The Body and Blood of Christ
Corpus Christi. Deut 8:2-3.14-16; Ps 147; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58
Today we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, a feast still known by its Latin name of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. This is the day in the liturgical year when we celebrate the most extraordinary gift that God has given to us. God, in His love and mercy, gives us Himself under the appearances of bread and wine. In preaching on the meaning of this gift, I warn you that my words will be wholly inadequate. Since I must, however, say something, I ask St. Juliana of Liège, the woman who suffered so much to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi, to aid me by her intercession as I speak.
So what is the Eucharist? Our understanding comes principally from the words of Jesus Christ, spoken at the Last Supper, and the text I have just read from chapter 6 of John's Gospel. Shortly after feeding the five thousand, a miracle that foreshadows the Eucharist, Jesus shocks his listeners with these words. He says, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.” A little further on he warns, “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you.” So what Jesus is saying is that it is necessary, in the normal Christian life, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. Now the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood was understandably shocking to Jesus' listeners and to many others throughout history. The main reason that these words do not shock us is because the appearances of bread and wine at Mass cloth this mystery in a most humble and almost commonplace form. But perhaps we need to be shocked. After all, the Eucharist is not a mere symbol of some disconnected spiritual reality. Miracles throughout history, like the preservation of Eucharistic hosts from decay and even the visible appearance of blood with the host, remind us of the reality. At the words of institution in the Mass, the whole substance of the bread is changed into the whole substance of Christ's body. The whole substance of wine is changed into the whole substance of Christ's blood. In receiving either of these we receive the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, God made man.
So why does God gives us such an extraordinary gift? This answer also comes from today's Gospel. Although various forms of the word 'life' appear eleven times in this passage, the Greek word does not mean life in the normal sense of the word. This word for 'life' used in this passage is reserved in Scripture for a unique kind of life, the life of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. So when Jesus says, “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in you,” he means that the Eucharist enables us to share in the life of the Trinity. Because Jesus Christ is God made man, to consume his flesh and blood is to share in the very life of God. The flesh and blood of Christ therefore act for us like a kind of bridge, enabling us, who are also flesh and blood, to enter heaven and see God face to face. So the Eucharist is given to us for our salvation. This is why Jesus says, “anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”
How then should we act towards the Eucharist? First, because of its very nature as the body and blood of Christ, we ought to worship the Eucharist with the worship due to God. This is why it is normal to kneel during the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, and why I kneel immediately after speaking the words of institution. Similarly, it is good to genuflect, if we can, when we come into church or pass in front of the tabernacle. So we worship the Eucharist by prayer and bodily gestures. Second, in the normal Christian life, we are meant to consume the Eucharist as our daily supernatural bread. As the first reading tells us, the People of Israel were fed with bread from heaven as they journeyed for forty years through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Similarly, our Christian life is nourished and sustained by the supernatural bread of the Eucharist as we journey through the darkness of this world to the Kingdom of Heaven. In terms of growth in Christian virtues, if Baptism is the 'seed' or sacrament of Faith, and Confirmation the sacrament of Hope, the Eucharist is the sacrament of Love, the crowning sacrament of our union with God. Now it is important to mention a proviso. St. Thomas Aquinas says that if a person is unable to receive the Eucharist, it can be enough for that person to have the spiritual desire for communion. An inability to receive the Eucharist does not, therefore, make salvation impossible. Furthermore, there are certain conditions of soul, especially that of a state of grave or mortal sin, when we must not receive communion. What is necessary, however, is that we come to Sunday Mass, whether we receive communion or not. At the Mass we celebrate the crowning sacrament of our union with God. We cannot deliberately fail to come to Sunday Mass without rejecting the love of God, thereby rejecting heaven. So it is vital that we make the Sunday obligation the non-negotiable foundation of our lives, and encourage our lapsed friends and relatives to return to Mass.
To summarize: the Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. We worship the Eucharist with the worship due to God. When we consume the Eucharist, we share in the life of God, enabling us to enter heaven and to see God face to face. Blessed are they, blessed are we, who are called to the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, Sacred Heart Church, Sunningdale, 25th May 2008
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.