Friday, June 08, 2012

Body of Christ or Condemnable Idolatry? The Readings for Corpus Christi

This is what I used to hold and teach about the Catholic Eucharist:

“The mass teaches … that Christ is bodily under the form of bread and wine, and therefore is to be worshipped in them; so that the mass, at bottom, is nothing else than a denial of the one sacrifice and sufferings of Jesus Christ, and a condemnable idolatry.” (from the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 80)

That little statement comes from a famous Calvinist statement of faith, to which I adhered during my brief tenure in pastoral ministry (1995-1999).

Yet here I find myself writing about the Eucharist on the eve of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, still popularly called “Corpus Christi.”  How things change.

The readings for this Sunday are wonderfully set up in such a way as to teach about covenant, sacrifice, salvation history, and divine filiation.

Like last week’s celebration of the Trinity, this week again celebrates a Catholic distinctive, a doctrine taken for granted by many but which remains controversial and controverted outside the Church (and often inside the Church!).  That doctrine is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. 

The readings show us that the Eucharistic meal is the culmination of a tradition of sacred covenant meals throughout salvation history.

1.  The first reading is Exodus 24:3-8:

When Moses came to the people
and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
"We will do everything that the LORD has told us."
Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and,
rising early the next day,
he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar
and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites
to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls
as peace offerings to the LORD,
Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls;
the other half he splashed on the altar.
Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people,
who answered, "All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do."
Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying,
"This is the blood of the covenant
that the LORD has made with you
in accordance with all these words of his."

This is the covenant making ritual at Mount Sinai, after the LORD had given the Ten Commandments and before the people had sinned with the Golden Calf.

A “covenant” is the extension of kinship by oath.  It is a way of taking a non-family member into your family.  This covenant-making ceremony represents a sort of adoption of the people of Israel by the LORD (Jer 31:20); or from another perspective, a marriage of Israel to the LORD (Ezek 16:8).  Adoption and marriage were the primary uses of covenant in the ancient world.

Let’s talk about the blood ceremony Moses performs.  The blood is sprinkled both on the altar (representing God’s presence) and the people.  This means both God and the people are entering into the covenant together.  The blood has at least two symbolisms.  First, kinship: God and Israel now share the same blood.  When someone is related to us, we say, “He’s blood to me.”  There is also the expression “Blood is thicker than water.”  So to this day, we use the word “blood” to denote kinship.  In ancient times it was the same.  Sharing the same blood, Israel and the LORD are now family.

But the blood has a second meaning as well: death.  The blood came from slain animals, and a secondary meaning of accepting the sprinkled blood was: may my blood be shed, like these animals, if I fail to keep my covenant commitments.  The sacrifices that often accompanied covenant-making rituals symbolized the consequences of covenant violation.

More positively, the sacrifices also provided food for a meal.  Families eat together, so a common meal often served as part of the ceremony of covenant-making (Gen 31:44-46).  In Exodus 24, Moses and the elders of Israel have a meal with God on Mount Sinai after the blood ritual: see Exod 24:11.

Before leaving this reading, we should note the “young men” who assist Moses in the priestly duty of offering sacrifice.  Although the text is not explicit about who and how many these young men were, Jewish tradition understood that there were twelve of them—a firstborn son from each of the twelve tribes.  The firstborn sons of Israel had been “consecrated,” after all, during the Passover event (Ex 13:2,12), and “consecrated” often has the force of “ordained” in the Old Testament.

2. The responsorial psalm is Psalm 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18:

R. (13) I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
How shall I make a return to the LORD
for all the good he has done for me?
The cup of salvation I will take up,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
Precious in the eyes of the LORD
is the death of his faithful ones.
I am your servant, the son of your handmaid;
you have loosed my bonds.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.
To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and I will call upon the name of the LORD.
My vows to the LORD I will pay
in the presence of all his people.
R. I will take the cup of salvation, and call on the name of the Lord.

The use of this Psalm for the celebration of the Eucharist is highly significant.  Psalm 116 is part of the set of Hallel Psalms, consisting of Pss 113–118.  These psalms were and are recited or chanted during the Passover liturgy.  Our Lord and the Apostles certainly would have recited them, including our text Ps 116, at the Last Supper.

