Sunday, June 14, 2020

Corpus Christi - The Feast of the Divine Banquet -

I heard of a poll asking people which are their three favorite text messages. The first one is: “I love you,” the second: “I forgive you,” and the third one is, surprisingly, “Dinner is ready.” These three text messages are a good distillation of the gospel message. Eating together, whether it was an everyday meal or a banquet, was a significant part of Jesus’ ministry and the imagery he used in preaching. He used it over and over again. Think of the wedding banquet at Cana where he turned water into wine; or the parable of the banquet where the poor and the outcast are welcomed; or his continuing choice to eat and drink with those considered sinners and unworthy of his company; and, of course, his final meal with his gathered disciples where he first spoke the words that continue to resound throughout the ages and even comprise the name of today’s Solemnity: “This is my body. This is my blood.”

Today’s gospel from John chapter 6 concludes a passage of Scripture that is filled with food and eating imagery, specifically bread. This chapter started with the feeding of the 5000 and continued on through a discussion over whether Jesus would provide more bread as Moses did in the desert. Then it moved on to Jesus’ claiming that he is ‘the bread of heaven.’ In today’s gospel we reach the climax of this section; here Jesus boldly and explicitly states that, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” What does this mean? It is bold language, and debates have raged throughout Christian history over what these words really mean and how to understand them. Now remember, the context of today’s section is a synagogue instruction in Capernaum. The verses immediately following today’s reading say: “After hearing his words, many of his disciples remarked, ‘This sort of talk is hard to endure! How can anyone take it seriously? Many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.’” You could say that the rage began early on. There’s no need to get into the details of debates that ensued throughout history on what Jesus really meant. I would rather focus elsewhere on this Feast of the Sacred Banquet.

We have all heard the expression “You are what you eat.” And I think this is part of what Jesus was trying to communicate to his disciples then and to us today. Once again, I want to refer to Saint Augustine’s incomparable words on this mystery. I keep coming across translations of his words that nuance things differently. “If you receive the Eucharist well, you are what you eat…As you come to communion, you hear the words ‘The Body of Christ’ and you answer ‘Amen’. Be, therefore, members of Christ that your ‘Amen’ may be true…Be what you see. Receive what you already are.” Augustine is saying that when we receive the Bread and Wine, we take into ourselves the very life of Christ. Jesus is telling us that we are to eat and drink of him and his life will then be part of ours, and our life will be part of his. Each time we receive the Eucharist, we grow in this shared life. And there is nothing abstract about the reality of this shared life. Jesus’ stark and vivid language is a reminder that Christian life isn’t just about concepts and ideas and interesting (or not so interesting) debates. Jesus didn’t say: “Think about this.” “Look at this.” And surely, he didn’t say, “Argue about this.” He simply said, “Eat this. Drink this.”

There is no way of completely comprehending or understanding the mystery of the Sacred Banquet that we share. But hopefully we can grow and mature, however incrementally, in our appreciation of the reality and our need for the Eucharist. Our hunger, our very neediness is the pre-requisite for growing in appreciation of this tremendous gift Jesus left us. As we approach the altar table this morning, we can reflect on what it is we are hungry for. Saint Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality.” We are mortal human beings and yet we hunger for immortality. That’s what we are made for. We are created to be divinized. “Whoever eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life.”

As we are fed at this Banquet of Divine Life, we are commanded to go out from here to feed others; to be for others the real flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. What an astounding and challenging reality. As a help in remembering this, I will end with the text message with which I began. Let us receive this text message personally as coming from Jesus: “You are loved. You are forgiven. Dinner is ready.”
Photographs of Corpus Christ procession in the Abbey cloister by Brother Brian. Excerpts from Father Abbot Damian's homily for today's Solemnity.