What we celebrate today on this Feast of Corpus Christi, Body of Christ, of course, is what happened at the Last Supper of Jesus, the night before he died. The church, I think in its wisdom, realizes that during that very busy time of Holy Week with one event after another, one celebration after another, we don’t have enough time to really reflect and have a deep understanding of what happened at that Last Supper and what continues to happen for us. So, we have this special feast after Easter where we go back and try to remember what Jesus did and what it means for us.
I think most of us, when we think of the blessed sacrament, think of the divine presence. We look at the host and we know that somehow this is Jesus. We have, over the centuries, developed a lot of devotions to the blessed sacrament. People will come and kneel at adoration; after all, this is God. Many of us remember seeing the monstrance on the altar with the white host in it, and we look upon that and kneel, adore God.
But I think sometimes we have put too much emphasis on that adoration of thinking this as God and almost making the Eucharist something remote from ourselves, forgetting that it’s more than something we look at and adore; it’s an action — Jesus pouring forth love for us through his death and resurrection. I read one spiritual writer who said that sometimes if you sit in front of the blessed sacrament exposed in the monstrance like that and you really focus your attention on this is Jesus, you sit and you can at some point almost see Jesus in that white host.
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That may sound quite pious and good, but it misses the main ideas about the Eucharist. If we listen today deeply to the reading, we discover much more clearly what this blessed sacrament really is. If we go to the first lesson today, as I mentioned before, this is a sermon that Moses is preaching to the people after they have arrived at the Promised Land. They’re situated; they’re in place. They’re probably already forgetting all the good things that God has done for them: freeing them from their slavery, leading them through the desert.
So Moses reminds them: “Remember how Yahweh your God brought you through the desert for 40 years? He humbled you to test you and know what was in your heart. … God made you experience want. God made you experience hunger. But God gave you manna to eat, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to show you (and this is an important point) by the manna as a symbol that no one lives on bread alone, but that you live on all that proceeds from the mouth of God.” That gives life to us; it’s the word of God.
The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
The manna is food, and it’s a sign of not only feeding us physically, but because it’s given as a gift by God, it’s God feeding us spiritually. It’s God’s word symbolized in that manna. When we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that Jesus is the full revelation of God. That’s what this passage is telling us because in the gospel Jesus says, “I am the living bread,” not just like the manna in the desert, but the living bread, the full revelation of God.
When we come to the Eucharist and we see the Eucharist, take it into our body to nourish our spirit, we can grow in our awareness of who Jesus is and that makes us aware of whom God is because Jesus reveals God to us. Every time we come for this celebration of the Eucharist, we have an opportunity to deepen our knowledge, our awareness of God revealed to us in Jesus. It’s much more than just looking on the Host and adoring God. It’s coming to know God in Jesus.
In our second lesson today, St. Paul reminds us of the great symbolism of the Eucharist. One bread, one cup — we all receive that one bread, that one cup; we become one body. The more we do this together as a parish family, a parish community, the more we are bonded to one another in love. That’s what the Eucharist is intended to do, to help us grow in love for one another, to be bonded as God’s people.
When we come to the Eucharist, it isn’t just, again, to adore Jesus as Son of God, but to take Jesus into our hearts together and be bonded to him and through him to one another. In my experience at this parish family, which I feel very blessed to be able to celebrate with every Sunday, my experience is that you really have bonded as a community and you live together in that love of Jesus. You’re very blessed, but it’s important to keep on deepening that experience, to deepen your union with one another because you are bonded together in the Eucharist.
Finally, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we have an opportunity, again, not just to adore God, but also to carry out what God calls us to do as followers of Jesus. This becomes very clear if you go on a little bit further in that letter of Paul to the church at Corinth where Paul is speaking about the Eucharist and where he gives the first description of what happened at the Last Supper. This is around the year A.D. 55, long before the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written. Paul gives us the first description of Holy Thursday.
But when he does it, he does it in a moment of calling the Corinthians to account. He was angry with them because he says: “To continue with my advice, I cannot praise you, for your gatherings are not for the better but for the worse.” He’s talking about when they gather for the Eucharist. He says it’s not for the better; it’s for the worse. Why? “First, as I have heard when you gather together, there are divisions among you. I believe it. … Your gatherings are no longer the supper of the Lord.”
Here’s why: “For each one eats their own food and while one is hungry the other is getting drunk. Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Perhaps you despise the church of God and desire to humiliate those who have nothing. What shall I say? Shall I praise you? No, for this I cannot praise you.” Then Paul goes on to give what he calls: “The tradition of the Lord that I received and that in my turn I’ve handed on to you. The Lord Jesus, on the night that he was delivered up, took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it saying, ‘This is my body which is broken for you. … In the same manner take ye the cup after the supper. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. So then whenever you eat of this bread, drink from this cup you’re proclaiming the death and resurrection of the Lord.’”
Here comes the very important final line in which Paul tells them why they’re wrong: “Therefore, if anyone eats of the bread or drinks from the cup unworthily, you sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So let each one examine yourself before eating of the bread and drinking of the cup. Otherwise you eat and drink your own condemnation in not recognizing the body.” What Paul is talking about is you don’t recognize the body of Jesus in one another.
He’s describing the way they celebrated in a home. Certain people got a place of honor, got a lot of food and drink, and the poor were pushed to the side, kept away. Paul says that’s not what Jesus wanted. Jesus is in the poor, in those who are neglected, in those who are fleeing from danger. Jesus is in, as he says, “When I was hungry, you gave me food to eat, thirsty you gave me drink, naked and you clothed me, in prison and you visited me. When I was a stranger you took me in.”
Paul is trying to emphasize that what Jesus is teaching us in the Eucharist when we come together in the Eucharist, we are committed to reach out to all people, draw all people together with us so that we can recognize the body of Christ in every person. Instead of, as that spiritual writer says to look at the Host and somehow see Jesus. It’s important to look at the poor person, the refugee, and the one fleeing from danger, the one that needs clothing, food or drink.
Look at that person and see Jesus, not the host. Yes, Jesus is present, but even more important, in our brothers and sisters, especially those who are in need. That’s where you will see Jesus. Again, we’re so blessed because this is exactly the example that Pope Francis gives to us. He goes out (as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago) like he did during Easter week, knocking on the doors of people in poor housing developments near Rome and visiting them. These are the poor, those who are pushed aside.
Pope Francis goes to their homes to visit them. Isn’t that amazing? But it’s true and that’s the example we should be following — drawing people in, reaching out to those who are pushed away, and bringing them back and seeing in each one of them Jesus present in them, coming to us, asking us to welcome him. We do that when we gather here at church as a parish family, but we have to reach beyond ourselves and draw in those in the world where Jesus is especially present.
[Homily given June 18 at St. Philomena in Detroit. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]