Jun 14, 2020: Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (A)

1st Reading – Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16a

Moses said to the people:
“Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments.
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger,
and then fed you with manna,
a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.

“Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery;
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;
who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock
and fed you in the desert with manna,
a food unknown to your fathers.”

On the plains of Moab, God charges Moses, now close to death, once more to proclaim the Law which he received through the revelation on Mount Sinai. This proclamation is contained in Deuteronomy, the fifth and final book of the Pentateuch, which in Hebrew is called had-deb harim (“the words) and by the Septuagint deuteronomion (“second law).

Moses said to the people: Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God, has directed all your journeying in the desert, so as to test you by affliction

A theological argument is being made in the form of retrieval — the audience is told to remember the past in order to act in a certain way in the present.

There is some ambiguity in the timeline Moses is drawing: while he is directing them to remember events as if they had taken place in their own past, he is likely addressing a new generation of Israelites, those who were under the age of twenty when the exodus began.

Traditional people frequently believe that through the agency of their ancestors they too experienced events of the past; the reference in the last verse of the passage to their ancestors shows that this is the perspective here.

and find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments.

Mention of the commandments reminds the people that they had entered a covenantal relationship with God.  The trials in the wilderness do not so much test their obedience to the commandments as their total dependence on God.

By having the Law read again, Yahweh is saying that his covenant with Israel is made with all generations (Deuteronomy 29:13), past, present, and future: it is an everlasting covenant.

He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.

This is a sort of homiletic on the manna narrative (Exodus 16; Numbers 11:16-23) which shows the importance of living by the word of God.

Their hunger had brought them to a realization of their own meager resources, and they were thrown on the providence of God.  This experience was meant to teach them that the source of their life is not merely the bread, but the promise of God itself.

Do not forget the LORD, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery; who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions,

Beyond mere hunger, Moses itemizes several examples of ways in which the people were thrown on the providence of God, instead of relying on themselves.

“Saraph” means “fiery,” indicate the severity of the snake’s venomous bite.

its parched and waterless ground; who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers.

Moses completes his list of reminders, exhorting them to always remember these things. They were delivered from bondage, guided through the wilderness, protected from its hazards, miraculously given water, and provided mysterious food.

Though the time of their sojourn in the wilderness is over, there are still lessons they must learn from it; namely, total confidence in God.  God has promised to care for us; can we live on the strength of that word?

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Brothers and sisters:
The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Because the loaf of bread is one,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all partake of the one loaf.

Paul’s discourse on the Eucharist reminds us that when we receive the Eucharist we are becoming one with the risen Christ, one with the Father, and one with each other.

Brothers and sisters: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

“Cup of blessing was a common Jewish expression for the cup of wine taken at the end of the meal.  The blessing referred to was probably some form of the following: Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine.

At the Passover meal, the third of the four cups that were taken is called “the cup of blessing,” because when it is poured, a blessing is said over the meal.

Paul explains the effectiveness of the blessing: It is by sharing the cup that is blessed that one participates in the blood of Christ. Throughout the Middle East, eating food with another traditionally establishes a bond of companionship, a bond with mutual obligations.  For Christians, this bond is a common-union (communion, or koinonia in Greek), a union which has two focuses: union with Christ, and union with other believers.

“That bread which you see on the altar, having been consecrated by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, consecrated by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend to us His Body and the Blood which He poured out for the remission of sins. If you have received worthily, you are what you have received.” [Saint Augustine of Hippo (ca. A.D. 391), Easter Sunday Homily, 227]

Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

In both references to “body,” the word used is sōma, suggesting that in neither case is Paul speaking merely about physical substance. In the first instance, he has Christ’s total being in mind; in the second he is referring to the ecclesial (mystical) body of Christ.

When we eat, we incorporate our food into ourselves. However, the opposite is true with the Eucharist: when we partake of that bread, we are transformed into it. Breaking bread together forms us into a community; sharing Eucharistic bread forms us into the body of Christ.

