7 Jun 2015
Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Advent and Christmas are done. Lent and Easter are over. And things are pretty much back to “normal.” Now we’re in this long stretch of Ordinary Time until Advent comes around again. And so it’s a good time to stop and say, “Whoa! What did we celebrate?” And it’s really the Lord who makes us put on the brakes, turn around, and go back for a second look.
In about the year 1240, Jesus appeared to a nun, St. Juliana of Liége, and he told her he wanted the Church to celebrate, with greater focus, his Body and Blood. He gave her a few reasons why. But the first was that he wanted the Church to stop and reconsider what happened on Holy Thursday. There’s a lot that happens on that day, and it seems that the Eucharist was too often lost in the mix of things (and, of course, the Eucharist still gets lost in the busyness of life today).
And so, since the 13th Century, this feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ has been celebrated. Since the Middle Ages, every year the Church stops and says, “Whoa! What did we celebrate? What happened back there on Holy Thursday?” And we do it because God himself wants us to see there’s something important about that night. And so, Jesus said to St. Juliana and his Church: “Stop. Turn around. Reconsider what really happened on the night of my Last Supper.”
Well, we know that on that night Jesus had sent his disciples ahead of him to prepare for the Passover meal. And later, while they were eating, Jesus made the prediction that one of his disciples would betray him. They each denied it, of course. And then, at some point, Jesus, “On the day before he was to suffer for our salvation and the salvation of all . . . took bread in his . . . hands, and with eyes raised” to his Father in heaven, he gave thanks, said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples saying: “Take it; this is my body.”
And we also know that, “in a similar way, when supper was ended,” he took the chalice filled with wine. He gave thanks, said the blessing, and gave it to his disciples saying: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” And after that, they sang a hymn and went to the Mount of Olives—at least, that’s how the evening went according to the gospel of St. Mark.
And it’s interesting to think of Jesus singing. He was probably singing what’s known as the “Hallel Psalms;” psalms in praise of God. These were psalms 113 to 118. If you notice, we sang Psalm 116 today; we sang part of the hymn Jesus was singing on the night of the Last Supper. And to get at the idea of what happened there on that Holy Thursday evening, our ancestors in the 13th Centuries wrote their own hymns.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the hymn we sing every Holy Thursday called Pange lingua, which means “Sing, O tongue!” “Sing, O tongue, the mystery of the glorious Body, and of the precious Blood, which the King of all nations, the fruit of a noble womb, poured forth as the ransom for the world. Given to us, born for us of a stainless Virgin.” . . . Did you hear it? There’s a hymn within this hymn. And the gist of this “hidden” song is very familiar to us; although, we don’t usually associate it with Holy Thursday or the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s a song we might recognize in these words:
“Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ Veiled in flesh the Godhead see: hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel. Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King!”
There’s a fantastic connection between Holy Thursday, the Body and Blood of Christ, and Christmas Day. We say it every Sunday: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” The Word became Flesh. “This is my body, this is the blood of the covenant.” “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.” The Word of God became Flesh. Not an image of flesh; not a symbol; not a metaphor, but really and truly. The Word became Flesh and Blood. And, hark! the herald the angels sing: “Glory to the newborn King!”
If we believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was born as a real flesh-and-blood infant to the Virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, then we believe just as strongly that Jesus, the Word of God, by the power of the same Holy Spirit, becomes flesh-and-blood here, wrapped in the mere appearance of bread and wine, and laid on the altar.
The Word became Flesh on Christmas Day. And that same Word became flesh again on Holy Thursday. And he becomes flesh again and again, every time we come here and celebrate the Eucharist, every time we call on the Holy Spirit, every time we “do this is memory of” him. We just thought Christmas happened only once a year. But it happens every day. The Word becomes flesh all the time—not metaphorically, not symbolically, but really and truly.
