Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Today's feast of the Body and Blood of Christ used to be called the feast of Corpus Christi, from the Latin words which literally mean the Body of Christ. The feast commemorates not just the Body of Christ but also the fact that it was given up or sacrificed for us. That's probably why each of today's readings features a priest who makes an offering to God.
In the first reading we go back to the first book of the Old Testament, the Book of Genesis, and meet the legendary priest-king, Melchizedek, who offers up bread and wine to "God Most High." Although little else is known about Melchizedek, the early Fathers of the Church always viewed him as a forerunner of Christ as both priest and king. At Mass if the priest uses the first Eucharistic prayer, he will compare our Eucharistic sacrifice with Melchizedek's.
In today's gospel we have St. Luke's account of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes. This miracle, where Jesus provided food for the 5000, has also always been viewed as a precursor of the Eucharistic sacrifice. Like many of the miracles of Jesus this one follows a standard format. Jesus is busy at his work of teaching and healing when a problem--a hungry crowd--is brought to his attention. At first He doesn't see what it has to do with Him, and tells his disciples to take care of it themselves. "Give them some food yourselves." When they confess their own inability, He takes over.
Then taking the five loaves and 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.
St. Luke concludes that "they all ate and were satisfied," and that plenty was left over.
Despite the fact that this miracle is the only one to appear in all four gospels, it is one of the most difficult for many people to accept. Today it is fashionable to offer a purely natural or sociological explanation. Some think that people were shamed by the selfless sharing of Jesus, and proceeded to take food which they had hidden about their persons and share it with their neighbors.
That's one theory but I prefer to think that the God who is responsible for every grain of wheat that grows on the earth, and for every fish that swims in the sea, could feed 5000 people. Right after this miracle St. Mark tells us that Jesus saved His disciples from drowning when he calmed the storm at sea. St. Mark relates this incident to the miracle of the loaves. He says that the disciples in the boat "were utterly beside themselves with astonishment, for they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was blinded."
Many people also find it hard today to believe that the Body and Blood of Jesus are offered in the Sacrifice of the Mass. In today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians we have what is probably the first written account of our Lord's offering of His own Body and Blood at the Last Supper. It's obvious that Paul didn't make these words up. He says that he heard them from the Lord Himself in much the same way that the other Apostles did at that Passover meal.
What could the Apostles have been thinking when they saw Jesus take the bread, offer thanks, break it, and then say, "This is my body that is for you?" How could the bread be His Body? Or what about, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." How could the wine be His Blood? We know that they believed it because He said it and because He would raise His Body from the dead only three days later. We also know that the first Christian communities also believed it and from the beginning repeated the Lord's words whenever they gathered together "in remembrance of Him."
Since the beginnings of Christianity theologians have tried to come to a better understanding of what our Lord meant. In the Middle Ages they came up with an explanation that is as good as any that has been offered since. Guided by the rediscovery of the works of ancient Greek scientists and philosophers, theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas developed the concept of "transubstantiation."
Like most scientific words "transubstantiation" is a long word made up of different parts in order to give greater clarity and precision. But if we break the word down into its parts, we will get a better idea of what it means. First, let's deal with the prefix, "tran." It means going from one thing to another, like in transport or transmit. The suffix, "ation", at the end of the word means a process or action, like in transportation. So if we get rid of the prefix and suffix, we're left with the root or core of the word, "substance." Now "sub" means under and "stance" comes from the Latin verb, "stare" which means "to stand."
When we deal with substance we're dealing with that which stands under a thing, it's real core, what it is. So "transubstantiation" means that the bread and wine although they still look, and feel, and taste like bread and wine, have become something else. It's something like when we advance through the different stages of life, from infancy to old age. Although our bodies change, aren't we always the same person?
However, transubstantiation is an attempt to explain a mystery. It is not the mystery itself. Like the early Christians we believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist because our Lord said so at the first Eucharist.
Note: Leonardo's Last Supper depicts the moment when Jesus institutes the Eucharist. If you click on the image above to enlarge it, you will see his hands pointing to the bread and wine on the table. The Apostles are reacting not to the announcement of his betrayal but to his statement, "This is My Body."
Reading 1. Genesis 14: 18-20
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26
Gospel. Luke 9: 11b-17 (Loaves and Fishes).