June 2, 2013 –– Corpus Christi Sunday
Genesis 14:18–20 / 1 Corinthians 11:23–26 / Luke 9:11b–17
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
Almost unbelievable to me now, for over thirty years of my ministerial life I honestly did not give one explicit thought to what Jesus meant when he said, This is my body.... I never saw the inherent continuity with the Melchizedek priesthood, or the manna given to the Israelites, or the implications of covenant and eating the sacrifice, or Jesus feeding the 5000.
In my former tradition, Communion meant eating a piece of bread, sipping a little cup of grape juice and piously (with great stress on the need to focus with inner piety) “rememberig” what Jesus did for us. Pious feelings can be good things (but they should not be a barometer of one’s faith). And there is certainly nothing wrong with remembering what Jesus did for us –– we need to do that. But, is that all “Communion” is? Many Protestant Christians believe that is, indeed, all Communion is.
This has caused no small consternation among some people who were so close to my wife and me in our former setting. I still sometimes get critiques of our Catholic beliefs from well-meaning people, and every time it is so obvious there is misinformation and a lack of understanding. I was sent one lengthy critique of the Eucharist written by a man who says he grew up Catholic and was well-catechized (the implication is that he is therefore an authority and his castigation of the Church must be right). His argument then turns to human logic used to defy the Church, and disclaimers on the basis of technicalities. This is one of his claims: “The belief that the nature of the host changed at the consecration did not become an official doctrine of the Catholic Church until the Lateran Council of 1215.” This may be technically true in terms of an explicit formal statement, but it is presented in the article to imply that the Eucharist was a late-developing and “institutionally Catholic” belief having no basis in the early history of the Church. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Recently I read a rather comprehensive overview of writings by the early Church Fathers on the Eucharist. Among the oldest is Ignatius of Antioch, whose life overlapped that of the Apostle John, and he was likely mentored by John. St Ignatius warns c.106 A.D. of “men who have perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.... They even abstain from the Eucharist and the public prayer [the Liturgy – the Mass], because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ....” (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 7 in Early Christian Writings, Penguin Books, 1968, p102–103).
An honest look at the documents of Early Church history offers overwhelming testimony that Jesus’ words were taken literally: This is my body.... this is my blood.
It had bothered me for years that Communion was not taken more seriously in the tradition where I pastored. Even apart from the issue of the literal Real Presence of Jesus, I had an implicit recognition and a gnawing discomfort that we were not doing something that the earliest Christians did regularly and with a great importance.
About mid-way in my journey to the Church (as I look back now), I began to move my congregation toward a more frequent Communion. Actually, I had initiated Communion to every other month when I first came to the congregation (instead of the 3–4 times a year that had been the previous practice). But after coming back from my month at the monastery, I moved our observance to once a month. Remember, we had no fixed liturgy. Pastors had the freedom to shape the congregation within the tolerances of the people. I soon discovered where the lines were with Communion.
As soon as we began monthly Communion, people began to complain. A few people told me that “if we have Communion too often it won’t be special any more.” I wanted to ask the first woman who told me that whether she would be content if her husband said “I love you” only quarterly, and that if he said it too often it would not be “special”! Can a serious I love you be said too much? If my grandchildren run up to me with a hug and an I love you every time they see me, I assure you, it will not cease to be “special.” How much more do we need the regular intimate love of our Lord that he has provided in the mystery of the Eucharist.
The time came when I knew that anything less than weekly Communion would be disobedience on my part. It was also obvious that weekly Communion would never be accepted in the tradition I was serving at the time. I knew I was the one who had changed; resigning was my only option.
It was during this process that I began to look more closely at the claims of the Catholic Church about the Eucharist. The testimonies of the Early Fathers were overwhelming. The biblical connections I had never seen before began to come into focus with amazing continuity. This is my body.... this is my blood.
Then it became obvious: All of Christian Faith is an overwhelming mystery. God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible, was able to “condense” himself into a single Man –– a real human being. When people saw Jesus on earth, they saw.... a man. There was no comprehension at the time that Jesus was the maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. In a parallel way, today we “see” only bread and wine. But through the power of the same Holy Spirit that brooded over Creation, and the power of the Holy Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead, there is a power of the Spirit unleashed through the Church so that the priest –– who is conformed to Christ through a succession going back to the very beginning –– can say these words over the bread and wine: Make holy, therefore, these gifts we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.... This is the faith of the Church. This is the very gift of himself from the One who died and rose from the dead so that our sins can be forgiven, and we can be raised to new life.
This is my body.... this is my blood.