Corpus Christi Sunday: Thanksgiving


GEN 14:18-20; PS 110:1,2,3,4; 1 COR 11:23-26; LK 9:11b-17

This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Now, the real day for Corpus Christi is the Thursday after the octave of Pentecost, that is, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Last week we were talking about octaves, and how a single feast is drawn out over a long time. The reason we celebrate Corpus Christi on this Thursday is that it is the very next Thursday (not counting the weeks-long celebration of Easter) after Holy Thursday. Holy Thursday contains so much. On this “next” Thursday, we separate out just the element of the Eucharist.

(Of course, in the United States we transfer the feast to Sunday. This is because of the challenges of coordinating Masses in far-flung dioceses. I used to get annoyed about transferring feasts. But hey, it’s the priests’ and bishops’ job to figure out these details, not mine. My job is to enjoy the liturgy. Kvetching doesn’t help.)


In the three-year cycle of the post-Vatican II liturgy, we get different angles on this liturgy. This year, we focus on thanksgiving.

The first reading is Abraham’s mysterious encounter with the priest Melchizedek. Melchizedek, of course, gets a lot of play in Hebrews as a precursor of Christ. Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord,” which we pray in this Mass, identifies the Messiah as a priest “in the order of Melchizedek.”

But a nice place to go to appreciate Melchizedek is in the Roman Canon, Eucharistic Prayer One, where after the consecration, the priest prays:

accept [these offerings], as once you were pleased to accept

the gifts of your servant Abel the just,

the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith,

and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek,

a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.

Melchizedek is portrayed as one of the models of offering perfect sacrifice – and a model that helps explain the others.

Now, that’s surprising, because in our reading this Sunday, we see that his sacrifice hardly fits our definition of sacrifice. “Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram.” He invokes God as “creator of heaven and earth . . . who delivered your foes into your hand” – but he doesn’t destroy anything. Doesn’t sacrifice mean death and destruction?

The tradition’s answer is, no it doesn’t. Sacrifice is an act of thanksgiving and worship, manifested with material things. We have a fine model of sacrifice in the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The turkey (one hopes) does not get burned, it gets eaten. And yet that sacred banquet is itself an act of giving thanks to God most high, creator of heaven and earth, who provides and protects and gives us a place of rest.

Melchizedek gives thanks and praise, as we do in the Eucharist – it is right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give thanks and praise, which is why it is called Eucharist, thanksgiving.


The Gospel reading this Sunday is also surprising. It is not the Last Supper – we hear about that only in the Epistle. It is the feeding of the five thousand. Now of course, in John 6, that apostle takes the occasion of the multiplication of loaves to give us Jesus’ central discourse on the Eucharist. But this year we read Luke.

All we have is Jesus: “looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” But the language is surprisingly reminiscent of the Mass: “and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples.” That line, “with eyes raised to heaven” isn’t in any of the accounts of the Last Supper – the Roman Canon takes it from the multiplication of the loaves.

What are we to make of this? Again, the deeper point is Eucharist, thanksgiving, not destruction. Jesus gives them (as John tells us he said over and over at the multiplication of the loaves) not the bread of death, but the bread of life. He feeds them with finest wheat – his very life – and they are filled with praise and joy and thanksgiving.


Our epistle is 1 Corinthians 11, where Paul gives his own account of the Last Supper. He tells us the Eucharist was established “on the night he was handed over,” and “as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Yes, it does call to mind his death – but as we await his coming. This eschatological aspect of the Eucharist reminds us that he is not dead, he is victorious. His death is the mystery we pass through on the way to his life and triumph.

And so “this cup is the new covenant in my blood,” the chalice, as the Roman Canon says, “of everlasting salvation.” We are filled not with death, but with “every grace and heavenly blessing.” We celebrate his triumph with hymns of praise and not with destruction, but with a festal banquet. The Eucharist is joy.

How could you express greater thankfulness to God?

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Confession

seven sacramentsAfter a long break, we return to the end of our series on the Our Father and the sacraments.

Our point is that the Our Father can help us think about the sacraments – and thinking about the sacraments can help us pray the Our Father well. When we say, “Give us this day our daily bread,” we can make a spiritual communion – and in thinking about the Eucharist, we can make those words meaningful. And we can do the same thing with the rest of the Our Father and the other six sacraments.


Today we consider the penultimate petition of the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The connection to Confession is obvious: both are about the forgiveness of our sins. But we can go deeper than the obvious.

The sacraments confer grace, but they do it through tangible means. Our sins are not forgiven in a way that leaves us out, as if some magic happens elsewhere than in our hearts. Our sins are forgiven in us.

