Monday, May 26, 2008

Year A Solemnity of Corpus Christi

UPDATE: I love Corpus Christi. It was my first experience preaching on this glorious solemnity. This Mass was just beautiful, never mind the homily. I could have been in heaven, I am still not sure I wasn't. It is also a pleasure to have Christopher Gray, a seminarian from/of/for our diocese, back for the summer. Thanks to him and the IC for all their great work! Christopher's great work also captured our Corpus Christi procession.

Readings: Deut. 8,2-3.14b-16a; Ps. 147, 12-15.19-20; 1 Cor. 10,16-17; Jn. 6, 51-58

"Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf," these words, written by St. Paul to the Corinthians, links this solemnity of Corpus Christi to last week’s solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (1 Cor. 10,17). The link consists of one word, unity, better expressed as koinoia, or communion. God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a communion of divine persons. To use a contemporary slogan, God is unity in diversity. We, too, are called to be a communion of persons, brought together by the Holy Spirit in all our diversity, to form the mystical body of Christ, the ekkelsia, the Church. However, we are human persons, often all too human. Therefore, our communion is presently imperfect. The primary instrument, the means God gives us to fully become what we both already are as well as what God intends us to be is the Body of His Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ.

Normally when we eat, we incorporate our food. In other words, the food we eat becomes us, that is, our bodies. As regards the Eucharist, the opposite is true; by our drinking from the "cup of blessing" and partaking of the one loaf, we are incorporated into Christ’s body, that is, the Church. It is important to note that in this passage, when writing about the body into which we are incorporated by sharing the one cup and the bread, Paul uses the Greek word soma. Hence, he is not writing about a mere physical substance. The first time he uses soma, he is referring to Christ’s total being. The second time, he is referring to Christ’s mystical body, the Church. These together constitute what St. Augustine dubbed the totus Christus, the total, or complete, Christ. Therefore, we must be careful never to reduce the Blessed Sacrament to a mere physical substance.

It is true that we believe the bread and the wine we offer to God in the Eucharist become Jesus Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, but we also believe that this is a great mystery. It is a belief of faith that, like mystery of one God in three persons, we will never fully grasp. Therefore, it cannot be explained or examined in a non-theological way. We certainly seek to understand and explain these mysteries by employing various methods in a manner that is consonant with human reason. Yet, we do so knowing that these mysteries are not empirically demonstrable because they are, properly speaking, metaphysical. Even today, some nine hundred years later, theology is best described using the formula of St. Anslem of Canterbury: faith seeking understanding. The very fact that we seek to comprehend what we believe, but can never fully grasp, by applying reason to faith is a refutation of the far too widely held belief that faith is a blind leap. Let us turn again briefly to St. Anslem in order understand the proper relationship between faith and reason: we do not seek to understand in order to believe, but we believe in order to understand.

I was recently made privy to a conversation in which one, no doubt well-meaning, participant was trying to argue for something the Church has always rejected, namely, that with the words of consecration the bread and wine undergo a physical change. The level at which this change occurs, according to this person, is the molecular level. Such an empirical claim can certainly be verified or disproved by subjecting consecrated hosts and wine to laboratory analysis. Indeed, such an analysis would not constitute sacrilege if the Church actually made such an absurd claim. Sacraments are signs, but as signs they do not merely point to what they signify, they effect what they signify. To use the traditional formula, sacraments are signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae, that is, sacrosanct signs effecting grace. Hence, the only empirical evidence that what we believe is true is the transformation that occurs in and among those of us who participate in and claim to be the Body of Christ. After all, it was our Lord himself who said, "This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13,35).

Jesus gives himself to us as food, from which we derive the strength, that is, the grace necessary to fulfill our mission of ushering in God’s kingdom. The Eucharist is not an end in itself, it points us forward to our destiny, but our pilgrim path is through this world. In other words, we are not saved despite our humanity, but through it. Our dogmatic belief, rooted in revelation, that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly human prevents us from neatly separating his divinity from his humanity. This also helps us to better understand both the Eucharist and ourselves; we are our bodies, not souls trapped in bodies, which is a gnostic belief that leads to disastrous conclusions about how to live. It is because we are our bodies that we can embody Christ in and for the world.

What Jesus teaches in today’s Gospel, unsurprisingly, is very much in accord with what St. Paul writes. Jesus, too, alludes to the reversal that happens in the Eucharist, namely that when we partake of his flesh and blood we enter into an intimate union with him. St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in the fourth century, tells us that "When we speak of the reality of Christ's nature being in us, we would be speaking foolishly and impiously--had we not learned it from Him. For He Himself says: 'My Flesh is truly food, and My Blood is truly Drink. He that eats My flesh and drinks My Blood will remain in Me and I in him' . . . Is it not true? Let those who deny that Jesus Christ is true God be free to find these things untrue" (On the Trinity VIII, 14). Indeed, as St. Paul also writes in his First Letter to the Corinthians, no one can truly say Jesus is Lord "except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 12,3).

The Eucharist is the way Christ has chosen to abide with us until the end of time. Therefore, we must not give in to the temptation to separate this truth from how we live. The Lord "refuses to allow us to abstract our knowing from our living. The gospel is not information; it is a way of life" (Hauerwas, Matthew 148). At the center of this life is the Eucharist, which is the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love. It is how all of us together come to participate in the divine life of the Most Holy Trinity, for whoever eats "the living bread that came down from heaven . . . will live forever" (Jn. 6,51)


  1. What a beautiful homily! I also received a beautiful homily yesterday, from our pastor, Fr. Timothy McGuire. He used the hymns from evening prayer, written by St. Thomas, to open up the theology of the Eucharist. The hymns contain such beautiful poetry, and their theology is rich and "says it all."

    Also, one of my thoughts, which some of my friends (who have had miscarriages) have told me has been helpful in their lives is this: the unborn babies of daily communicants have been receiving Christ daily -- how could they not go directly to Him, if they die? This is really also true even if the mother has only received Communion one time during a pregnancy that ends too soon. It's my personal opinion, that it is only after a significant separation from their mothers (like birth!) that children need Baptism and the Christian journey that follows it. Thanks again for sharing these important truths.

  2. Thanks, as always, for you encouragement. Preaching is an awesome task. I always shrink back a little before getting started. I always have to be able to enter it in spirit of prayer.


God's love for us is tireless

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34 No doubt you've heard the saying, "There's no rest for the wicked...