St. John Pulls No Punches
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: JOHN 6: 51-58
SOLEMNITY OF THE BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
"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."
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Jesus said to them,
"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.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever."
Sunday’s feast is better known by its traditional name, Corpus Christi. Adolf Adam, in his The Liturgical Year, (1981) sketches the history of this feast from its mid-medieval origins. In 1246 Bishop Robert of Liege introduced the feast into his diocese, influenced by the mystical visions of an Augustinian nun, Juliana of Liege, four decades earlier. The feast was extended to the universal Church by Pope Urban IV in 1264 and again by the Council of Vienne in 1312; there is strong if not airtight evidence that the theology and the artistry of the feast is derived from St. Thomas Aquinas. The “Angelic Doctor” is believed to be the composer of the Mass and Office texts for Corpus Christi, including its magnificent hymns. I was surprised to see a well-informed article about this feast in today’s International Business Times, a secular publication.
The medieval Church assigned this feast to the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. My early memory of its observance is on Thursday at the school Mass; however, Church law did allow for the transfer of the feast to the Sunday within the octave. In my home parish, the following Sunday’s solemn high Mass observed the Corpus Christi ritual, and the then-customary procession with the Eucharist followed the Mass. As I suspect was true in many parishes, the first communion class—dressed in white—participated in the Corpus Christi procession. The procession was not originally mandated in the establishment of the feast but the practice developed over time. Adam, writing in 1981, notes a revival of interest in restoring the Corpus Christi procession; my home diocese of Orlando conducts an annual Eucharistic procession in the early evening of the feast. I have no general idea of how individual parishes or dioceses celebrate the feast; in the U.S. liturgical calendar the feast always follows Trinity Sunday.
On major “doctrinal feasts” such as Corpus Christi, the selection of scripture leadings in the lectionary relates directly to the object of the celebration, in our case the Feast of the Holy Eucharist. The Gospel for next Sunday is drawn from Chapter 6 of St. John, the famous “Breads Chapter.” John, of all the evangelists, is the only author without a description of the blessing of the bread and cup at the Last Supper. There are several theories about this omission. The primary one is that John, writing for a church nearly a century old, did not see any reason to repeat what the Church—in its memory and present-day liturgies—knew so well. Instead, he inserts the washing of the feet of the Twelve, as a means of associating the breaking of the bread with humility, fraternity, and service to others.
Another interesting vantage point to St. John’s teaching on the Eucharist comes from the mid-twentieth century Biblical scholar Joachim Jeremias. In his The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (1966 English translation) Jeremias finds common ground between John 6:51c, “and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" and a much earlier text—perhaps 60 years earlier--from St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 11: 24b, “this is my body which is for you.” In other words, if we are looking for the institution of the Eucharist in St. John, our best place to look is Chapter 6, and specifically in Sunday’s reading.
St. John’s choice of words is graphically concrete. There are multiple Greek choices for the word flesh; the evangelist specifically and consistently uses the term conveying “flesh meat,” or what a professor of mine once paraphrased as “what they throw to the lions at the zoo.” In Chapter 6 there is little wiggle space to suggest that Jesus is speaking metaphorically, as in “I consumed all the Harry Potter books.” There is some evidence that Roman officials believed Christians consumed infants or engaged in other cannibal behavior from the fragmentary reports they received about the Eucharistic gatherings.
St. John makes three critical points about the Eucharist. Without consuming the sacred meal, there is no inner life of God. Eucharist is elevated to the level of Baptism as an absolute necessity for communion with God. (Both sacraments are, in fact, part of the initiation process into Christian life.) This evangelist was not much of one to seek full communion of God among the butterflies or the obscure lyrics of Bob Dylan. Eucharistic theology of God’s presence is remarkably concrete: eating the food, physical presence, necessity for life. I would be remiss if I did not comment upon a casual present-day attitude regarding participation in the Eucharist. Statistics indicate that about 25% of self-identified Catholics attend Mass weekly.
The second point in Sunday’s reading is John’s emphasis upon the life-giving or animating impact of reception of the bread and the cup. Jesus states that consuming the Eucharistic food brings the believer into a union with himself, who in turn has a lifegiving union with his Father. Modern Catholic theology would speak of “grace,” or the life-giving presence of God himself within the believer. Participation in the Eucharist shapes the mind and the outlook of the receiver toward the moral and attitudinal outcomes Jesus envisioned when he washed the feet of his disciples.
The third feature of “eating my flesh and drinking my blood” is its future orientation. Sunday’s Gospel closes with the powerful promise that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” All four of the Gospels speak of the Eucharist in a futuristic way; St. Mark’s Last Supper narrative is another splendid example: “He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will no longer drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” Eucharist is always associated with afterlife and future glory. Again, the contemporary urgency about matters beyond the grave seems dulled today; the idea that faith is a very high-stakes game does not bear much coinage. My sense is that even among Catholics there is a wholesale conception that the Woody Allen adage rules the day: “90% of life is basically showing up.” Maybe. But our best source on the subject is clear: an evangelist who is concrete to the extreme—eating flesh—should probably be taken much more literally on matters of salvation.
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