John 6:51-58, Solemnity of Corpus Christi
Last April 13, we celebrated Holy Thursday, that day and moment when Jesus transformed for the first time bread and wine into his body and blood. But since Holy Thursday is part of the Holy Week, we focused more on the Passion and death of the Lord.
And so, after celebrating Easter for six weeks, after celebrating Pentecost and the Blessed Trinity, the Church instituted a special feast to focus on that great moment and event when Jesus gave himself for the first time to his disciples under the species of bread and wine, and when the disciples received their first Communion.
Without exaggeration we can say that the Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the greatest gift Christ left us, known to us under different names: the Eucharist, the Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, the Mass, and the Lord’s Supper. But few Catholic doctrines have been so misunderstood.
The early Christians in Rome were persecuted for various reasons. One was that they did not worship the emperor as god.
It is intriguing that the other charge the pagan Romans lodged against Christians was that of cannibalism. Why? They had heard that this sect met weekly to eat flesh and drink human blood. Did the early Christians say: “Wait a minute, it’s only a symbol!”? Not at all!
When explaining the Eucharist to the Emperor around 155AD, St Justin did not mince his words. He said, “For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.”
On the first page of today’s Sambuhay, Fr. Jesus M. Malit, SSP, publishes a long discussion under the title: “Are we Cannibals?”
Yes, the Eucharist has been and still is often misunderstood.
As you know, the Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, that in the Eucharist, the host and the wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
But even many Catholics even think the Bread and Wine are only symbols of Christ, and so receiving Holy Communion has become a routine, without proper preparation.
And we should not be surprised. When Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, as we read in chapter six of the Gospel of John, the response was less than enthusiastic. Many flared up and said, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? This is a hard saying who can listen to it?” In fact even many of his disciples abandoned him so that Jesus asked the Twelve if they also planned to quit. We notice that Jesus did not run after the deserters saying, “Come back! It was only a joke to test your loyalty. I was just speaking metaphorically!” No, he meant what he said.
Not till the Middle Ages did theologians really try to explain how Christ’s body and blood became present in the Eucharist. After a few theologians got it wrong, St Thomas Aquinas came along and offered an explanation that became classic. In all change that we normally observe, he teaches, appearances change, but deep down, the essence of a thing stays the same. Example: If an elderly movie star, in a fit of vanity, has a facelift to look younger, dies her hair blond and puts so much make-up on that she looks like an 18-year old girl, deep down she will substantially still be the same elderly movie star as before.
St Thomas said the Eucharist is the one change we encounter that is exactly the opposite. The appearances of bread and wine stay the same, but the very essence of these realities, which cannot be viewed even by a microscope, is totally transformed. What starts as bread and wine continue to look like bread and wine but become Christ’s body and blood. A handy word was coined to describe this unique change: Transformation of the “sub-stance”, what “stands-under” the surface, came to be called “transubstantiation.”
What makes this happen? The Spirit and the Word.
After praying for the Holy Spirit to come, the priest, who stands in the place of Christ, repeats the words of the Jesus: “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”
It sounds a bit like what we read in Genesis 1: “God’s Spirit hovered over the surface of the water and God said. ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” It is no harder to believe in the Eucharist than to believe in Creation.
But why did Jesus arrange for this transformation of bread and wine?
Because he intended another kind of transformation. The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ which are, in turn, meant to transform us.
Surely you have heard the saying, “You are what you eat.”
The Lord desires us to be transformed from a mixed group of imperfect individuals into the Body of Christ.
He also wants us to continue what he did, namely feed spiritually his disciples today by using our hands.
Last year, Pope Francis said in his homily on the feast of Corpus Christi:
“In the Gospel passage that we have just heard, Jesus says to the disciples in front of the tired and hungry crowds: “Give them something to eat yourselves”. Indeed, it is Jesus who blesses and breaks the loaves and provides sufficient food to satisfy the whole crowd, but it is the disciples who offer the five loaves and two fish. Jesus wanted it this way: that, instead of sending the crowd away, the disciples would put at his disposal what little they had. And there is another gesture: the pieces of bread, broken by the holy and venerable hands of Our Lord, pass into the poor hands of the disciples, who distribute these to the people. This too is the disciples “doing” with Jesus; with him they are able to “give them something to eat”. Clearly this miracle was not intended merely to satisfy hunger for a day, but rather it signals what Christ wants to accomplish for the salvation of all mankind, giving his own flesh and blood.”
Our Protestant brethren speak often of an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus. But I ask you, how much more personal and intimate than the Eucharist can you get? We receive the Lord’s body into our physical body that we may become him whom we receive!
Such an awesome gift deserves its own feast, not only to celebrate another feast but to remind us of the treasure the Eucharist is. And that’s why, back in the days of Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope decided to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi and we continue to celebrate it with solemnity, with joy and with gratitude for the greatest gift Jesus left us before he returned to his Father. And most of all, we are reminded today that Christ wants us to be transformed more and more in his image and so continue what he did 2,000 years ago. And we are reminded that it is our task as disciples to break ourselves in service to others.