Sunday, June 26, 2011

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: A Cycle

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 great feast of Pentecost commemorating the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and on us. 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 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. Moses reminds them of how the Lord has sustained them on their long journey. They had been fed with manna, a new and miraculous food unknown to them and their fathers. This had been done in order to show them that,

Not by bread alone does one live,
But by every word that comes forth
From the mouth of the Lord.

In the beginning of the John’s gospel Jesus, himself, is called the Word of God. Today’s gospel from the 6th chapter of that gospel contains the hardest, perhaps the most difficult, words that Jesus ever uttered. They were so difficult that not only did they strike consternation among His Jewish hearers, but they also caused some of His disciples to leave Him. He said.

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.

To make his point clear He repeats it over and over.

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.

This was especially shocking and disgusting to the Jews because of their traditional abhorrence to eating even the blood of animals. These words remain a stumbling block today to many who cannot accept them as literally true. What are we to make of them? How do we eat His flesh and drink His blood?
Of course Catholics have always believed that it is in the Holy Eucharist. At the Last Supper, Jesus took bread into His hands, broke it, and gave it to them to eat saying that it was His Body. He also took the cup of wine and told them to drink it for it was His Blood. No Pope or theologian made this up. We get it from Jesus Himself. We live by the Word of God; Jesus is the Word of God: and “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my Blood remains in Me and I in him.”

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. What we do today at each Mass is what the first Christians did from the very beginning. As St. Paul said in today’s second reading,

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?

Reading 1. Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14b-16a
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17
Gospel. John 6: 51-59 (the living bread).

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