SUNDAY’S FIRST READING: EXODUS 24: 3-8
THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST [B]
USCCB link to all three readings
When Moses came to the people
and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
"We will do everything that the LORD has told us."
Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and,
rising early the next day,
he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar
and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites
to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls
as peace offerings to the LORD,
Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls;
the other half he splashed on the altar.
Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people,
who answered, "All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do."
Then he 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."
This weekend’s feast, which I will call Corpus Christi throughout this post, came about in part because of dispute over the nature of Christ’s presence in the food of bread and wine. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke depict Jesus as giving the Passover matzoh and wine to his disciples with his own explanatory text, that these foods were his body and blood. Luke cements the early Church’s understanding of the Eucharistic food in his Emmaus narrative where the disciples recount encountering Jesus in the breaking of the bread. As was common in the early Church, the Old Testament was re-read literally in terms of the life and ministry of Jesus; thus, the appropriateness of today’s first reading, where the saving sprinkling of blood, believed to contain life-giving qualities, unites the people to God in a foreshadowing of the ultimate forgiveness rendered by the spilling of Christ’s blood.
As to the nature of Jesus’ presence, or at least how Christians understood what we call today Real Presence, the liturgical historian Joseph Martos in his Doors to The Sacred (2014) observes that early Christians would have experienced the actual presence of Christ in the entire reenactment of the breaking of the bread, i.e., the full service, but apparently not beyond the liturgy. When the ancient Eucharist broke into a biblical/prayer service and an act of thanksgiving involving the bread and wine, the sacramental presence of Christ centered around the second half of the rite. As first millennium thinkers began to ask precisely when and how Christ became present, the Western Roman Church would identify the words of Jesus from the Last Supper (“this is my body…”) while the Eastern Church still identifies the moment of change as the extension of the celebrant’s hands over the bread and wine with the invocation of the Holy Spirit. (“Send forth your Spirit upon these gifts to make them holy…”)
As early as the ninth century scholars in the Christian West began to bring scientific logic and language to discussion of the Eucharist. Paschase Radbert, a French abbot, is credited with coining the term “transubstantiation.” His is the first scholastic or philosophical definition of the process of consecration of bread and wine changing into the very flesh of the Christ who walked the earth. The most famous resistance to Radbert came from Berengar of Tours (999-1088 A.D.). Berengar did not deny that Christ was present in the Eucharistic experience, but he argued that an object could not be two things at the same time, nor could a spiritual encounter with Christ be relegated to such physical considerations. Berengar’s position was condemned by the Church, but the long-lasting controversy was a shot in the arm for a mystical and devotional renewal of attention to the Bread from Heaven.
The middle ages placed great emphasis upon “sight” when celebrating sacraments, and consequently the idea of a feast to see and behold the Eucharist gained momentum. In 1246 the first observance of a Corpus Christi feast took place locally in Liege, France; it was not until 1312 that the Church extended this feast to the entire Western Church with a procession or prolonged opportunity to behold the Eucharist. The original feast was called Corpus Christi, “the body of Christ,” and it was assigned to the first Thursday after the Easter Season ended, or Trinity Sunday by the old calendar. (Thursday was selected in remembrance of Holy Thursday and the Last Supper.) A separate feast of the Most Precious Blood was observed from 1846 till 1969 on the first Sunday of July. The reform Missal of 1970 combined the two feasts to this weekend’s event with the excessively long title noted above.
The work of Radbert was refined by Thomas Aquinas and others in the high middle ages into the doctrinal expression we use today to describe Christ’s presence: that the reality of bread and wine is changed while its tangible or sensible qualities remain. However, the popularity of Eucharistic devotion that gave birth to the feast of Corpus Christi and subsequent formal devotions such as Eucharistic adoration derived as much from the heart as much from the head. I was going to drag up the oft-quoted Philosopher Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) “the heart has reasons that reason knows nothing about” but I discovered another of the Frenchman’s gems, “All men's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone for an hour.” In recent years many churches have made considerable effort to expand hours of Eucharistic adoration, where indeed a man does sit quietly alone. I can say from personal experience (maybe not enough) that to sit before the Eucharist with no props is no easy thing. It is the closest thing we have to a decisive moment about ourselves and what we truly hold real.
It is a matter of the mind, to be sure, to acknowledge that God is in created real food. To believe in the Eucharist is to believe that God has crossed the bridge between the spiritual and the material, that God is intimately involved in the “real world.” The error of Berengar, and later Protestant thinkers, was to undervalue God’s physical presence. That Christ is present in food is the ultimate statement of God’s nurturing care as well as the template for Christians to feed others.
That said, it is a matter of the heart or the spirit that the Eucharist comes to us during intense mystical experience, the Mass. Therefore, we sell the Eucharist short by too much objectivization. If the doctrine of Real Presence is simply that God can be localized with certainty, there is no real difference between Eucharistic Presence and the Holy of Holies of days past. Christ is present in food because a believing community prayed for his presence (“Lord, send down your Spirit upon these gifts”). Thus, the baptized seek the Lord in the emotions of prayer and hope, and eat this food “purposefully,” as an act of thanks and a revitalization of daily Christian striving.
My pastor has an obvious and strong faith in the Eucharist, and his Corpus Christi sermons seem to me to reflect his frustration in communicating the magnificence of Eucharist to us who too often take the sacrament as a matter of course. I hope he is not too hard on himself. The inability to sit quietly in a room alone for an hour with God’s greatest gift is a universal affliction of long standing.
On My Mind