The Hallel (“Praise”) Psalms 113–118 are mostly psalms of thanksgiving or Todah psalms.  The Todah was particular kind of sacrifice mandated by Moses in Lev 7:11-15.  Unlike other sacrifices, the Todah was not offered in atonement for sin, but in thanksgiving for some act of deliverance that God had performed for the worshipper.  The Todah ritual also included the consumption of much bread along with the meat of the sacrificed animal—it was a festive meal.

In Jewish thought, the Passover sacrifice was a form of the general category of Todah sacrifices.  It had the following distinctive marks of the Todah: (1) it was offered in celebration of God’s deliverance, (2) it included the eating of bread, (3) it had to be eaten that same night (cf. Ex 12:8; Lev 7:15).

Therefore, the Todah Psalms 113-118 were highly appropriate to chant during the consumption of the Passover sacrifice. 

In Psalm 116, the psalmist asks, “How shall I make a return to the LORD for all the good he has done for me?”  He answers his own question: “I shall take up the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the LORD.”  The “cup of salvation” was a libation, a drink offering, that constituted part of the Todah sacrifice, and “calling on the name of the LORD” is an idiom for sacrificial worship.  So the Psalmist is saying: “The appropriate response to God’s generosity toward me is to worship him by offering the Todah sacrifice.”  The same idea is stressed again later in the Psalm: “To you will I offer sacrifice of thanksgiving (Heb. zebach todah), and I will call upon the name of the LORD.”

As Christians, what is our appropriate response for God’s goodness to us?  To participate in our “sacrifice of thanksgiving,” the Eucharist (Gk. eucharisteo = “to give thanks”).

3. The second reading is Hebrews 9:11-15:
Brothers and sisters:
When Christ came as high priest
of the good things that have come to be,
passing through the greater and more perfect tabernacle
not made by hands, that is, not belonging to this creation,
he entered once for all into the sanctuary,
not with the blood of goats and calves
but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls
and the sprinkling of a heifer's ashes
can sanctify those who are defiled
so that their flesh is cleansed,
how much more will the blood of Christ,
who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God,
cleanse our consciences from dead works
to worship the living God.

For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant:
since a death has taken place for deliverance
from transgressions under the first covenant,
those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance

Let’s focus on the last verse, vs. 15, underlined above, which contains the heart of the whole covenantal theology of Hebrews.  The translation used in Mass is quite good in this instance, because it renders both occurrences of the Greek word diatheke here as “covenant,” which many translations fail to do.

The author of Hebrews is saying the following: Christ’s death is the “death that has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant.”  The “first covenant” referred to here is the covenant of Sinai, which we saw being made in the first reading.  This covenant involved a curse of death for any violation.  As we saw, that was part of the meaning of the blood ritual: “May my blood be shed if I break this covenant.”  Yet Israel did break the covenant again and again, starting with the Golden Calf.  And each individual Israelite personally broke the Ten Commandments, as we all do.  What then saves us from the curse of death for violating that covenant?  Christ death does.  He dies on our behalf, in our place.  But its deeper than that.  Through baptism, we actually participate in Christ’s death.  In a real if mysterious way, baptism is a death that we undergo (Rom 6:3-11).

Having suffered the worst that the first covenant can do to us, we are free to enter into the “new covenant,” which promises an eternal inheritance—not a temporal physical inheritance of the land of Canaan in the first covenant, but eternal life with God in his presence (cf. Heb 12:18-24).

4.  The Gospel is Mark 14:12-16, 22-26:

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
Jesus' disciples said to him,
"Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?"
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
"Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Follow him.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
'The Teacher says, "Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"'
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there."
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.

While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, gave it to them, and said,
"Take it; this is my body."
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them,
"This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
Amen, I say to you,
I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.

There is quite a bit that can be said about this passage, but we’ll focus on the distribution of the wine and bread.  Breaking the bread, he gives it to his disciples and simply declares “This is my body.”  He doesn’t say it symbolizes or represents his body, but simply that it is his body. 