This is expressed, first of all, in the very praying of this petition of the Our Father. Our sins are forgiven by us asking for forgiveness. They are forgiven when we acknowledge both our sin and God’s mercy.

We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.

To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.


This is why, to the question why we “have to” confess our sins to a priest, the best answer is to express our joy that we “get to” go to confession. The forgiveness of our sins is not something we want to avoid. It is not something we want to minimize. It is something we want to celebrate.

Confession is, of course, frightening. It is supposed to be frightening. Contrition (or attrition) means our sin makes us sad, tristis. The whole point of confessing our sin is that we realize that our sin is awful.

But we realize, too, that God’s mercy is wonderful. We solve the fear of our sinfulness not by ignoring it, but by feeling the caress of God’s mercy upon it.

We do that through the ministry of ordained priests. Wonder of wonders! The point of ordained priests is not that they are great, holy guys – in fact, it is precisely not that. The point is that they are ordained, whatever wretches they might be. The point is that they have received the special touch of Christ that is ordination.

We confess not to the priest, but to Christ. In the East, there is a practice of confessing in front of the icons, to make this point clear. But the priest makes Christ concrete. We want to hear his voice. We want to experience the shame of confessing our sin – because it is in that shame that we can feel the caress of God’s mercy.

Thus thinking of confession helps give substance to our prayer “Forgive us our trespasses.” That is the whole point of the sacraments: to give substance to words that can be said with so little seriousness. I pray the Our Father carelessly – until I imagine kneeling down in the confessional.


But the greater wonder is in the second part: “As we forgive.” This part is so important that in the Sermon on the Mount, it is the only part of the Our Father on which Jesus comments: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Mt 6:14).

The sacraments are powerful. They have an effect. They do something.

That is why another essential aspect of Confession, along with confessing to the priest and feeling sorrow for our sin, is penance. Contrition makes no sense if we do not change. Our penance – or, technically, “satisfaction,” which means, “doing enough” – is our first steps in the right direction.

Without those steps, our contrition is meaningless. Without those steps, it is as if we don’t really take sin seriously, don’t really care about our lack of love. Without those small first steps, it is as if the sacrament has changed nothing.

But Christ pours his grace into us. He absolves us – if we bothered to translate the word, we should say he “unbinds us,” “unties us,” lets us loose from our sin. The gentle caress of Christ’s mercy heals us and lets us go free from the suffering of sin.

The Our Father expresses this freedom, these steps in a new direction, by infusing the very experience of forgiveness with this new-found spirit of love: our being forgiven is inseparable from our learning to forgive. God’s mercy does not leave us unchanged, but gives birth to mercy in our own hearts. God’s love makes us lovers.

Where do you need to feel God’s mercy today? How could you experience it?

The Confiteor and the Profession of God’s Mercy

kyrieIn this year of Mercy, we do well to rediscover the prayers for mercy in the Mass.

Technically, we say that the Mass begins with the “Penitential Rite.” But we might do better to say we begin with the profession of mercy. We begin the Mass by professing our need for God – and his unbounded generosity.

In the sacrament of Confession, we dig into God’s mercy by thinking specifically about our sins. This is an essential complement to the Mass. And yet in the Mass we don’t take too much time to think about our sin. In the Mass, we are focused on God’s mercy.

This is the right way to start. In the readings, we continue to meditate on God’s generosity – the myriad ways of his generosity through all the pages of the Bible. (One way to listen to those readings: now and then silently pray, “O Lord, mercy.”) Always his mercy on our need.

In the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we give thanks and receive the ultimate gift. Mercy, mercy, mercy.

And so we begin, we set the stage for the whole Mass that will follow, by calling for mercy, celebrating mercy.


The older part of this celebration of mercy is the Kyrie. This is the original litany, once sung in processions on the way to Mass: have mercy, have mercy, have mercy.

I don’t think it’s helpful to criticize the liturgy; we should live it and love it, as we love the Church that gives it to us. But if there were one tiny thing I could change about the liturgical reform, it would be to restore the ninefold Kyrie. Now the priest says, “Lord have mercy,” we repeat; he says, “Christ have mercy, we repeat; etc. But it used to be just a little more complicated, with each one said three times instead of two. One of the ways it was celebrated was to go back and forth in sort of an odd way: after the priest says the third “Lord have mercy,” the people say the first “Christ have mercy,” etc.

Well, it’s an insignificant little detail – but the point is, the Kyrie is a time to dig into these words, to spend a little extra time on them, to luxuriate in the word mercy.

I use the word mercy when I teach my classes about Gregorian chant. The only point of chant, really, is to spend a little more time on the words. Mercy is the best example: apart from singing, there’s no way to enjoy that word as long as we ought to enjoy it. Gregorian chant is not designed to take forever – but it is designed to spend just a few more moments enjoying that word: Lord, have mercy.

