Corpus Christi 2015
In the final lines of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Our Divine Savior, who was about to ascend to the Father, reassures his disciples of his continued presence with them, with these beautiful words: “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the world.”
Today’s Feast of Corpus Christi is celebrated throughout the Catholic World to give thanks to the Father of Lights for this great gift of His Son, who remains with us always, and in many ways, till the end of time, but most especially and most wonderfully in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Last Sunday we celebrated the faith of the Church in the Most Holy Trinity. Today we celebrate the faith of the Church in the continuing and marvelously real presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, continually fulfilling his promise to remain with us always, but also fulfilling his even greater promise that we read in John, Chapter 6:
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.
These words of Jesus will always force His disciples to make a fundamental choice, either to accept them at face value and hold to the literal truth of the Eucharist, as His true Body and Blood, or to reject their literal meaning and reduce them to some kind of symbolic meaning, or to take them literally but reject them completely and follow Jesus no longer. That last choice was made by some disciples who first heard Jesus speak this doctrine, for we are told that when he continued to insist on this kind of language: “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” (V. 66)
Of the three possible choices, the second one, the attempt to reduce Jesus’ words to purely symbolic language is really the most difficult to justify, and precisely because of this one fact recorded by John, that many who actually heard these words spoken by Jesus found them simply too hard to accept and they said “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (V. 60) John then testifies that they stopped being His disciples because he spoke these scandalous words. They went away sad like the rich young man, and Jesus let them go with no explanation.
So when many Christians today, including most Protestant Christians, reduce these words of Jesus to pure metaphor, that is they reject their literal meaning which is taught by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians, how can they explain why these early disciples walked away, and yet Jesus did not call them back and simply explain to them the same metaphorical interpretation that these modern Christians place on His words. After all, Jesus did use parables and metaphors in his teaching, and yet here, when many of his disciples take his words literally and walk away because they are so hard to take, Jesus chooses to say nothing to correct their understanding of His words, and He simply asks the chosen 12 whether they too are so scandalized that want to leave Him.
Secondly, this denial of the real presence of Jesus, that is, of the literal interpretation of His words – “unless a man eats my flesh and drinks my blood, he has no life in him” (Jn. 6:53) – rejects the virtually unanimous teaching of the Christian world for the first 15 centuries of Christianity, until the time of the Protestant movements in the 16th century. How, then, are we to possibly explain how for 15 centuries virtually the entire Christian world misunderstood Jesus’ meaning when it came to the most important sacrament He left to his Church?
The teaching of Jesus that the Eucharist is his real body and blood cannot be sidestepped, or reduced to metaphor so easily. He could not have been more shockingly clear about this sacrament. “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (V.55) The bread becomes His true body and the wine becomes His true blood, and that is why the Church from the beginning believes that Christ is truly, really and entirely present under both sacramental signs. Indeed, at first the apostles themselves were also shocked (“Does this shock you? V. 61) by this teaching, and Jesus knew it, and that’s why He asked them also: “Do you also want to leave?” (V.67) That was it; nothing more; no explanations; no symbolic interpretations to set them straight; just those awful words: “Do you also want to leave?”
And John tells us that many in fact did abandon Jesus then and there because of these words of His on the Eucharist, and many Christians over the past 500 years have denied their straightforward meaning in favor of some symbolical or metaphorical meaning. Today, depending on the poll one looks at, only between 30 and 45 percent of baptized Catholics actually believe that the consecrated elements really and truly contain the body and blood of Christ. A significant number of Catholics have never even heard of this teaching. The Church has a huge problem on its hands.
There is no question that these words of Jesus, and the Church’s constant teaching on the real presence based upon them, are not easy to accept if we take them at face value. It requires a tremendous act of faith to hold to this doctrine of the Eucharist, yet no more tremendous than our act of faith in the Incarnation itself. If one has a full and unreserved faith in the literal truth that God has actually become man, without ever ceasing to be God, then one can surely also come to believe in the literal truth of the Eucharist: that the bread, when consecrated, is changed into His body, and the wine, when consecrated is changed into His Blood, and that His sacred body and blood become the food we must consume if we would have eternal life in us – “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.” V. 53
Catholic faith in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, however, is not just a matter of words. If we really believe this truth, unlike those in the religious polls who do not or who try to dodge its true meaning, then the Eucharist will be for us the most sacred, the most precious and the most valued treasure of our faith. If we really believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, surely we will never be careless or thoughtless in receiving this sacrament. We will never receive this sacred guest with indifference, never receive and walk out the door without a thanksgiving, as if Jesus were not present within us. We will never miss Sunday Mass and the gift of the Bridegroom to us.
Moreover, a deep faith and devotion to the Eucharistic Lord will surely make us much more conscious of just how close Christ remains to us always and how we are organically united to Christ and His Church. There is a most intimate connection between the Eucharist, the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and His Mystical, Body the Church. This was understood already by the early Fathers and Doctors of the Church. The mystery of the Church is tremendous because in the Church we are organically united to Christ and all the other members like ourselves. And the Eucharist is the organic food – analogous to organic nature – of the Mystical Body, that which unites our bodies and souls to Christ and through Him to all our brethren. We draw supernatural life (grace) and spiritual energy (charity) from the Eucharistic Body of Christ, and these gifts deepen our organic unity with the whole Mystical Body.
We can never even begin to exhaust this great dual mystery of the two Bodies of Christ, Eucharistic and Mystical, and their inner, organic and necessary relationship. Jesus did not give us Himself in this most concrete way in the Eucharist just to test our faith, but to save our souls, and our bodies, and make us one with Him and through Him one with the whole Church most intimately. The Church is not just a gathering of people but a living organism, and its food is Christ Himself, in the whole of His humanity and the saving power of His divinity.
Think of this great truth. In the Eucharist our God comes to us in the most humble possible way, under the outward appearances of ordinary bread and wine, but He is the real substance of this meal. He comes under these humble signs to remind us that He alone is our super-substantial food and drink that brings us Eternal Life. He comes to feed us and transform us into creatures of light, and to fill us with the same love that motivates Him to come to us in this humble fashion.
The Church’s teaching on the real presence is certainly at times a challenge to our faith: do we really believe in Him and in the Eucharist as He created it? Do we live in Him and from Him as the Church teaches us. Or will we eventually abandon our early faith and like the men of old, just go our own way, sadly, and follow Him no longer? We cannot avoid His awful question every time we are seriously confounded by the full truth of the Eucharist: “ “Do you also want to leave?” But with Simon Peter we too must answer firmly, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”