Sunday, June 3, 2018

How Holy this Feast!

Tomorrow will be the 63td anniversary of my First Holy Communion (which means that today is the 63rd anniversary of my First Confession).  For both those events, but especially for First Communion, what I really remember most is how much we rehearsed beforehand. The Dominican Sisters were perfectionists when it came to such things, and everything was going to go just so! Finally the big day dawned, Saturday, June 4, 1955. All dressed up in my precisely prescribed outfit from which no deviation was permitted, I was out early - to the safety of the school (where there was no danger of inadvertently breaking the fast). Finally, we all lined up, and all those rehearsals paid off as we walked in absolutely perfect formation into the church at exactly 8:00 a.m. It was a sung Mass – in fact, a solemn Mass with deacon and subdeacon. And, when the moment finally came, we walked two-by-two to kneel on the marble step before the main altar to receive Holy Communion, just as we had been taught so carefully to do,

That First Communion was soon followed by numerous subsequent trips to the altar rail - for many of us at least once each week, for those of us who eventually found our way into religious life, likely as often as once each day. That's a lot of Communions over the course of a lifetime!

So, if the first one merges in memory with all those subsequent Communions, that may be as it should be. As I say ever year to First Communicants on their big day, the key word to remember about the experience is first – the first time they are doing what (hopefully) they are going to be doing many more times, over and over again, hopefully at least once each week, all the rest of their lives.

Today the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the feast commonly called Corpus Christi. The meaning and spirit of this festival is succinctly summarized in the familiar collect – so familiar because it is also the collect traditionally sung after the hymn at Benediction: O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood that we always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.

This prayer reminds us that the Eucharist is intimately connected with Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.  The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday recalls the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist. But, with so much else going on then, the Church eventually chose to honor this sacrament on a day all its own. Hence, this feast – established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 with its Mass and Office specially composed for the occasion by the great 13th-century Dominican Doctor of the Church Saint Thomas Aquinas. The collect Thomas composed calls on us to revere the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. Hence the special traditions of Eucharistic veneration associated with today – the traditional outdoor procession, for example, which elaborately marks this occasion in Catholic countries. In Germany, there is a wonderful tradition of stopping at four altars erected along the processional route, at each of which is read the beginning of one of the four gospels before Benediction is given - a symbolic way of suggesting that the entire gospel story can be summed up in some sense in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

But along with our veneration of this wonderful sacrament, the primary point is for us to experience its benefits. One particular ancient Roman prayer expresses this idea very eloquently in the Canon of the Mass:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

In other words, by participating in the Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion, we, like Christ’s offering of himself, are, so to speak, carried along, to the Lamb of God’s heavenly altar, as a pledge of our own future glory. The imagery suggests sacrifice, some form of which has characterized almost all religions. The word itself, “sacrifice,” means “to make sacred.” Historically it referred to the offering of valuable objects – of food (for example, the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek in the book of Genesis), of incense, of animals - all offered as an act of worship of God and in hope of communing with God.

The Old Testament recounts the offerings of Cain and Abel at the beginning of human history and the sacrifice of Noah after the Flood, but perhaps the most famous Old Testament sacrifice was Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple in Jerusalem, where in Jesus’ time sacrifices would be offered at set times every day.

Today’s 1st reading [Exodus 24:3-8] recalls the role of sacrifice in sealing the covenant between God and his people at Mount Sinai. After sacrificing holocausts and peace offerings to the Lord, Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying. “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words of his.”

Jesus’ life and death were an offering of his entire self, making fully and permanently effective God’s personal alliance with us. The Gospel we just heard [Mk. 14:12-16, 22-26] reports Jesus, on the eve of the annual Passover sacrifice, referring to the blood of the covenant – recalling the sacrifice we just heard about in Exodus, but referring in fact to his own blood, which substitutes for the blood of goats and calves to seal what today’s 2nd reading [Hebrews 9:11-15] clearly calls a new covenant. Calling the Risen Christ high priest of the good things that have come to be, the letter to the Hebrews clearly wants us to understand Christ’s accomplishment as a sacrifice.

The sacrifices of the past served certain specific and limited purposes, but that of Christ the High Priest, was a once-and-for-all offering of his own self, unblemished to God through the eternal Spirit, in order to cleanse our consciences to worship the living God.

The same letter to the Hebrews elsewhere tells us that the Risen Christ is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. As priest, Christ continually offers worship before the Father on our behalf. As sacrifice, Christ becomes our worship, as he unites us with him in his body by means of his blood. And so, in anticipation of shedding his blood on our behalf, Jesus turned an otherwise ordinary meal into a sacrificial sign of the new relationship uniting us with him in his body, the Church, by means of his blood.

This same sacrificial meal Jesus has commanded his priests to repeat in his memory in the Eucharist, the sacrifice of the Mass. (And so it is especially fitting that later this morning we will with great joy give gratitude to God for the gift of another new priest to the Church.)

And so it is that, for us Christians, sacrifice continues uniquely in Christ’s once and for all gift of himself to his Father, made permanently present in the Eucharist, in which the sacrifice of Christ becomes the offering of his body and blood through his body, the Church. This sacrifice unites all Christians of all times and places in Christ’s one offering of himself, now present for us on our altar, uniting us not only with Christ but through him with one another, with all who eat and drink at his altar and who share this new life of gratitude and hope.

According to legend, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Bonaventure, both contemporaries, one a Dominican, one a Franciscan, started composing texts for the new feast. But then Saint Bonaventure visited Saint Thomas and read the antiphon that Thomas had composed for today’s Evening Prayer. When he got home, Bonaventure then threw his own manuscript into the fire.

Thus it is the words of Saint Thomas that summarize what we celebrate today – and every day – in the Eucharistic sacrifice: How holy this feast, in which Christ is our food; his Passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts, and we receive a pledge of the glory to come.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, June 3, 2018.

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