Frances writes on the Readings for the Feast of Corpus Christi :- My guess is that right from very early on the developing Church had difficulty conveying the significance of the Blessed Sacrament to its members. The fact that all the way through our history so many, from the Fathers of the Early Church to Medieval writers like Aquinas, and then those around the time of the Reformation and beyond, have written on this subject suggests that there was a continual need to focus on this most significant of sacraments. This is a need for all of us for. How often do we hear the plaintiff refrain ‘I don’t get anything out of the Mass?’ Despite all that the Church teaches, all those First Holy Communion preparations and Confirmation classes, reception of the greatest of all the Sacraments can so easily become merely a perfunctory thing: something we do without thought or understanding.
Our Readings set for today attempt to trace the meaning of the sacrament, helping us to develop our appreciation of it, not merely at an intellectual level, but spiritually and psychologically, so that it penetrates our very being and engages us totally in this greatest event of our redemption and salvation.
We meet the beginning of this process with a Reading from Deuteronomy (8:2-3.14-16). Now you might think this odd, as Deuteronomy was the revamping of earlier works, and was brought to its final form in the 7th century BCE under a set of reformers and King Josiah before the country fell to the Babylonians. It predated Jesus by 700 years, and had no sense of any resurrection or eternal life with God. It recounts the Exodus story and the ‘making’ of Israel. In fact, like the entire Old Testament as well as the Exodus story, it is all about God’s love for his chosen people; his compassion, tenderness and provision for them, time and time again, despite their rejection of him and his ways. It is presented as God’s exploration of human nature and his recognition of Israel’s needs, when fallen nature could not recognise them themselves, a story of dependency and grace, God’s love for his creation. Its constant recital recalled a recalcitrant people to reality time and time again. Accepting this status was to prove the most difficult thing for Israel, especially once they focussed on temple, land and law as the defining features of their faith, and worshipped God through them instead.
When Paul wrote his Letters to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 10:16-17) we know that he frequently addressed their gross failings in Christian love and charity as met in their actual behaviour to fellow members. At the heart of all his ranting was Paul’s unfailing belief in the Incarnation and saving death of Christ expressed in the Eucharist. Paul laboured so long and so hard with the Corinthians, not to make them a bit nicer or more caring; his was not a policy of social reform, but a mission to incorporate them into God’s love, God’s life as met in Jesus. The way he went about this was to focus on the Eucharist, which, he reminds them is what he himself received from earlier converts and passed on to them – the details of the Last Supper and what it signified. (1 Cor 11:23-34) It is this continually repeated action, and one we too 2,000 years on continue, which incorporates us all into the eternal life of Christ. In our Reading, Paul reminds us of precisely what the Eucharist does, it makes us One. The Jerusalem Bible translates this as a ‘communion’, but more accurately, in Greek, a ‘koinonia’ is a unity, an undivided wholeness in which we and Christ are all one. Paul insisted that the words of blessing, the actions of the ministers in ‘breaking’ the bread in following the actions of Jesus, are not simply a blind following of empty actions, such as they had met regularly in their former pagan sacrifices, but something which took each and every one of them into the life of the risen and glorified Jesus, God the Son. In Greek this is expressed by his use of ‘soma’ for the word ‘body’, which expresses not simply the fleshly mortal life of the now, but what we are in our entire personalities, and that of us which is immortal and shall endure beyond physical death. For Paul and for the Corinthian Christians then, the Eucharist signified, and entered them into, a great mystery, a different form of being and a being that was godlike.
When John wrote his Bread of Life sermon, (Jn 6:51-58) we meet Jesus on the cusp of the greatest of disclosures. The fact that some Jews rejected this for the security of their existing practices shows us the problems which would arise from this teaching and still affect us today. Either we allow ourselves to enter into the mystery or not. For if we simply stand outside the events of the Mass as observers, we shall not be drawn into their meaning and the encounter with the divine they give. Jesus insists that we stand on the knife edge of a great transition, one which will plummet the believer into contact with divinity, and where rejection will deny us such access. Jesus instructs his disciples to allow the words and actions of the sacrament their full potential, as he speaks of his saving ‘flesh’, here ‘sarx’ in Greek, insisting thereby of the reality of his human life and death, and taking his followers with him on that great journey of vindication by the Father whereby he is glorified, having fulfilled the Father’s will. Something of the distinction between watching a drama and entering into it is required here, as we travel Israel’s great story of redemption, reaching its final and finest point in the death and risen life of Jesus; whose battle with failure and death over countless generations secures our relationship in and with God eternally. We, through Christ, through this sacrament, are now those who live a changed reality. Children of the Real Presence, we meet God, become partakers of His life, and take his life in our lives out to the world, and live as God lives. How we make that shift from sarx to soma, on a daily basis in the world, is up to us; but it is his gift and his invitation. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever”.