What a beautiful insight our medieval ancestors had. And we can benefit from their wisdom. If we believe in Christmas—if we believe in the Incarnation—then we believe in the flesh-and-blood reality of Jesus present in the Eucharist.
This feast that Jesus asks us to celebrate every year really challenges us to look beyond what we can see and feel. It really challenges us to grow in faith. The Body and Blood of Christ challenge us to go to a place where our human reasoning and our senses can’t help. St. Thomas Aquinas also wrote a hymn about this as well called Tantum ergo (which is actually just the last couple verses of Pange lingua). It goes like this:
“Therefore, so great a Sacrament let us venerate with heads bowed, and let the old practice give way to the new rite; let faith provide a supplement for the failure of the senses.” Let faith provide a supplement for the failure of the senses. Seeing here on the altar the flesh-and-blood presence of Christ takes faith. It takes Catholic faith.
For the first 800 years or so of the Church’s life, there was little written about belief in the “fleshiness” of the Eucharist. And that’s simply because it wasn’t an issue; everybody believed it. But in the 9th Century, there were some who began to see the Eucharist as a metaphor for the Body and Blood. Or they started to see the Body and Blood as not really the Body and Blood, but more as a symbol of our shared life in Christ.
And so, in the 9th Century (and ever since then), there’s been a lot written about the Eucharist. From Day 1, the Church has believed with faith in the Lord that “this is my body; this is my blood of the covenant.” Even though, to our senses it looks like bread, (or a cracker, which is more of what the unleavened bread would have been like at the Last Supper) . . . even though, to our senses, it looks like bread and tastes like bread, and the wine looks like wine, smells like wine and tastes like wine . . . they aren’t.
Our senses and our human reasoning can deceive us. We have here the real Body of Christ, the real Blood of Christ. In the manger at Bethlehem, there was a little baby boy. He looked like any other infant, but he wasn’t. Something else was present there: the living God was present there—Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity; as he is present here in this miracle of incarnation we call the Eucharist.
That’s what happened on that Holy Thursday night—the Word became Flesh, again. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who lived in a land of gloom a light has shone. For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” [Is 9:1,6].
As the infant Jesus came to share our humanity, so Jesus remains with us—not only in Spirit—but in the Flesh. His Body and Blood is a sign of the new and eternal covenant with us; the Eucharist is a flesh-and-blood sign that he will never leave us; not a symbol, but a concrete sign that he is always here for us. And not only that, but it’s a sign that he wants to be within us.
He asks us to eat and to drink, to mingle his Body and Blood with ours. He wants to be one with us—in Spirit and in Body. Then again, what else would we expect between Jesus the Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church? He wants to be one with us—in Spirit and in Body. And being the happy Bride of Christ that we are as the Church, we say: Amen.
The Body of Christ. Amen. The Blood of Christ. Amen. And through this really fantastic mystery of Body and Blood, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of the Word becoming Flesh, we see—hopefully—the mystery of our own transformation. As Christ gives his real Flesh and his real Blood for us, so we turn around and we give our real body and our real blood in love for God and others.
We are a “Eucharistic people;” that is, we help Christ to be reborn again and again in the world—through our own flesh-and-blood. Someone struggles to rake the lawn or blow the snow in winter, and we put our own bodies into action to relieve their stress. A friend is in the hospital, and so we make the effort not only to call or send a card, but to get our flesh-and-blood bodies over to the hospital to be physically present to them. When someone is having a hard day, or maybe an excellent day, we give a hug, we smile, we shake their hand, or give them a pat on the shoulder—all very physical things to let them know that Christ is with them . . . in the flesh.
On this feast day Christ asks us to stop! turn around, and say “What did we celebrate back there on Holy Thursday? What happened that night?” When we take the time to do that, to open our eyes of faith, we see that the Word became flesh, again. Christmas day happened again. The herald angels sang ‘Glory to the newborn King; Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’ God and sinners are brought together again—not by a symbol, not by a metaphor, not by an image—but by the very real Body and Blood of Christ.