Whenever the actions of blessing a cup of wine and breaking a loaf of bread are performed in a community that boasts Jewish roots, those present will certainly understand the ritual significance of these actions.  Paul has here provided profound and heretofore unimaginable soteriological and ecclesiological dimensions to them.  For a companion reading, see 1 Corinthians 11:23-30.

“‘Because the Bread is one, we, the many, are in one body.’ ‘Why do I say “communion?’” He says; ‘for we are that very Body.’ What is the Bread? The Body of Christ! Not many bodies, but one Body. For just as the bread, consisting of many grains, is made one, and the grains are no longer evident, but still exist, though their distinction is not apparent in their conjunction; so too we are conjoined to each other and to Christ. For you are not nourished by one Body while someone else is nourished by another Body; rather, all are nourished by the same Body.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 24,2(4)]

“When you see [the Body of Christ] lying on the altar, say to yourself, ‘Because of this Body I am no longer earth and ash, no longer a prisoner, but free. Because of this Body I hope for heaven, and I hope to receive the good things that are in heaven, immortal life, the lot of the angels, familiar conversation with Christ. This Body, scourged and crucified, has not been fetched by death. … This is that Body which was blood-stained, which was pierced by a lance, and from which gushed forth those saving fountains, one of blood and the other of water, for all the world.’ … This is the Body which He gave us, both to hold in reserve and to eat, which was appropriate to intense love; for those whom we kiss with abandon we often even bite with our teeth.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392), Homilies on the First Epistle to the Corinthians 24,4(7)]

Gospel – John 6:51-58

Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Today’s gospel is part of a discourse that Jesus gives to a crowd after the multiplication of loaves, often called the “bread of life discourse.”

This takes place about one year before Jesus’ death, during the second of three Passover periods mentioned in the New Testament.

All three Passovers are recounted in the Gospel of John:

  • the cleansing of the temple immediately after the marriage feast at Cana (2:13)
  • the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on water (6:4)
  • Jesus’ passion and death (13:1).

Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:  I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever;

This is the third time that Jesus identifies himself as the “Bread of Life” (verses 35 and 48 are the other two).  Recall that in Hebrew numerology the number three represents completeness.

To a Jewish audience, the “bread that came down from heaven” was the manna that God sent to feed their ancestors in the desert. However, Jesus is calling himself living bread, in reference to his preexistence.

That Jesus is the preexistent Word who came down from heaven and became flesh — the idea with which John begins his gospel — was understood only after the resurrection.

and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

While the Eucharistic theme is obvious (see also Hebrews 10:5-10), this is also an allusion to his own death.

Throughout this passage, Jesus does not attempt to soften or alter his teaching.  It is the literal meaning, not a figurative or metaphorical one, that he is trying to drive home.

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Just as Nicodemus thought of being born again in the purely physical sense (John 3:4), and the woman at the well thought only of natural water (John 4:11), so now the Jews understand the reference to his flesh literally.  If they had understood him in a metaphorical, figurative, or symbolic sense, there would have been no reason for them to quarrel.

They can’t believe that what he says could be true. How can he give them his flesh to eat? This sounds like cannibalism to them. Is he going to start carving up his arm?

Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you,

Their lack of understanding gives Jesus an opportunity to explain.

Amen means “truly,” “so be it,” “I do believe.”  The doubled amen is a solemn affirmation, an oath.  Since two witnesses are required to sentence someone to death (Deuteronomy 17:6), Jesus is bearing the part of both witnesses and alerting them that what he is going to say has life and death consequences. Within the discourse, this is the fourth time he has reminded them that this is a life and death situation.

unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man

Recall that “Son of Man” is a term that Jesus applies to himself, the New Adam (Daniel 7:13), the one who will affect the resurrection (Ezekiel 37).

Jesus’ words do not encourage any figurative understanding of his pronouncement; they only underscore the literal meaning. The words that have upset the Jews, “flesh” and “eat,” are repeated. In fact, both of these words appear six times in today’s short reading.

and drink his blood,

If the idea of eating someone’s flesh is repugnant, drinking their blood is perhaps more so — particularly to a Jewish audience. Blood was a forbidden food under the Law (Leviticus 7:27; 17:10-14), the penalty for which was to be expelled from the tribe; they would be excommunicated.