Until the translations of the 1970s, Kyrie eleison was one of the few vestiges of the Greek liturgy. Even in Latin, you sing these words in Greek. Why? To remember that it is one of our oldest, most beloved prayers, our original inheritance. Before there was any Latin tradition at all, there was Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.


 It was in early medieval France, in perhaps the 800s, that the Confiteor was added before the Kyrie. In fact, there’s a different spirit to the Confiteor. Where the Kyrie is said with hands raised in the form of the Cross – publicly, openly, to God, together – the Confiteor is said with hands united, looking down, introspectively.

The Confiteor is a preparation for the Kyrie. Before we sing the simple, spectacular hymn of God’s mercy, we confess our need. The first thing to know in discovering the Confiteor is that its introspection is not the point. We are not at Mass to say mea culpa, but to say Kyrie eleison. But mea culpa helps us enter into Kyrie eleison.

The greatest glory of the Confiteor is its actual petition. After saying mea culpa, we do not say, “I ask you to accept me anyway.” We say, “I ask you to pray for me.”

Here is a simple, magnificent expression of the true nature of mercy. Mercy does not leave us alone. Mercy does not leave us as we were. Mercy comes to our aid. “I am a sinner, my brother and sisters! Help me! May God help me!” With that little insight, we can launch more profoundly into the simple hymn of mercy that follows.

Lord, have mercy! Lord, help me!

How could you practice greater devotion to the Kyrie?

Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

PRV 8:22-31; PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-5; JN 16:12-15

This Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, the most obscure but also most glorious mystery of our faith.

Historically, this feast has two origins. First, it is the Octave of Pentecost. In the early middle ages, there grew a practice of recelebrating a feast one week afterwards, and every day in between. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter: it is like the whole week repeats the glory of Easter, and the liturgy even says that “today” is Easter throughout. One day cannot contain its glories. Christmas, too, has an octave. Pentecost was the third to get an octave – and after that, they started giving octaves to all sorts of lesser feasts.

Now, Easter season is the octave of octaves. Pentecost, the Sunday after seven weeks of seven, is the final day of this super-octave. It seems to be in for this reason that they dropped the Pentecost octave in the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II – we should think of Pentecost as part of Easter, not a separate season. But we retain Trinity Sunday as kind of a reduplication of Pentecost – that is, as a celebration that Jesus the Son of God, the victor of Easter, and the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts, are truly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.


There was also an independent tradition that at some places had a Trinity Sunday as the final Sunday before Advent, as the culminating feast of the Church year. The readings at the end of the year point to the end of time, and the readings of Advent to the second coming of Christ. Thus a feast was added to ponder the final mystery, the mystery in which all things culminate, the life of God.

And in fact, before Vatican II the liturgy for the feast focused less on the mystery of the Trinity than on the mystery of God. The first reading (they didn’t used to have an Old Testament reading) was from Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?

The Gospel had the Baptismal formula from the Great Commission, but juxtaposed with Romans and the other prayers of the day, the point seemed only to be that we are baptized into the mystery of God. That is part of what Trinity Sunday does: it just leads us to think about God. It is the feast of God – and the feast of the mysteriousness, the unthinkability of God.

Preachers are sometimes scared of Trinity Sunday. But we should dwell on that: that we cannot understand God is precisely the point.


And yet the readings of the reformed liturgy do lead us into a meditation on the three persons. The first reading, from Wisdom, talks about the wisdom, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made (as John says in his prologue). Although the tradition would probably focus on the Son, you can think of it speaking of the Spirit, too: “When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep,” etc.

We ponder, at the end of this Easter season, the true identity of the Son and the Spirit. True God, in the beginning with God.


The first reading from the New Testament, from Romans, is more specific.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access.”  The whole point of the original controversies about the Trinity, in the fourth century, was that Jesus can only give us access to God because he is God – and man. A bridge must reach to both sides: if he is less than God, he cannot connect us to God. But he is that great, that awesome – and our redemption is that great.

So too the Spirit: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Not something less than God, but God himself, as love. How great is our dignity!

And this is our hope even in “afflictions”: through the trials of life, we are in union with God himself, nothing less.


Most specific of all, of course, are the words of Jesus, from the prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The Spirit “will take from what is mine and declare it to you,” and “everything that the Father has is mine.” Jesus can lead us to the Father because he is true God, nothing less. The Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, unites us to Jesus because he is true God, nothing less.

How great is the mystery of God! And how great is our Redemption! Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

How would your day be different if you really believed that God himself was at work in your heart?