Saturday, June 21, 2014

Body of Christ, Manna for the Journey: The Readings for Corpus Christi


This weekend is another great liturgical feast, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, otherwise known as Corpus Christi.

Corpus Christi is one of a handful of feasts that celebrates the very gift of the Eucharist itself.  It is one of my favorite feasts, because the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was instrumental in my becoming Catholic.

Back in the Fall of 1999 I was reading through the Apostolic Fathers and came to this passage in Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Smyrneans (c. AD 106):

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes.

I was shocked by the italicized line, because I realized that no one who held to standard Protestant views of the Eucharist would have written something like that.  “Transubstantiation” as a term may have come years later, but Ignatius’ view of the Eucharist was clearly that it had become transformed into the flesh of Christ.  Since Ignatius was writing ten years after the death of the Apostle John, there was not enough time for him to have gotten “confused” on this issue.  It dawned on me that Ignatius was simply reflecting the views of the early Christians on the Eucharist—views that they must have gotten from the Apostles themselves.

In any event, the Readings for this Feast have obvious and strong relevance to Eucharistic doctrine.

The First Reading, taken from Deuteronomy, reflects on the gift of the manna to the Israelites during the forty years in the wilderness, an obvious type of the Eucharist:


Dt 8:2-3, 14b-16a
Moses said to the people:
"Remember how for forty years now the LORD, your God,
has directed all your journeying in the desert,
so as to test you by affliction
and find out whether or not it was your intention
to keep his commandments.
He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger,
and then fed you with manna,
a food unknown to you and your fathers,
in order to show you that not by bread alone does one live,
but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.
"Do not forget the LORD, your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
that place of slavery;
who guided you through the vast and terrible desert
with its saraph serpents and scorpions,
its parched and waterless ground;
who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock
and fed you in the desert with manna,
a food unknown to your fathers."

Brant Pitre has an excellent treatment of the manna as a Eucharistic type in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.  He shows evidence that even before the coming of Christ, there was a Jewish expectation that the Messiah would once again provide manna for God’s people.  The Apostles saw the forty years in the wilderness as a type of the earthly sojourn of every Christian, who journeys through many trials and temptations toward the Promised Land of Heaven.  On this journey, we are sustained by the bread from heaven, the Eucharist.  Tolkien does a riff on this theme in LOTR with the Elven lembas bread, which sustains Sam and Frodo on their journey through Mordor.  He even describes it in terms that resemble the Latin Rite host: round and flat.

One of the lines from this First Reading is particularly applicable to the Eucharist:  not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.  In the Eucharist we receive the bread that is the Word made flesh, the bread-Word that has proceeded from the mouth of the Father.

Psalm 147 is the Responsorial.  This Psalm celebrates God’s protection and provision for Jerusalem, the David’s Holy City.  The early Christians, starting with the Apostles themselves, consistently understood Jerusalem as a type of the Church, and God’s promises to Jerusalem as fulfilled in the Church (see Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 21:2-22:4).  This portion of the Psalm particularly resonates with Eucharistic themes:

He has granted peace in your borders;
with the best of wheat he fills you.
He sends forth his command to the earth;
swiftly runs his word!
R. Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.

Understood spiritually, this Psalm praises God for his providential care for all creation, but sees his provision for Jerusalem (his special people=the Church) as the highest expression of his providential care.  The “fine wheat” that God gives to his people becomes the quintessential sign of his loving provision for the entire cosmos.

The Second Reading is one of St. Paul’s most explicit teachings on the Eucharist:

Brothers and sisters:
The cup of blessing that we bless,
is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
Because the loaf of bread is one,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all partake of the one loaf.

It is interesting that St. Paul refers to the Eucharistic cup as the “Cup of Blessing,” since this seems to be a reference to the third cup of the four cups of the Passover liturgy.  St. Paul calls this cup a “participation,” “sharing,” “partaking,” or “communion” in the blood of Christ.  The Greek word is koinonia, a word which has become popular in Evangelical and even in some Catholic piety of late.  One should note that if St. Paul had held a symbolic view of the Eucharist, there would not be much force to his argument that the Eucharistic species were a “participation” or “partaking” in the body and blood of Christ.  Though I never realized it for thirty years, St. Paul, like St. Ignatius of Antioch, is reflecting a Real Presence theology.

It is a tragedy that the doctrine of the Eucharist has become an issue of division between Christians, because, as St. Paul emphasizes in this passage, the Eucharist is a source of unity:

Because the loaf of bread is one,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all partake of the one loaf.

Division over Eucharistic teaching is, quite seriously, diabolical.  Not in the sense that those who err in their Eucharistic doctrine are worse than the rest of us who follow Christ, but in the sense that the Evil One in particular wishes to sow discord on this issue, since it is central to our faith.