On a literal level, “flesh and blood” refers to a living being, but on another level, it calls to mind the victim of sacrifice that is first slaughtered (flesh and blood) and then shared at a cultic meal (food and drink).  Jesus is “flesh and blood” in this way as well, first as the sacrificial victim on the cross and then as food and drink.

you do not have life within you.

Note that eternal life comes from feeding on Jesus, not simply from believing in him.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood

The verb used here for “eat” is not the classical Greek verb used for the human act of eating, but that of animal eating.  It literally means to “chew” or “gnaw.” This shows that it is an actual meal that he is talking about. This leaves no room for a symbolic interpretation: not only has he reiterated the statement, he has strengthened it.

has eternal life,

Jesus goes one step further in his teaching on eternal life, implying that it is not something merely hoped for in the future.  Rather, those who share in this meal already have eternal life.

and I will raise him on the last day.

A pledge which only God can make.

For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

In unmistakable language, Jesus again declares that his flesh is food and his blood is drink.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood

Again the strong verb is used for eating. This is the fourth time, in four verses, that Jesus has said they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. There is no question that he is speaking quite literally.  With this rapid repetition, it’s almost as if Jesus is saying, “What part of ‘eat’ and ‘drink’ don’t you understand?”

Note that when hearers misunderstand Jesus, he corrects their misunderstanding immediately (see John 3:3-6 for example, where Jesus corrects Nicodemus’ understanding of “born again” and explains that it is not a physical rebirth but a spiritual rebirth through baptism). Here, no correction is made because no misunderstanding exists.

remains in me and I in him.

Jesus develops the eating metaphor still further.  He maintains that just as we and the substance we eat and drink become one, so Jesus and those who feed on him form an intimate union.  In a mutually intimate way, they abide in him and he abides in them.  The Greek word used here (ménō) means to stay in a place, to abide forever.  This implies that Jesus does not merely visit those who feed on him, but he stays with them; he dwells there permanently.

Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.

The course through which eternal life passes from God to us is simply sketched. The living God, whom Jesus calls father, is the source of this life; Jesus already enjoys it because of his intimate union with God; believers already enjoy it because they feed on Jesus, who is the bread of life.

This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

Jesus gives a christological interpretation of the manna in the desert. As with the ancient Israelites, God has provided food as a source of life: the flesh and blood of Jesus. Manna sustained them for forty years; this bread will sustain them through all eternity.

Connections and Themes

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  Corpus Christi is a doctrinal feast established in honor of Christ present in the Eucharist. Its purpose is to instruct the people in the mystery, faith, and devotion surrounding the Eucharist.  Its readings do not offer an explanation of the doctrine of transubstantiation; rather, by way of the metaphors of food and drink, they provide us with a look at the mystery of divine presence.

God who feeds.  Our God is a God who feeds.  In the past, God provided food and water that enabled our ancestors to survive.  They may not have been deserving of God’s care, but they were hungry and were threatened with extinction, and God came to their aid.  God feeds those who are needy, not those who claim to be worthy.

Today we are offered the real bread from heaven, Jesus’ flesh and blood as food and drink, the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.  This food and drink not only sustain life, they are the pledge of eternal life. As in the wilderness and at the time of Jesus, faith is required to realize this is indeed food sent from God as a guarantee of life.

One bread, one body.  Those who eat this bread and drink this cup are caught up in a profound unity with God, a unity not envisioned in the wilderness experience.  Jesus’ claim to give his flesh and blood was a bold one, but Paul’s seems even bolder.  He states that partaking of the bread and the cup not only joins us with Christ but actually makes us participants in the body and blood of Christ.  Humanity and divinity are joined as one.

The Eucharist is also a sign of unity in another way: joined to the body and blood of Christ, we are joined to one another as well.  We are one body, and that body is Christ.

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