Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Satisfying Hunger for God: The Feast of Corpus Christi

I love the early summer liturgical “trifecta” of Pentecost, Trinity, and Corpus Christi, forming a kind of “encore” to the joyful Easter Season focusing in succession on three fundamental realities of the Christian life: the Holy Spirit in the Church, the Triune Godhead, and the Eucharist.  This “trifecta” comes to an end this week with the celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Readings for this Solemnity obviously focus on types and descriptions of the Eucharist, but there is a notably priestly theme that also runs through them.  In this way, we observe the connection between priesthood and Eucharist.  This connection first dawned on me personally in the fall of 1999, when I was first exposed to the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.  Coming across St. Ignatius of Antioch's famous passage concerning the Eucharist in his Letter to the Smyrneans (ch. 7), I suddenly realized that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was—and is—the constant belief of the Church from apostolic times to the present day:

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. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrneans 6-7)

Upon reading this, supported with other teachings of the Fathers on the Eucharist, I came to believe in the Real Presence.  But then the following chain of thoughts occurred to me:

(1) Let us acknowledge that Eucharist host is truly transformed into the Body of Christ. This is the teaching of Scripture and the Fathers.

(2) But does this happen when any Christian, at any time, prays over bread?  Does every Christian have the power and authority to make bread into the true Body of the Lord? Surely that would be ridiculous, and lead to abuses of all kinds: persons confecting the Eucharist in sacrilegious ways, and treating the Eucharistic Lord without proper reverence. 

(3) Therefore, it must be the case that only certain persons, at certain times, can transform bread into the Body of Christ. 

(4) Who would those persons be, and what would those times be?  Surely they must be persons authorized by the Church to do so, at the times when the Church authorizes the Eucharist to be celebrated. 

(5) But to be entrusted by the Church with the authority to celebrate the Eucharist is an awesome responsibility that marks a person out from among the laity of the Church. 

(6) Therefore, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist inevitably requires that there be a class of persons marked out from among the ranks of believers who are set aside and entrusted with the authority to celebrate the Eucharist at the proper times.  This class of persons would constitute a priesthood.

This line of reasoning could surely be stated better and more succinctly by others, but I hope I have made it somewhat clear why a Real Presence doctrine of the Eucharist, in which the bread and wine are truly transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, requires a new covenant priesthood.  On the other hand, if the Eucharist is merely symbolic, it does not require priests to celebrate it.  And indeed: Protestantism has a non-sacramental, non-priestly, purely functional view of their clergy.

On to the Readings:

The First Reading is Gn 14:18-20:

In those days, Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine,
and being a priest of God Most High,
he blessed Abram with these words:
“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
the creator of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High,
who delivered your foes into your hand.”
Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Melchizedek's name is Hebrew for “King of Righteousness.”  He is also identified as “king of Salem.”  “Salem” is a form of the Semitic root for “peace,” as in the Hebrew “Shalom.”  “Salem” is also the archaic name for Jerusalem, employed in at least one Egyptian inscription (on a campaign itinerary of Ramses II on the walls of one of the Temples in Karnak, if memory serves) as a reference to the city.  It’s also used in Psalm 76:2 as a name for the holy city.

Jewish tradition held that Melchizedek was none other than Shem, son of Noah, based on the fact that Shem lived into the lifespan of Abraham, and who else would be qualified to invoke a blessing upon Abraham?  “Melchizedek” was then understood as a throne name (which it surely was, whatever one may think of the identification with Shem).  Thus, in the ancient Jewish view, Melchizedek transmitted to Abraham the blessing of the patriarchs extending through Noah all the way back to Adam.

Some hold that the bread and wine brought out were merely for the refreshment of Abraham and his men.  The text, however, connects the bread and wine to Melchizedek's priesthood and the conferral of the blessing, so it would be better to understand the bread and wine as liturgical offerings (i.e. a grain offering with a libation).  To be specific, in the Hebrew, the phrase “Now he was a priest of God Most High” appears to be an explanatory clause giving the background or rationale for the statement, “And Melchizedek … brought forth bread and wine.”

The fact that the “bread and wine” were a liturgical offering does not exclude a practical use for the refreshment of those present, because liturgical offerings in the ancient world were often consumed by the worshipers as part of the ritual.

So it seems that the kingship of the city of Jerusalem carried with it a priestly role, going back at least to the figure of Melchizedek.  Later, in 2 Samuel 5, when David becomes King of Jerusalem, he seems to take on the priestly role that comes with his office, a kind of “Melchizedekian Succession.”  In 2 Samuel 6, for example, we see David functioning as a priest when the ark is brought up into Jerusalem (vv. 12-19).  The liturgical feast that David provides on that occasion [2 Sam 6:17-19) is itself a type of the Eucharist.  David's priestly role was transmitted to his sons, according to 2 Sam 8:18.  Jesus is the ultimate Son of David, whose priesthood can be traced back to Melchizedek (and then, if Melchizedek is Shem, back to Adam).  Thus, Jesus' priesthood is more ancient and venerable than the priesthood of the Levites, which was only conferred on them after the sin of the Golden Calf (Exod 32:25-29).  This is one of the arguments of the Book of Hebrews (see Hebrews 7).

