On Giants' Shoulders

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi

Today is the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, formerly called the Feast of Corpus Christi. It's one of the most essentially Catholic feasts out there because it celebrates a central belief of the Catholic faith. Today is the day that we focus especially on what we receive at every Mass, Jesus really present in the Eucharist. To understand this concept it's important to look at the readings from Sacred Scripture which we heard today at Mass.

First there was a reading from Deuteronomy: "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 our of the Land of Egypt, that place of slavery, who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpnets 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."

Here we come face to face with the first "bread" that came down from heaven. Manna was a "type" (something that foreshadowed) of the bread from heaven that would come later. This is like seeing the Passover lamb as a "type" of the Lamb of God who would die on the cross on Calvary (at the same hour as the passover lambs were being slain according to some sources I've read). In each instance in the Old Testament the "type" points to something in the New Testament, which is always greater than the type itself.

The second reading was from the letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthinans: "Brpthers 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 is one, we though many, are one body for we all partake of the one loaf." There are no words about this being a mere symbolic act, rather it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ.

Finally there was the gospel reading from St. John's gospel: "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 have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood as 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.' "

Many of Jesus's hearers were scandalized on that day and left him. He did not call after them saying, "Hey, guys, you misunderstood, it's just a symbol." Today many are scandalized as well. It's far easier to not be scandalized by a mere symbol However, if you read carefully what Jesus said, what St. Paul said, what the early Church fathers said, you quickly get the picture that this doctrine was not some development tainted with paganism (as I was taught in my Sunday School class) or something that suddenly came on the scene with Medieval scholasticism as some people think. While this is a doctrine which has had thousands and thousands of words written in an attempt to explain it, it is one which was clearly held by the earliest believers.

When I was a little girl the church I went to was a little fellowship which was essentially little more than a house church (in fact the meeting place was in a room in a house, not a separate building). Outside the house was a sign which probably proclaimed it to be Bethany Full Gospel Assembly of God. The pastors we had faithfully attempted to proclaim the full Gospel, not just parts of it. However, somehow the epistle that was read at Mass today and the section of St. John's gospel that was read today, never got dealt with. Not then, not in a similar church I attended in high school and through the early years of my adulthood. Nor did those verses get dealt with by the Protestant pastors through the rest of my middle years. By not dealing with those passages these pastors were staying true to their Protestant and Zwinglian roots, but they were inadvertently presenting us with a truncated Gospel, not the full Gospel. I don't blame them; most of them had never been taught any better themselves. It took me until I was in my forties to discover that there was more to the Gospel than what I had been taught.

Once you "get" the bare bones of this particular part of the Gospel, you begin to understand why so much could be written about it. Every author comes at it from his own vantage point. Every homily I've ever heard on the subject was a little bit different. But in the final analysis the question really is: is this Jesus or isn't it? If Jesus is really there in the sacrament and you claim to follow Him, how do you stay away? If you think He isn't really there, then what do you make of His words, of St. Paul's words, of the words of the earliest believers? Even the earliest of the Protestants held to a far higher view of the Eucharist than most Protestants today. Why was this? It was those very questions that sent me on a journey which ended at a Catholic altar 11 years ago. My challenge to my Protestant friends is to start reading all the Scripture passages dealing with communion and read them with an open heart. Then read what the earliest Christians had to say on the subject. There's a Penguin edition of the writings of the early Church fathers that has some relevant passages. Then sit back and prayerfully think about what you've read and ask God to show you how it all fits together. For my Catholic friends, the same reading plan might be helpful, if only so you can explain the full Gospel to your friends who've received only the truncated one. To make this an important issue is not simply a Catholic agenda., it was made an important issue by the Lord himself. He offers Himself to believers, that's what this Feast is all about.

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