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?