradition in the usual way a religious heritage is transmitted: by word of mouth.

Since such transmission was a custom in both the Greek schools and the Jewish synagogue, the audience would understand what Paul was doing, regardless of their ethnic or religious background.

that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, 

Holy Thursday, the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. Although the institution of the Eucharist is what is being highlighted here, this was also the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, experienced his agony in the garden, and was arrested.

took bread,

The afikomen, the section of unleavened bread which was broken off during the Passover meal and reserved until just before the third cup of wine was drunk.

and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said,

Faithful to Jewish table etiquette, as either the host of the gathering or the head of the household, he gives thanks and breaks the bread.

“Give thanks” in Greek: eucharisto.

“This is my body that is for you.

Recall that a year before the Last Supper, Jesus had said: I am the living bread that comes down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world (John 6:51).

Do this in remembrance of me.”

The Church sees these poignant words of Jesus as instruction for the continual celebration of the liturgical reenactment.  The fact that they are the words of Jesus gives divine legitimation to the anámnēsis (ritual of remembering) that is enjoined upon the community of believers.

Anámnēsis is not the recalling of fond memories, but a memorial sacrifice which makes the person present at the original event. Among the Hebrews, Passover was the memorial sacrifice par excellence; every time a Jew, even today, celebrates the Passover, they make themselves present at the first Passover in Egypt and are joined with all the participants of that original Passover meal. By making a remembrance, they are participating in a covenant renewal ceremony. Paul is conveying that the celebration of the Eucharist is a memorial sacrifice by which we bless and thank God for his life, death, and resurrection.  This is to last forever.

We’ve heard the words of the Eucharist so often that we can easily take them for granted; imagine the amazement, if not the incredulity, of the Apostles when they heard them for the first time.

In the same way also the cup, after supper,

When the supper was over, Jesus took the cup and pronounced words over it as well.  This would have been the third cup of the Passover meal, the cup of thanksgiving.

saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.

The cup is identified with the new covenant and with the blood of the Lord, which, like sacrificial blood, ratifies the covenant. This takes the new covenant theme from Jeremiah 31:31 and the blood ratification from the Jewish sacrificial system, incorporates them, reinterprets them, and fulfills the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:31.

The institution of the Eucharist is the only time in the New Testament when Jesus uses the term “covenant.”

Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

This verse ends as did the previous verse, with a charge to repeat the memorial.

We must keep in mind that Jesus is God, and whatever God speaks, happens (Isaiah 55:10-11). During creation, when he said “Let there be light,” darkness disappeared. Therefore, when Jesus said “This is my body… This is my blood,” the bread and wine became his Precious Body and Precious Blood. Not symbols, but literally his body and blood.

“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.” [Saint Justin the Martyr (A.D. 150), First Apology 66]

“Do you wish to know how it is consecrated with heavenly words? Accept that the words are. The priest speaks. He says: Perform for us this oblation written, reasonable, acceptable, which is a figure of the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. … Before it is consecrated, it is bread; but when the words of Christ come in, it is the Body of Christ. Finally, hear Him saying: ‘All of you take and eat of this; for this is My Body (Luke 22:19).’ And before the words of Christ the chalice is full of wine and water; but where the words of Christ have been operative it is made the Blood of Christ which redeems the people.” [Saint Ambrose of Milan (A.D. 390), The Sacraments 4,5, 21-23]

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

Jesus’ sharing of the blessed bread and cup was a prophetic action that anticipated his death.  The ritual reenactment of this supper would be a participation in his death and a sharing in the benefits that would accrue from it.  In it, the risen exalted Lord continually gives what the dying Jesus gave, once and for all.  In the memorial celebration, the past, present, and future are brought together: the past is the commemoration of his death; the present is the ritual of remembrance itself; the future is his parousía, his coming again.

This is a renewal of the covenant, which is not a one-time thing.  The reason for repeating Jesus’ actions and words is that they reenact and signify his salvific death.  Believers live an essentially eschatological existence, anticipating the future as they reenact the past. Paul’s word for “proclaim” (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’re bringing Christ’s death to the present and making it effective in ourselves.

The Eucharist is not only to be a memory, but a living contact with Jesus.

