The Eucharist of the church is a precious gift. So much of what identifies the Christian church, and the Catholic church specifically, is the importance and centrality of the Eucharist as part of the Church’s practice and identity. We may celebrate it differently among the denominations, argue about its meaning, use one chalice or several or dozens of tiny cups, or no cup; we might receive the eucharist in the form of bread and wine, or bread alone, every day, or once a week, or once a month, or once a year. But in every case, we know that the Eucharist has a special meaning to us because its origins are with Jesus and the apostles and the early church, and the very meaning of who Jesus is, what he taught, and how he imagined God to be is wrapped up somehow in the sharing of food with one another.
You might think that the church would celebrate this central reality at the high point of the liturgical year, and we do, in fact, on Holy Thursday. We begin the sacred Triduum with the Solemn Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. But there is a lot going on on that day, not the least of which is that historically Lent was a more solemn, even sad, season of penitence. Holy Thursday also marks the institution of the priesthood, the washing of the feet, and the agony in the garden. There’s a lot going on that day! Late in the 12th century, a Saint Julianna was said to have had a vision of Christ asking for this feast day. An archdeacon from her Belgian town later became pope, and created this feast, calling it Corpus Christi, on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. In the United States, we celebrate it on the second Sunday after Pentecost.
To speak further on the meaning of this day for us, I invite Rory Cooney, our liturgy director, to offer the reflection today.
Many of you may remember the little book I wrote for Lent to help us uncover the meaning of our baptismal promises to renew them more authentically. Change Our Hearts observed those promises through the lens of Jesus' preaching about the reign of God as a clear choice over competing gods, like Tiberius Caesar. He preached about the alternate kingdom of a God who is Father of everyone, and not emperor, or judge, or executioner like other gods. Jesus made his teaching concrete to people through meal-sharing. He made his vision of a world without violence and threats visible by a day-by-day practice of sitting down to table with good people, like Pharisees and lawyers, and not-so-good people, like Roman collaborators and other sinners. The good guys accused him of claiming a special relationship to God while at the same time colluding with sinners, and accused him of blasphemy. The not-so-good people saw that he was claiming a different emperor-god than theirs, also blasphemy. In both cases, the penalty was death, and they colluded to kill him. But God raised him from death, and in his risen life the church came to recognize and celebrate him and his unique vision for the world by doing what he did, calling people to eat together at table, to live in unity, and to look out for one another's needs with love. In today’s 2nd reading, written just a couple of decades after the death of Jesus, Paul already is needing to remind the Corinthians of this reality.
Scripture scholars tell us that every time St. Paul speaks about the body of Christ, he means the church, head and members. He means Jesus, of course, but connected to all of the baptized who have all been given the same spirit. In today’s second reading, he is trying to convince people in Corinth to stop playing both sides of Church street, participating in pagan sacrificial meals as well as the agape meal of Jesus. His argument is that all sacrifices, Jewish, pagan, and Christian, create community. But the sacrifice of Jesus, remembered in the sharing of bread and cup in the eucharist, is unique. The bread we break, he says, isn’t it the body of Christ? He means that there is intimacy with Jesus and the whole church in that meal. Why would you even think of placing that on a par with meals of pagan gods and temple prostitutes? The cup that we share, isn’t it sharing the blood of Christ? We are all made one, he says, just as the loaf is one, and the cup is one. Don’t dilute and defile that intimacy with cults of violence and hedonism. What we have in the community of Jesus, symbolized by the eucharist, is too precious to be mistaken for the false promises of the gods of war, fertility, and weather.
