We remember, We Celebrate, We Believe
The second Sunday after Pentecost we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. On this day we remember Jesus’ words and actions at the Last Supper, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. He told them to take it and eat it. It was his body, given for them. They were to do the same in remembrance of him. He also took the cup of wine that would normally close the meal with a toast to God. He told his friends it was the cup of the new covenant in his blood. Again, “Do this … in remembrance of me.”
How, you ask, do we know this? It’s there in the Gospels, but they were mostly written later. Today, however, we hear one of the earliest voices telling of this event. St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, tells us of Jesus’ words and actions on this last night of his life. (1 Cor 11:23-26) Paul doesn’t say he was an eyewitness. He wasn’t and never makes that claim. But he tells us that he is passing on to us what he had been told by the eyewitnesses. This is what Jesus did and said.
It’s important to understand what it means to remember in Jewish tradition. Remembering means to enter again into the reality of what happened. When we remember, we are present at the event. When we share in the bread and wine at Mass, we are present with the disciples in that upper room when Jesus spoke those words and shared that bread and wine. A traditional Jewish saying goes like this, “Our ancestors crossed the Red Sea and our feet are wet.” Jesus gave that bread and wine to his friends, and we receive his body and blood just as they did. We are now part of the New Covenant with God.
OK, so why the emphasis on eating and drinking a sacrificial victim? And how can bread and wine take the place of a real animal sacrifice?
Humans have a long history of offering something of value as a sacrifice to their deities. It may be to ask for a favorable outcome in daily activities. It may be to ask the deity to have mercy and take away something that is causing hardship to the community. It may be to give thanks for blessings received. There are many reasons for offering a sacrifice.
In pastoralist communities, especially before money began to be used commonly, a gift of a young animal as sacrifice was not uncommon. The animal might be killed and the entire body burned in sacrifice. Sometimes, choice parts of the animal were burned and the rest was shared and eaten by the priests or together with the community. Blood of the animal might be poured on the altar and burned as part of the sacrifice too.
For the Hebrew people, the blood of a lamb held a powerful meaning. It was the blood of the lambs sacrificed for the meal shared by the people on the first Passover that marked their doors and protected their children from the Angel of Death who moved through Egypt, killing the firstborn children of people and animals. This truly was blood that marked a covenant of protection between God and his people.
We see a different tradition of sacrifice in the first reading, from the book of Genesis (14:18-20). Abram, not yet known as Abraham, had entered the land promised to him by God, along with his brother, Lot, and their extended family. They had been there many years already, including a time in Egypt. Abram was living in the western part of the land and Lot had moved with his family to the eastern side.
There were many kings in the area and a great battle broke out among them. Lot was captured by those in the east. Abram gathered a large group of men from his side and set out to rescue Lot. His actions were successful. It was quite a battle and a major victory for Abram and his allies. The victorious kings gathered to celebrate with Abram and praise his success. One of the men who came was Melchizedek. He was known as king of Salem and was a priest. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to offer in sacrifice to God. He offered the sacrifice and blessed Abram, describing him as “blessed by God most High, the creator of heaven and earth.” As was customary, Abram gave a tenth of what he had in thanks to the priest.
Melchizedek is remembered in Jewish history and celebrated in Psalm 110. “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Jesus is also described as a priest forever, the new high priest who needed only to offer sacrifice once to redeem all the people – to restore harmony between the Most High and humanity.
We again see bread blessed, broken, and shared in today’s Gospel. St. Luke (9:11b-17) tells of the day a large crowd of people went out into the countryside to hear Jesus and bring their sick to be healed. At the end of the day, it was time to eat. Jesus’ disciples asked him to send the people to the local villages to get something to eat. But Jesus responded, “Give them some food yourselves.” This was not at all feasible to the minds of the disciples. There were around 5,000 men in the crowd! (That didn’t necessarily include any women and children.) They had among themselves only five loaves and two fish. Nowhere nearly enough to feed all of those people.
But Jesus was undeterred. “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty.” (Fifty people would be about like having a good family party.) He took the little bit of food he and the disciples had, offered a blessing, broke the loaves and fish, and gave them to the disciples to feed the crowd.
Who knows whether people laughed or stayed solemnly quiet at this bold action of faith. But food was in plenty for all. In fact, there was more than enough. After all had eaten their fill, the scraps were picked up and filled twelve baskets! Did people share what they had brought with them? Not at all unlikely. Does that make it less of a miracle? Not really. We humans don’t always share very freely.
One commentator on the Gospels, Stephen Wilbricht, CSC, in a series of explanations for Lectors and readers of the Gospels, has noted that this story is placed between the account of the time Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the good news and the first time that Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. The preaching is followed by service (the feeding of the hungry). Out of that service, came the realization that the time of salvation was at hand. The Messiah had come at last.
The fact that there were twelve baskets of food left is also important. Twelve tribes of Israel. Twelve disciples. Twelve baskets of food. This is enough for all and represents all.
We remember. We celebrate. We believe.
Today we remember what Jesus has done for us. We celebrate and participate in it. We believe what we have heard. We also believe what we have seen and experienced. We have seen communities of peoples of all nations coming together as one family of God. We have seen resources shared. We see work for social justice. We hope for peace and security for all to return to our world.
This day we begin a three-year celebration of Renewal of our understanding and celebration of this mystery of Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood. We celebrate this gift in our Eucharist. It is the “source and summit” of our lives as Christians, as taught by the bishops in Lumen Gentium – the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church – at Vatican II.
Marty Haugen wrote a song and Mass setting many years ago that sums it all up nicely. The refrain goes like this:
“We remember how you loved us to your death, and still we celebrate for you are here; and we believe that we will see you when you come in your glory, Lord. We remember, we celebrate, we believe.”
Let us remember today and in the days to come. Let us celebrate this great gift. And Lord, help us to believe always this great good news of God’s presence and loving entrance into our lives.