In the Calvinist tradition I was raised in, for all its good points, there was a strange reversal of emphasis on what was central and what was peripheral in terms of doctrine.  Doctrines of election and reprobation took central stage, while sacramental theology was considered peripheral.  While reading the Church Fathers during my doctoral program (thankfully we were required to do some patristics for Notre Dame’s Scripture doctorate), I was struck by how the Fathers typically had the reverse set of emphases.

Corpus Christi is an excellent Feast on which to pray for the unity of all Christians around a common Eucharistic table.

The Gospel reading is, as one would suspect, taken from John’s Bread of Life discourse (John 6:51-58):

Jesus said to the Jewish crowds:
"I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world."
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
Jesus said to them,
"Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day.
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.
This is the bread that came down from heaven.
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever."

As is well known, Jesus gets increasingly graphic as this discourse progresses, changing from the regular Greek word “esthio”, “eat,” to the more striking term “trogo”, “munch, chew.”  He also introduces the concept of “drinking his blood”—which has nothing to do with the precipitating event for this discourse (the multiplication of loaves) and only makes sense if Jesus is moving toward a Eucharistic application.

Eating animal blood was forbidden in the OT, because the “life is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11).  God does not want us to share in the life of animals, but the blood of Christ is the blood of God, and he does want us to share in divine life.

In this pericope, Jesus is making obvious reference to the manna (“I am the living bread that came down from heaven”), but it is less noticed that he is referring to the Fruit of the Tree of Life, the only other thing in Scripture that one could eat in order to gain immortality (“Whoever eats this bread will live forever”).  As St. Thomas would say, it is fitting that we who lost eternal life by an act of eating, should regain it through an act of eating.  The Cross becomes for us the new Tree of Life.


Our reflection on these Scriptures for Corpus Christi should cause us great joy, first of all, for God’s tremendous provision for our needs, but physical and spiritual, the greatest sign of which is his daily gift of the Eucharist, the Flesh of his own Son, for us.  At the same time, we should feel sorrow, because the Eucharist is a call for the unity of all Christians (Second Reading) as well as call for our own unity with the Son and the Father (the Gospel).  The Eucharist represents and causes our unity with the Holy Trinity (celebrated last week) which it signifies.  Yet so often we do not live, behave, or act in a way that would inspire our family members or co-workers to think “He lives in Christ, and Christ lives in him.”  May we use the opportunity provided by the Masses this weekend to pray that our union with Christ through this sacrament may be made more visible in our thought, word, and behavior in this coming week and the rest of our lives.

4 comments:

Terence M. Stanton said...

A.M.D.G.

Thank you for the wonderful reflections on the Sunday Mass readings that you and your colleagues always provide, Dr. Bergsma.

jose said...

Thanks Dr. Bergsma. This is a great reflection. On On Saturday's I am blessed to be involved in leading an ecumenical prayer service at a local nursing home. I always choose my readings from the Sunday lectionary and look at this site for ideas to share. Thanks so much for this fantastic resource.

As for today, I was struck by your point that the Eucharist should be about unity. It is so sad, and I believe you are right in saying that it is diabolical that it is viewed as a source of division. That is definitely something we can all pray about.

Joe raj said...

Wonderful reflection!

Susan Moore said...

Professor Bergsma,
Yea, that’s it (and the most hidden one, it seems –it’s difficult to see The Tree because of the jungle of trees). And there is a ‘grammar’ to the pattern that will be better revealed in the original languages (if I only knew them…). Once it is revealed it will become obvious why those languages were the ‘original’ ones that had to be used for us, to bring glory to Him, by our God who creates through words.
Who’da thunkit?
Today my parents celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary at the 5pm Mass in the rural church of my childhood. I was there as were my two sisters from their respective States. We three, and the one husband who attended, took up the offering (my sisters left the Church in the years after I did, decades ago).
My oldest sister and I did the readings. She did the first one, everyone sang the responses, and I did the second reading, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17.
Having stuttered all the way into my 20's, and having been painfully reclusive due to psychosis, and then having my speech knocked out in a head injury 6.5 years ago, today is the first time I have spoken like that, in front of His church. There was no microphone, but I’m pretty sure they clearly heard His Word all the way to the back of the choir loft (I had read your blog earlier).
Afterward, outside the church, I got to speak with some parents of a couple of close childhood friends, and also one of my high school teachers.
I think they all finally got it.
Then the six of us, a long-time family friend, and the Father of that parish had dinner together at a local place.
It was great: communion means community.
Just think; both a family of God, and the family of God, reconciled (healed) in His way and at His timing at Corpus Christi.
Who’da thunkit?
How great is our God!!