Sunday, 18 June 2017

Corpus Christi (Year A)

Readings: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Psalm 147; 2 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

Jesus tells his disciples that the difference between the bread given to the Hebrews in the wilderness and the bread he gives, which is his own flesh for the life of the world, is that the people who ate the first are dead whereas the people who eat the second will live forever. Clearly it does not mean that physical dying can now be bypassed. Everybody dies and everybody who eats the Eucharist also dies. Jesus acknowledges this as well: ‘I will raise him up on the last day’, he says, and it is only people who have died who need raising up on the last day.

So whatever the difference is between the two kinds of bread it is not that one allows its eaters to avoid physical death. What kind of immortality, then, is bestowed by eating the real food which is his flesh and drinking the real drink which is his blood? The bread given to the Hebrews in the wilderness was a miraculous sign to sustain them physically as they were being initiated into the covenant relationship with God. The bread given to the disciples of Jesus, which is his flesh for the life of the world, is a sacramental sign to sustain them in the new life they receive from Him.

In baptism the disciples die and rise to new life, and it is this new life that is sustained by the bread which is the flesh of Jesus for the life of the world. It is not simply a prolongation of our animal life, even on the far side of death, nor is it simply a new level given to this same life. It is a new and eternal life, the life which the Son draws eternally from the Father. The principle of this life, its power and energy, is the Holy Spirit sent from the Father and the Son, to animate the body which  is the Church, to embrace the world, to open the door to eternal life for all.

In the sacramental realization of this feeding the Church twice invokes the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is called down on the bread and wine so that by the power of the Spirit they might become the body and blood of Christ. The Spirit is called down on those who receive this communion in the bread and in the blessing cup, so that by the power of the Spirit they might become one body, one spirit in Christ.

The feast we celebrate today focuses on this sacramental realization of the gift of a new and eternal life. Already received in baptism it is sustained in the Eucharist. Any life requires an initial birth and then an ongoing sustenance, likewise the new life received from Jesus requires the initial birth of baptism and the ongoing sustenance which is the Blessed Eucharist.

This way of communicating life to us is adapted to the kind of creature that we are. It is we who know hunger and thirst. It is we who know the difference between longing and satisfaction. It is we who know when we are far from the energy of this life and when, by God’s grace, it is flowing strongly in us. We know all this physically. It is also how we know what is in our inmost heart and it is how we come to understand that we do not live on bread alone but on everything that comes from the mouth of God.

There is also this analogy between the miraculous gift of manna in the desert and the sacramental gift of Christ’s body and blood. In each case the food given sustains its recipients on a journey. For the Hebrews it was the journey through a wilderness full of physical dangers. For the disciples of Jesus it is a journey through a world full of challenges. The disciples are not taken out of the world and the bread we eat is the flesh of Jesus given not just for us but for the life of the whole world. His work, and our participation in his work, is the transformation of the world.

This is a work of love, yes, but it is also an onerous task. Our participation in this onerous task of love requires, in the first place, the transformation of our hearts and souls if they are to be worthy dwelling places for Him. We need to deal with our own serpents and scorpions also.

Every Eucharistic communion is therefore viaticum, food for the journey. Our final Eucharistic communion is food for the journey from this world to the Father. But every reception of Holy Communion is food for the journey of the Christian life. There are serpents and scorpions, hunger and thirst, that afflict and distract us. Often their trick or their effect is simply to turn us in on ourselves and away from our neighbor and so away from God also. But the new and eternal life, the divine life we receive from the Holy Spirit, is always an ecstatic life. This does not mean that it brings strange and unusual feelings with it. It is ecstatic because it is a life that carries us beyond ourselves, to live like Christ, always for others and for the Father. The divine life flowing in Jesus led him to give the whole of his human life, to pour it out as a sacrificial offering, expressing his love and obedience to the Father. Before that he spent his days at the service of others, teaching and healing, strengthening and redeeming. So his flesh was given for the life of the world and his blood was poured out so that people might be washed in its healing streams.

Remember, says the first reading at Mass today, and do not forget, what the Lord did for you in the forty years of your wandering in the wilderness. Do this in memory of me, Jesus says in every celebration of the Eucharist. Remember and do not forget how the new and eternal life has been won for you. Remember and do not forget how the new and eternal life is sustained in you. Remember and do not forget the body in which you share this new and eternal life, those who sit at this table with you, and all who are called to share one day in the supper of the Lamb.

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