Here’s a simple if crazy metaphor about intimacy and eating. Do you love the smell of babies? Not every baby smell, but that fresh-from-the-bath and clean diaper baby smell that makes you pick up a giggling baby and say, I could just eat you up. It’s a way of expressing intimacy, a desire for union and joy so deep that it seems like the only appropriate metaphor is consumption. Thank goodness, weird looks we get from other people and fear of life imprisonment keeps us from acting on those impulses. But you might remember that (our pastor) Fr. Bernie (Pietrzak) in his homily about the Holy Trinity last week spoke about God's life, life of the trinity, both as a dynamic intimacy and simultaneously an outwardly-focused love. God invites us into that great intimacy of his own life by making us part of Christ, filling us with the gift of the holy spirit, both to give us a sense of belonging to him and to one another, and to teach us how to move beyond ourselves in love to the service of others, inviting them into the divine life as well. Recall, for instance, when the priest adds a drop of water to the cup or flagon of wine as he prepares the gifts for consecration, and he says, By the mingling of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. We do not pray idly in the liturgy. These ancient words in fact articulate our belief that God will give us a share in the divinity of Christ, the divinity of Godself.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds that he is “living bread from heaven.” What is he talking about? First, he’s referring to the manna, the miraculous windfall described today in Deuteronomy that saved the Israelites from starvation on their journey to freedom through the desert. It may or may not have been miraculous in origin, but it was miraculous for Israel in that it came when they needed it, and they remembered its presence with them forever. That it fell from the sky was to them a sign that it was from God. They didn’t grow it, they didn’t buy it, they didn’t steal it. It just showed up one morning, and they received it. Exodus says everyone collected the exact amount they needed, no more, no less. It tasted like almost whatever they imagined it could taste like. And yet, eventually, they got tired of it, and, whether they ate it or not, whether it was from the heavens or not, they died.
But Jesus says of himself that he is living bread from heaven, and that those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of Man will never die. What is he saying here? The words “the Son of Man” are important. The “son of man” is a character from late Jewish apocalyptic writing who comes into the world to make right the injustices forced on humanity by the likes of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Seleucids in the 2nd century BCE. “Son of man” is a Semitism, a local figure of speech, that literally simply means “a human being”, but one whom God chooses to restore peace and justice in the world that Israel inhabits. So "son of man" is a political term, much like “messiah” was in first century judaism. Before your eyes glaze over about that, I just want to ask you to keep that political aspect in mind as you reflect on what it means to have “eternal life” in us because of eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. There is reason to think that this intimacy of eating means a depth of life in this world, freedom and justice in this world, as well as in a world to come.
The passage from Deuteronomy begins with that resounding word, “Remember,” and echoes with it again when it says, “Do not forget!” Remember the lessons of your journey to freedom. Remember that you were slaves, and remember that this whole freedom thing was my idea, and that I promised to lead you, my chosen people, and to be with you, and how you promised to be people of my covenant. “Remember” - “do not forget” - these commandments are a charge not to simply be reverent or to make an intellectual recall of past events, but are a call to action, a call to keep faith, a call to covenant. “Remember” means “we have a deal here, and I kept my part of the bargain.” When you call out to your kids “remember your homework,” the correct response is more than just, “yes, I remember…I even wrote it down.” Mom means, DO your homework. It’s more than an act of the mind, it’s an act of the whole person.
So Eucharist is a call to intimacy with Christ, with God, and one another, in the Holy Spirit, that acts on behalf of peaceful justice-making in the world. Christ calls us to discern our gifts, gifts given to us by God like manna from the sky while we sleep, and to use those gifts to live for the freedom and equality of all people. Intimacy is a call to action.
Over sixteen centuries ago, St. Augustine gave a homily on Easter morning on which he urged his community to live in the unity and integrity of the Eucharist. He said,
“If you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: 'You are the body of Christ, every one of you is a member of it.' If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying 'Amen' to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear 'The body of Christ,' you reply 'Amen.' Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your 'Amen' may ring true! … (St. Paul) says about this sacrament: 'The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.' Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. 'One bread,' he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the 'one body,' formed from many?"
St Augustine says that the bread is us, friends, together with Christ as head of the body. We are bread of life, saving cup, to be broken and poured out for the life of the world. We have been given gifts of peacemaking, forgiveness, and unbounded love, like manna. Let us prepare to offer our gifts for the empire of God with the bread and wine we are about to offer, gifts that will be taken, blessed, broken, and shared by Christ that the world may live. To this I will say “Amen."