Sunday, June 2, 2024

Corpus Christi


As most people know (or ought to know) the Catholic Church in the U.S. is in the midst of a “Eucharistic Revival,” which will culminate in July at a National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. (The last one was on Philadelphia in 1976.) A little over a week ago, one of the Eucharistic Processions en route to Indianapolis passed through New York, stopping in Westchester, the Bronx, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, with Benediction celebrated at such unaccustomed sites as the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty. This National Eucharistic Revival is a contemporary response on the part of the U.S. Church to the challenge to be united around the source and summit of our faith in the Eucharistic celebration.

More than a decade ago, I led a group of midtown-Manhattan parishioners in a series of dialogues with representatives from a local synagogue. We met every month or so for about a year, and we had some very good discussions with good participation from both congregations (although sometimes our discussions devolved into dialogues between myself and the Rabbi about arcane subjects, which at least the two of us found very interesting). 

One such topic was sacrifice. It is widely believed that some form of sacrifice has characterized almost all religions. The word itself, “sacrifice,” means “to make sacred.” Historically it refers to the offering of valuable objects – of food, for example, the bread and wine offered by Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), of incense, of animals, and even of humans - 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 (Genesis 4:3-4) and the sacrifice of Noah after the Flood (Genesis 8:20), but perhaps the most famous Old Testament sacrifice was Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac - thankfully replaced by a ram - on Mount Moriah, the future site of the Temple in Jerusalem (Genesis 22:13). 

Sacrifice was at the heart of what went on in that Temple, where sacrifices were offered at set times every day (including, in Jesus’ time, two lambs offered daily for the Roman Emperor). By then, the Temple in Jerusalem had acquired a monopoly on Jewish sacrifices. That meant, however, that, when the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., Judaism suddenly became a religion with no place to offer sacrifice. The Judaism of most of the past 2000 years, therefore, has been that of the synagogue (not the Temple), of rabbis (rather than priests), of a rich tradition of individual and communal prayer at set times developed to take the place of the prescribed sacrifices. What intrigued us in our local Catholic-Jewish dialogue, however, was how, historically, just when sacrifice was about to disappear from Judaism, Christianity continued the concept, preserving the religious importance of sacrifice in our experience of the Eucharist. 

On this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord (commonly called Corpus Christi) today’s first reading at Mass (Exodus 24:3-8) recalls the role of sacrifice in sealing the covenant between God and his people at Mount Sinai. Although there were many types of sacrifices – grain and incense, for example – which involved no blood, often blood was central to the sacrifice. In ancient Rome, for example, worshipers of the god Mithra would lie in a trench and let the warm blood of a just slaughtered steer flow over them. Likewise, 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.” 

The New Testament portrays Jesus’ life and death as an offering of his entire self, making fully and permanently effective God’s personal alliance with us. So, today’s Corpus Christi Gospel (Mark 14:12-16, 22-26) remembers Jesus, on the eve of the annual Passover sacrifice, referring to the blood of the covenant – recalling Moses’ earlier sacrifice, but referring in fact to his own blood. This blood, it turns out, substitutes for the blood of goats and calves to seal what the letter to the Hebrews 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. Whereas all the sacrifices of the past served certain specific and limited purposes, that of Christ the High Priest, was a once-and-for-all offering of Christ’s own self, unblemished to God through the eternal Spirit, in order to cleanse our consciences to worship the living God (Hebrews 9:11-15).

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 (Hebrews 7:25). 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 shared his body and blood with his disciples in the form of bread and wine. He 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 Eucharistic meal, the sacrifice of the Mass.

And so it is that, for us Christians, sacrifice continues uniquely in Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrificial gift of himself to his Father, made permanently present for us in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, 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. 

Established by Pope Urban IV in 1264, today’s festival of Corpus Christi highlights the permanent presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice. According to legend, the Dominican Friar Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Friar Saint Bonaventure both began composing texts for the new feast. But, when Saint Bonaventure visited Saint Thomas, he read the antiphon Thomas had composed for today’s Evening Prayer. When he got home, Bonaventure threw his own manuscript into the fire. Thus, it is the familiar words of Saint Thomas that summarize what we celebrate today – and every day – in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given us.”



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