Let it never be said that traditional Protestants interpret the Bible “literally” whereas Catholics interpret it “figuratively.”  That is far too simplistic: in key instances this caricature is precisely reversed.  The irony was not lost on me during my own journey into the Catholic Church.  I found myself unable to argue convincingly against my Catholic friend who was insisting on the plain sense of Scripture, while I was trying to avoid it.

Of course, that Jesus calls the bread his “body” is not decisive, because he could be employing a metaphor.  What is decisive, in my opinion, is that no one in the early Church understood it as a mere metaphor:

But look at the men who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ ... They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  (Ignatius of Antioch [c. AD 106], Letter to the Smyrneans 7:1, taken from Early Christian Writings, ed. Maxwell Staniforth; Penguin Classics; Penguin Books, 1968)

"My flesh is truly food and My blood is truly drink." You hear Him speak of His flesh, you hear Him speak of His blood, you know the sacred signs of the Lord's death; and do you worry about His divinity? Hear His words when he says: "A spirit has not flesh and bones." As often as we receive the sacramental elements which through the mystery of the sacred prayer are transformed into the flesh and blood of the Lord, we proclaim the death of the Lord. (St. Ambrose [AD 340-397], The Faith 4:10:124)

“How this [‘And he was carried in his own hands’] should be understood literally of David, we cannot discover; but we can discover how it is meant of Christ. For Christ was carried in his own hands, when, referring to his own body, he said: ‘This is my body,’ for he carried that body in his hands.” (St. Augustine, On Psalm 33:1:10)

As we said, the Passover was considered a form of the Todah, so the cup Jesus distributes is, in a sense, the libation cup or drink offering, the “cup of salvation” of which Psalm 116 spoke.

When Jesus says “this is my blood of the covenant,” he is drawing a straight line back to Exodus 24:8, the only place in the Old Testament where the phrase “blood of the covenant” is used.  Jesus is saying: “What I am doing here now with you, my apostles, is as momentous as what Moses did on Mt. Sinai.”  Recall, too, that Moses was surrounded by twelve young men, the priestly firstborn of Israel.  Jesus, too, has his “twelve young men,” who represent the new Israel, the spiritually reconstituted twelve tribes.  Furthermore, these men will have the priestly duty of offering the todah sacrifice for the new covenant community.  They, in turn, passed this priestly duty and authority on to those in succession from them.

The covenant ceremony at Sinai symbolized kinship with God, but the Eucharistic sacrifice instituted by Our Lord in the upper room actualizes kinship with God.  The blood of Jesus is not merely symbolic but real.  It has an actual effect on us, when received with faith: it “cleanses our consciences from dead works,” among other things.  Since it is the body of Jesus Christ, and “you are what you eat,” we become assimilated into Christ, we share the body and blood of God, rightly understood, so that we are “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) and “children of God” (1 John 3:1).  If the Eucharist were merely symbolic, we have made no advance over the Old Covenant.  But we have advanced: in the sacrament we really become “sons in the Son,” who share Jesus’ filial relationship with his Father.

Adóro te devóte, látens Déitas,
Quæ sub his figúris vere látitas,
Tíbi se cor méum tótum súbjicit,
Quia Te contémplans tótum déficit.

I devoutly adore you, hidden Deity
Who truly lies beneath these figures
To you my heart totally subjects itself
Since it is totally deficient to contemplate You.
(St. Thomas Aquinas, translation mine)


De Maria said...

As usual, you did a very thorough job of explaining the texts. The one thing I will mention is the verse which says that Christ is the "mediator of a New Covenant". Frequently, Protestants insist that there is only one mediator and therefore deny the intercessory power of the Heavenly Court.

However, Christ is called the mediator of the New Covenant because God established it through Him. Just as Moses was the mediator of the Old Covenant.

There is only one Mediator of the New Covenant in the sense that Christ is He through whom the New Covenant was established. But we are all co-mediators in the sense that we all are called to bring others into Covenant relationship with God.


De Maria

John Bergsma said...

De Maria: a good point. I think perhaps we are co-mediators in a stronger sense, because we partake of Christ, and are in fact his body, and share in his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Alfredo said...

Thanks, John. This was an excellent morning meditation for the great feast.