Gospel – Luke 9:11-17

Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God,
and he healed those who needed to be cured.
As the day was drawing to a close,
the Twelve approached him and said,
“Dismiss the crowd
so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms
and find lodging and provisions;
for we are in a deserted place here.”
He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves.”
They replied, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have,
unless we ourselves go and buy food for all these people.”
Now the men there numbered about five thousand.
Then he said to his disciples,
“Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.”
They did so and made them all sit down.
Then taking the five loaves and the two fish,
and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing over them, broke them,
and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
They all ate and were satisfied.
And when the leftover fragments were picked up,
they filled twelve wicker baskets.

Our gospel reading today recalls the feeding of the five thousand, a precursor to the
Eucharist. This miracle story is so important that it’s the one told in all four gospels.

Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God, and he healed those who needed to be cured.

The account opens with a summary statement about the ministry of Jesus: He preached about the reign of God and he healed the people of their illnesses.

As the day was drawing to a close, the Twelve approached him and said, “Dismiss the crowd so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms and find lodging and provisions; for we are in a deserted place here.”

If Jesus’ preaching had not attracted the crowds, his healing certainly would have.  People from all walks of life thronged around him so that, as we see here, they had to be dismissed.

He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves.”

Among miracle stories, this one is unique.  Usually the miracle is a mighty action taken by Jesus with astounding results, and the crowd reacts with awe.  Neither of those elements are present in this passage.

This response from Jesus shifts the focus of the story from what Jesus can do to what Jesus is asking his followers to do.

They replied, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have, unless we ourselves go and buy food for all these people.”

Five loaves and two fish would not have been much of a meal for Jesus and the Twelve, much less for the crowd said to have gathered on this occasion.  Yet that was the fare the disciples were told to distribute.

In Mark 6:37 the reply is much sharper: “Are we to buy 200 days’ wages worth of food?”

Now the men there numbered about five thousand. Then he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” They did so and made them all sit down.

The role played by the apostles cannot be overlooked.  They are actually the ones through whom the crowds experience the munificence of Jesus.

Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.

Jesus’ actions over the food are brief but significant.  He blessed it, broke it, and gave it as food.

The Eucharistic overtones are clear; Luke very purposefully uses the same language as that which describes the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19) and in the Emmaus story (Luke 24:30) “took … looked up … blessed … broke … gave.”

They all ate and were satisfied.

The crowd does not react with awe; in fact, if you had been a member of the crowd, you would not have known that anything unusual had happened.

And when the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets. 

Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd themselves, something they felt was beyond their ability.  With Jesus’ help, however, the crowd was not only fed, there was an abundance left over.

By directing attention away from what Jesus can do and only what the apostles are asked to do, and by alluding to the Eucharist, Luke is reminding his readers that we are not alone.  Christ is present in us through the Eucharist.  With his help, we have the power to respond to the hungry and not send them away.

The twelve baskets left over show that if we respond to the needs of the hungry we will discover that there will be enough for everyone.

Connections and Themes

The sacrifice of Jesus.  The body and blood of Christ are offered as a sacrifice for us, and every time we reenact this sacrifice, we renew his sacrifice for us. The bread that is broken is the bread of a thanksgiving sacrifice, and the blood that is consumed is the blood that ratifies the covenant between God and us.  However, the broken bread is really his broken body, offered for us, and ratifying wine is really his blood, poured out in atonement for our sins. The body and blood of Jesus is the interim meal for the Christian community; they are to feed on it until the Lord returns.  This means that the eucharistic meal is a reenactment of Christ’s death, an anticipatory celebration of his coming, and a thanksgiving banquet with him present.  The symbolism is rich and multi-faceted.

The banquet of the Lord. The multiplication of the loaves and fish is another portal that opens into the richness of this feast.  It prefigures the eschatological banquet of fulfillment.  Its miraculous bounty assures us of the abundance of that future banquet.  The themes of these readings weave themselves in and out of one another, manifesting one aspect of the mystery only to recede into the harmony of the whole.

The miracle of multiplication also prefigures Jesus’ miracle of transforming the bread and wine into his own body and blood at the Last Supper.  Jesus handed himself over as food and drink on the very night he was handed over by others to become a victim of sacrifice.  The banquet he prepared was a celebration of the new covenant; it was a banquet of thanksgiving; it was eschatological.

This feast invites us to enter through any portal, for each one will lead us to the mystery we celebrate: the mystery of the sacrifice of Christ; the mystery of the sacred bread and wine of the future; the mystery of the eschatological banquet of the present.

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