Sunday, June 7, 2015

Corpus Christi

                                    Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Stained Glass Window
Assumption Church
Fairfield CT*

After the completion of the Easter season, we are presented with three great feast days, all designed to follow up and reinforce the great message of Easter. Two weeks ago we celebrated the feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Last week we celebrated the feast of the Holy Trinity which brought to mind the ways in which God works in our world. Today we celebrate the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, formally called the feast of Corpus Christi, which celebrates our intimate relationship  with Jesus, Himself.

Today’s first reading takes us back to the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert after their escape from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. To many of us today this particular passage might sound offensive. Why was it necessary to kill those poor animals for sacrifice? Why was if necessary to sprinkle the blood of animals all over the altar and on the assembled congregation?

Even though we love our animals today, the animals of the Jews were of much greater value and importance to them. The Jews of the Exodus were a tribe of wanderers whose very lives depended on their flocks. To sacriice some young bulls as they did in today’s reading was to give up a great deal. In effect, to sacrifice these animals was as close to sacrificing themselves as they could get. To give up something of such great value was to acknowledge that the covenant or agreement with God was of even greater importance.

It was only with the Last Supper that St. Mark describes in today’s Gospel, that the followers of Jesus, all of them Jews, first began to realize that they would no longer have to slaughter their animals and sprinkle their blood. Here are St. Mark’s words:

            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.”

Certainly, we know that the earliest Christians took these words literally. They realized that “the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes” were no longer necessary. The sacrifice of Christ on the Cross opened up the door for all of us. In today’s second reading from the letter to the Hebrews we heard the following words:  

How much more will the blood of Christ,
Who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God,
Cleanse our consciences from the dead works
To worship the living God.

In this famous letter we are told that Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant.” What does that mean? A mediator is someone who stands in the middle between two parties trying to bring them together. How does Jesus act as a mediator? On one occasion his disciples asked Him to “show us the way.” He replied “I am the way.”

They didn’t understand and its hard for us to understand although he gave them and us a pretty good road map in his words and in his life. How many times did he have to tell us that He didn’t want our sacrifices, that His sacrifice which we celebrate every Sunday on the altar is sufficient. How many times did he heal people, feed them, comfort them and tell us to do likewise? The only sacrifice pleasing to the Father was that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and that whatever we do for the least of the brethren, we do for 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. What we do today at each Mass is what the first Christians did from the very beginning. As St. Paul once said

            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?


* Image by Melissa DeStefano

Reading 1. Exodus 24: 3-8
Reading II. Hebrews 9: 11-15
Gospel. Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26 (this is my body).

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