JUNE 18TH, 2017: BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
Moses said to the people:
"Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments.
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger,
and then fed you with manna,
a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.
"Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery;
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;
who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock
and fed you in the desert with manna,
a food unknown to your fathers."
Brothers and sisters:
The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Because the loaf of bread is one,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all partake of the one loaf.
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."
The early biblical Christian community would have looked at today’s feast through different eyes than those looking at it today. We’ve been trained to see the “feeding” element of Christ’s Body and Blood; they saw the “presence” element.
We see the former in today’s choice of a first reading. The comparison of Christ’s Body and Blood to the manna in the wilderness is classic. Moses reminds the Chosen People, “He (Yahweh) let you be afflicted with hunger, and then fed you with manna . . . .” No matter the dangers the Israelites faced during their desert wanderings, Yahweh’s timely manna provided the strength to see them through their journeys unscathed. The similarity with Christ’s Body and Blood needs no explanation.
John’s late first century CE reflection on both Eucharistic elements certainly reinforces that theology. Immediately after the bread miracle, his Jesus states, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them on the last day.” The evangelist is convinced Christ’s Body and Blood are the only “true food and true drink” Christians need to attain eternal life.
Yet a generation or two before John wrote his gospel, Paul looked at the Eucharist through a different filter. Today’s I Corinthians passage is very significant; it contains the earliest known biblical reference to the Lord’s Supper. But once pulled out its chapter 10 context, it’s almost impossible to appreciate Paul’s unique Eucharistic theology.
At this point of his letter, Paul’s challenging the overconfidence of some in the Corinthian community who believe they can continue taking part in their old pagan sacrifices yet remain followers of Jesus in good standing. He argues that just as receiving from the Eucharistic cup makes them one with the risen Jesus, so the pagan temple rituals in which they engage make them one with those other gods; an obvious contradiction for a disciple of Jesus. Then, bringing up a point John never makes about the Lord’s Supper in his oft-quoted chapter 6, the Apostle mentions his belief that receiving the cup and bread also make the participants one with one another. Symbolized by the one loaf, it transforms them into the one Body of Christ. (I wonder what our use of individual “hosts” signifies.)
Paul doesn’t have to ask the next question. It’s obvious. How could the Body of Christ take part in such an abomination?
One of the reasons Catholic celebrations of the Lord’s Supper eventually transformed themselves into just a series of “robotic actions” springs from our church’s zeroing in only on John 6 and ignoring other early Eucharistic theologies, especially that of Paul in I Corinthians. The “Mass” simply became the way this special food and drink was produced. No longer was it a communal meal in which the participants became one with both the risen Christ and one another. One special person did all the “work;’ everyone else just “applauded” when it was over. (Until the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century practically no one – except the priest - even dared to actually eat any of this unique food!)
Ad nausea I repeat the late Bishop Frank Murphy’s 1964 instruction to us about-to-be-ordained priests. “Your main task during the Eucharist isn’t just to say the right words or make the right gestures; it’s to help form the participants into the Body of Christ.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t take us long to figure out it was far easier to “cook” the meal than it was to create the unique environment in which that one of a kind meal was to be eaten.