To sum up, Gen 14:18-20 reminds us that in Jesus we still have a priest who exercises the priesthood of Melchizedek, a priesthood that involves the offering of bread and wine which confers on the recipients blessing and salvation from their enemies. 

2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 110:1, 2, 3, 4:

R. (4b) You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The LORD said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand
till I make your enemies your footstool.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The scepter of your power the LORD will stretch forth from Zion:
“Rule in the midst of your enemies.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
“Yours is princely power in the day of your birth, in holy splendor;
before the daystar, like the dew, I have begotten you.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.
The LORD has sworn, and he will not repent:
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”
R. You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek.

Psalm 110, like Psalm 2, was probably an ancient coronation hymn sung when each new successor of David mounted the throne to begin his reign.  Psalm 110 reminds the new Davidic king of his noble priestly role, a role (as we saw above) that goes back to the great Melchizedek himself.  The words of this hymn are hyperbolic when applied to any of the merely natural sons of David, but the words reach their full potential and meaning when applied to Jesus Christ.  He is the one truly “begotten” by God, like the “dew,” which forms before the start of the “day,” (that is, before the dawn of creation). He is a priest “forever” in the fullest sense, for he never dies. Nonetheless, the Father has not yet made all his enemies “at footstool for his feet,” and he “rules in the midst of his foes,” that is, He leads us (the Church) to victory even though we are surrounded by enemies and persecutions in this life.

3.  The Second Reading is 1 Cor 11:23-26:

Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

In the New Testament the sequence of verbs “take,” “give thanks” (or “bless”), “break,” and “give” are almost a technical sequence denoting the celebration of the Eucharist or its types.  In this recitation of the Eucharistic “Institution Narrative” by St. Paul (which most closely resembles Luke of all the Gospels), we see the first three in this verbal sequence: “take,” “give thanks” (Gk eucharisteo), and “break.”

We note here the role of tradition.  This passage, in fact, is witness to the process of sacred Tradition: authoritative teaching handed down from Christ through the Apostles.  St. Paul speaks of “receiving” (Gk paralambano) teaching from the Lord and then “handing it on” (Gk paradidomi).  The verb for “hand on” (paradidomi) corresponds to the Greek noun for “tradition” (paradosis).  The Eucharist is the great tradition par excellence of the Church. 

The Eucharist is the “new covenant.”  As Dr. Scott Hahn is fond of pointing out, the “new covenant” (or “new testament”) is not first of all a collection of 27 sacred books.  It is, first of all, a liturgical act, a ritual celebration of bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  The twenty-seven books of the “New Testament” only come to take on that name because of their association with the celebration of the Eucharist.  They are the books read at each renewal of the new covenant.

It is so striking that Jesus identifies his Eucharistic Body and Blood as the new covenant itself.  This fulfills the prophecies of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8, that the “servant of the LORD” would actually be given as a covenant; in other words, he would become the covenant.  We recall that a covenant, in the ancient world, was essentially a conferral of kinship via an oath.  The Eucharist confers divine kinship in the most direct way possible, by placing within us the very body and blood of God. 

4.  The Gospel is Lk 9:11b-17:

Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God,
and he healed those who needed to be cured.
As the day was drawing to a close,
the Twelve approached him and said,
“Dismiss the crowd
so that they can go to the surrounding villages and farms
and find lodging and provisions;
for we are in a deserted place here.”
He said to them, “Give them some food yourselves.”
They replied, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have,
unless we ourselves go and buy food for all these people.”
Now the men there numbered about five thousand.
Then he said to his disciples,
“Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.”
They did so and made them all sit down.
Then taking the five loaves and the two fish,
and looking up to heaven,
he said the blessing over them, broke them,
and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
They all ate and were satisfied.
And when the leftover fragments were picked up,
they filled twelve wicker baskets.

Here we see the sequence of Greek verbs by which the New Testament typically denotes the Eucharist or its types: “take”, “bless” (functional equivalent of “give thanks”), “break,” “give.”  Although the Church gives the most liturgical attention to the account of the Feeding of the 5000 in John 6, this miracle narrative functions as a Eucharistic anticipation in all four of the Gospels. 

We learn about the Eucharist by reflection on this miracle.  The Eucharist is our supernatural food.  It is not the product of the personal efforts of the clergy: the disciples admit they don't have the resources to feed the people. 

The Eucharist comes to us as we live in distress in the midst of the world.  This world is truly a spiritually “deserted place,” a place without any lasting satisfaction, a place without the resources to satisfy our deepest hunger, which is for God Himself.

But the Eucharist is the food we may eat and truly “be satisfied.”  Twelve baskets full are picked up afterwards, which (1) foreshadows the care for every particle of the Eucharist that later will be manifest by the Church, and (2) denotes by the number twelve the fullness of the tribes of Israel.  Those who partake of the Eucharist are constituted as the New Israel, the new Twelve Tribes ruled over by the Son of David who is a “priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

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