Thoughts on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

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This is My Body

I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night He was handed over, took bread and, after He had given thanks, broke it and said this is my body for you.
I Corinthians 11:23

There are moments in the liturgical year so un-ecumenical as to invoke doubt that there will ever be a common understanding of their significance among the baptized apart from a future for which we all pray. This great feast of Corpus Christi is one of those occasions. In Roman Catholic parishes the sacred host, the Body of Christ, will be carried in procession in a glittering, often bejeweled monstrance—the word is from monstro, to show or point out—beneath a canopy, preceded by incense, incense and the canopy belonging properly to the king.

This will evoke the strangeness observed by the American clergyman, not a Catholic, who in the 1850s found written on London hoardings the words: “No wafer gods.” And this will in turn point back to the admonition of the twenty-eighth of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England that “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.” And yet His Church does lift it up and by the reverence always shown, and shown especially on this Feast of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, acknowledge that it is Christ present.

It is an argument that goes back to a day in the town of Capernaum by the River Jordan, when someone from the crowd He had just fed stepped forward to ask Jesus how they could be doing the work of God. The Lord answered with the first principle of the Christian religion. Believe. Believe in the one whom God has sent. And when they asked for a sign like the sign Moses had given when bread came down from heaven, Jesus answered that this gift was not from Moses but from His Father. He who stood before them was the saving manna, the bread of life that not only gave food for the journey across the wilderness but for eternal life. “Your fathers ate manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eat of this bread he will live forever, and the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:50–51).

Argument followed: “How can this man, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know, give us his flesh to eat?” To which the Lord’s reply was: “Truly, truly, I say to you unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.” And Jesus goes on to say that those who share in His very body and blood “abide in me and I in him,” laying the foundation for the doctrine of participation that is a great principle of Paul’s preaching and of Christian life (John 6:53–56).

To this His disciples, not the crowd but His own disciples, replied: “This is a hard saying. Who can listen to it?” And then Jesus reminded them that belief in this great mystery requires but little faith in comparison with the reality of the divine sonship it presupposes. “What if you should see the Son of Man ascending where He was before?” What if He is indeed God of God? Jesus knew, the text tells us, that many did not believe. Faith is a gift: “I told you that no man can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Then many of His disciples drew back, and Jesus asked the twelve: “Will you also go away?” They replied: “To whom should we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (6:67–69). Thus ended the day on which Jesus gave us the sacrament of His body and blood, a reality made explicit on the night in which He was betrayed, when He took bread and wine and said: This is my body; this is my blood. Do this.

And the Church has ever obeyed. Paul recites the tradition he had received before the Gospels were written that reiterate Jesus’ words: “This is my body, which is for you; this cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Corinthians 11:24–25). In his letter to the Church at Smyrna, written about 115, Ignatius condemns those who deny that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Forty years later Justin Martyr in his First Apology explained: “We have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer that comes from Him, by which our flesh and blood are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” And after another half-century Irenaeus assures us that, offered by the Church with Jesus’ words, “the cup, [taken] from creation is His own blood and…the bread, [taken] from creation is His own body.” The words Jesus spoke at the Supper will be repeated on this festal Sunday at a million altars and the priest will offer the bread of life with the words: “The Body of Christ.”

Since that day in Capernaum when many turned away the world has sought a way not to believe these simple words. The intellectual Christians of the second century denied their force on philosophical grounds that God cannot indwell matter and therefore celebrated the sacrament with water. There have been countless efforts to say that the bread and wine offered represent the body and blood of Christ, that the bread and wine are symbols. But Jesus said in emphatic language: “This is.” And this is not a matter of sight but of faith. In his great sermon titled “Faith and Experience” Blessed John Henry Newman pointed out the truth that our faith often requires our ignoring what we see. The citizens of Capernaum saw a man whom they had known as a boy who was, in a way too wonderful to say, the Son of Man and Son of God. We see a small piece of bread that the priest holds high, and it is the body of Christ. J. R. R. Tolkien, in words full of insight, wrote:

The Church of which the Pope is acknowledged head on earth has as chief claim that it is the one that has (and still does) ever defended the Blessed Sacrament and given it most honour, and put it, as Christ plainly intended, in prime place. ‘Feed my sheep’ was His last charge to Peter; and since His words are always first to be understood literally, I suppose them to refer primarily to the Bread of Life.

Perhaps this great treasure is held in trust for all Christians.

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