“The Gift of the Real Presence of Christ in Its Fullness”
Homily for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, Year “C”
Launch of the “Eucharistic Revival” Project
Imagine if you will what it must have been like for those first generations of Christians living in the pagan Roman Empire. They were a new religion, a small sect that was seen as not fitting in, and even subversive. And not unlike us Catholics today, those first ancestors of ours also had to deal with misunderstandings.
The two most serious ones came from what the Romans heard Christians say when they referred to eating the flesh of their Lord, and referring to each other as brother and sister and sometimes marrying each other. Thus they were seen to be cannibals, and practicing perverted and illicit relations among each other. For good reason then the great witness to the faith St. Justin Martyr wrote a defense of the Christian faith in the year 150 A.D. to the pagan Romans of his time. Both are true, of course, but not in the worldly way that the Romans had misunderstood.
The Eucharist and Our Brothers and Sisters
Both of these foundational Christian principles, that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ, and that by our baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ, are brought together in the miracle we hear about in today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.
The Eucharistic element, of course, is abundantly clear: Jesus takes bread, looks up to heaven, blesses the bread, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples “to set before the crowd.” The allusions to the Last Supper are very clear. But so is the fuller meaning of the call to live the Eucharist as service to the poor and suffering: the miracle takes place upon the Twelve Apostles’ return from the mission Jesus had sent them on to cast out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the kingdom of God and heal the sick; and he teaches them here that true authority consists in service, specifically here even table service. This is the meaning of the specific detail of ordering them to set the meal before the crowd. It is likewise also an allusion to the Last Supper, when Jesus will tell them, “I am among you as the one who serves.”
However, it all begins here: our worship must be rightly ordered, if our service to our brothers and sisters is to be so as well – that is, authentic Christian service, service that looks to the good of the other for the sake of the other. In his defense of the Christian faith, St. Justin Martyr describes the ritual of Christian worship, in which we see the same basic elements as the Mass today. Then he goes on to say:
We call this food the Eucharist…. Not as ordinary bread or as ordinary drink do we partake of them, but just as, through the word of God, our Savior Jesus Christ became Incarnate and took upon Himself flesh and blood for our salvation, so, we have been taught, the food which has been made the Eucharist by the prayer of His word, and which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is both the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
We see here a very early testimony to the ancient and consistent core Catholic belief of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. St. Justin likewise bears witness to the Church’s consistent teaching on who may partake of the Eucharist. He says: “We call this food the Eucharist, of which only he can partake who has acknowledged the truth of our teachings, who has been cleansed by baptism for the remission of his sins and for his rebirth, and who regulates his life upon the principles laid down by Christ.”
These are the three elements the Church has always held necessary to be properly disposed to receiving Holy Communion: to be baptized, to believe what the Church believes, and to observe those beliefs in one’s conduct, regulating one’s life according to them. We hear, for example, St. Augustine teach in one of his sermons: “If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive…. Whoever receives the sacrament of unity without preserving the bonds of peace receives not a sacrament for his benefit but evidence against himself.” And likewise St. John Chrysostom, in even harsher language (so typical of him): “I too raise my voice, I beseech, beg and implore that no one draw near to this sacred table with a sullied and corrupt conscience. Such an act, in fact, can never be called ‘communion’, not even were we to touch the Lord’s body a thousand times over, but ‘condemnation’, ‘torment’ and ‘increase of punishment.’”
Rightly Ordered Toward the Poor
As you know, the U.S. bishops are launching a Eucharistic Revival project, beginning with this Corpus Christi Sunday today, a project to rekindle Eucharistic faith that is at the heart of our identity as Catholics. Belief in the Real Presence, though, in its fullest sense, goes beyond the walls of the church. Yes, it starts here – the necessary first step toward properly-ordered Christian living. But the Church has always understood, also from the very beginning, that the Eucharist calls us to a special commitment to caring for the poor and suffering.
St. John Chrysostom once again gives us some very choice words on this: “You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, yet you do not recognize your brother, … You dishonor this table when you do not judge worthy of sharing your food someone judged worthy to take part in this meal…. God freed you from all your sins and invited you here, but you have not become more merciful.”
We must understand our celebration of this beautiful feast day in this wider sense. It was established way back in the year 1264 by Pope Urban IV who asked St. Thomas Aquinas to compose the liturgical texts for the new feast day. And true masterpieces of beauty they are. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has said of them: “They are masterpieces, still in use in the Church today, in which theology and poetry are fused. These texts pluck at the heartstrings in an expression of praise and gratitude to the Most Holy Sacrament, while the mind, penetrating the mystery with wonder, recognizes in the Eucharist the Living and Real Presence of Jesus ….”
The beauty of our ceremonies and the music and art that envelope them are meant to lift our minds and hearts to God and open them up to receive His truth, so that we may then be inspired to a life of authentic Christian service to the poor, revealing Christ’s goodness to them.
This is the Good News that has to be proclaimed to all the world. And so we will conclude our worship today with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament that is prescribed for this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, pausing at the four altars to symbolize the Great Commission Christ has entrusted to the Church, the Commission to proclaim this Good News to all the world. He sends us out on mission, too, to heal suffering and proclaim His Kingdom to the poor. And there is no greater suffering than alienation from God: a form of suffering that abounds all around us in our contemporary society.
With the help of God’s grace, may His beauty, truth and goodness inspire us to build a world that more closely resembles His Kingdom of eternal light, peace and grace. Let us remember that it will only be perfectly realized in His Kingdom that is to come. And so we must keep always in our minds and hearts the concluding words of another moving prayer composed by the great St. Thomas, this one his Prayer After Holy Communion:
Lord God, I pray that You bring me, a sinner, to the indescribable Feast where You, with Your Son and the Holy Spirit, are to Your saints true light, full blessedness, everlasting joy, and perfect happiness. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.