Sunday, May 29, 2016

Corpus Christi: takin' him to the streets

Readings: Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:1-4; 1 Cor 11:23-26; Luke 9:11b-17

"The Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist." This observation was made in the era of the Church fathers. It's one of those sentences the meaning of which can never be fully exhausted. This sentence gets things the right way round: Christ himself instituted the Eucharist, the sacrament of his body and blood, which we celebrate today on Corpus Christi, it is he who makes us, not just what we are, but who we are. Who we are individually finds it origin in who we are together. One person, it has been said to the point of being a philosophical, theological, sociological, and psychological common place, is no person.

It is the Eucharist that makes the Church the Body of Christ, or Corpus Christi. Christian discipleship is communal, which is why the central act of Christian faith is communion. As St. Augustine stated it in Sermon 272:
What is seen is the physical representation; what is understood is the spiritual fruit. Therefore, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle [Paul] speaking to the faithful: You are the body of Christ, and its members [1 Cor. 12:27]. … When you hear “The body of Christ”, you answer, “Amen”. Be a member of the body of Christ, so that your “Amen” may be true! What then is the bread? We assert nothing here of our own ideas; rather, let us listen closely to the Apostle, who, when he spoke concerning this Sacrament, said, There is one bread; we, the many, are one body [1 Cor. 10:17]. … “One bread” – what is this one bread? It is one body formed of many. Remember that bread is not made from a single grain, but from many. When you were purified, you were ground. When you were baptized, you became dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were baked. Become what you see, and receive what you are [italiczed and emboldening emphasis mine]
It would be difficult to improve upon what the great bishop of Hippo Regius preached in the first decade of the 5th century.

In a post such as this I always put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to compose something original, something beautiful, something uniquely incisive. It relaxes me to realize I've probably never met those expectations. Why stop now? Really, when it comes to the sacrament of Christ's body and blood, it's difficult, if not downright impossible, to come up with something new to write about it. At least for me, it's important to ponder what has been handed on and consider how deeply I have appropriated these things, which is just a way of asking, To what extent does my participation in the Eucharist shape and form my life, my identity?

My favorite way to describe Christian initiation, which consists of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and culminates with communion, is as incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church- Corpus Christi. Recently, while preparing my Pentecost homily, the connection between the Church as Christ's Body and the Church as Christ's Bride became somewhat more evident to me. So, at the risk of quoting myself, which is not considered very cricket, I share, once again, that insight:
Just as observance of the Law, not descent from Abraham, is what conferred on the Jewish people their identity as God’s chosen people, it is the Holy Spirit who gives the Church her identity as the Bride of Christ. So, just as especially through child-bearing, a man and a woman become flesh of each other’s flesh and bone of each other’s bone, it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that those reborn in baptism make the Church, Christ’s Bride, his very body
Not deeply insightful, I know. I am slow, but for me that was an "Aha!" moment.

As with the Most Holy Trinity, when one thinks about the Blessed Sacrament in the abstract, solely in carefully-constructed philosophical categories, the mystery is reduced. We cannot reduce the mystery of the Eucharist to our measure, which is different from asserting we can't say anything meaningful about it, or apprehend it to some extent. But if apprehending it does not facilitate an encounter, then it is worse than useless. While you may explain to someone the dogma of transubstantiation clearly and in a manner s/he can comprehend, the best you've accomplished is to show that, using Aristotelian categories, our belief that the bread and wine become Jesus Christ body, blood, soul, and divinity is not contrary to reason. In other words, you don't prove anything positive, you merely eliminate an understandable suspicion. Oftentimes, given that the underlying metaphysics of our post-modern, or late modern, Western milieu is not Aristotelian, and not even a metaphysics of substance, it is difficult to do accomplish even that much.

It is more than meaningful that our Old Testament reading for today, taken from Genesis, comes at the end of Abram's encounter with the mysterious Melchizedek, king of Salem (i.e., king of Peace). They celebrate together what a Christian can only describe as a proto-Eucharist. What is most fitting about the two verses that comprise our first reading for this Solemnity is that they tell us Abram gave the king of Salem a tenth of all he owned. One can argue that this is the origin of the offertory at Mass, during which we give our gifts. You see, the Eucharist is an exchange of gifts. Not only does Christ offer himself to us body, blood, soul, and divinity, as it were, but, if we grasp the nature of the exchange, we offer ourselves to him, to each other, and to the world, body, blood, soul, and humanity.

I suppose one way to put it is that we are filled with the Christ so that we can empty ourselves, like he did. Of course, the exchange is not commercial in nature. In his deeply insightful book The Sacraments: The Word of and the Mercy of the Body, Louis-Marie Chauvet, in the third section, which bears the title "Functioning of the Structure: Symbolic Exchange," does a masterful job unpacking what is involved in this. The exchange is not a market exchange, increasingly the only kind of exchange Western minds are capable of grasping, one of the effects of which is that sex becomes a commodity (sorry for the digression, but I thought of Timothy Radcliffe's chapter "The Body Electric" in his book What is the Point of Being a Christian?), but what Chauvet calls a "symbolic exchange." "God's grace," Chauvet explains, "is not something due and its measure is not that of human merit" (123). It is because "Grace comes from God's pure initiative, that of love," the believer must respond "to love by love and not by calculation" (123; 125).

To my way of thinking, our Gospel, taken from St. Luke's account of Jesus' feeding of the 5,000, demonstrates perfectly just how the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist. Let's face it, the most credible evidence that the elements of bread of wine, by the Holy Spirit's power, become for us Christ's body and blood are lives of those of us who partake of it. In other words, witness, not discourse, provides the most compelling evidence for what is far from self-evidently true for the vast majority of people, just as it was not self-evident to the casual first century observer in the Roman province of Palestine that Jesus of Nazareth was King of kings and Lord of lords, true God from true God, etc.

In his still highly relevant Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii nuntiandi, which animates Pope Francis' Evangelii gaudium as well as Francis' concept of "missionary discipleship," Bl. Pope Paul VI wrote:
Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness. Take a Christian or a handful of Christians who, in the midst of their own community, show their capacity for understanding and acceptance, their sharing of life and destiny with other people, their solidarity with the efforts of all for whatever is noble and good. Let us suppose that, in addition, they radiate in an altogether simple and unaffected way their faith in values that go beyond current values, and their hope in something that is not seen and that one would not dare to imagine. Through this wordless witness these Christians stir up irresistible questions in the hearts of those who see how they live: Why are they like this? Why do they live in this way? What or who is it that inspires them? Why are they in our midst? (par. 21)
Rather than an inward, self-referential celebration, Corpus Christi gives impetus to evangelization. Consistent with theo-logic, the Eucharist is a gift that can only be received by giving it away.

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