This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. In the simplified liturgy after Vatican II, it is called “The Body and Blood of Christ,” though in the past there was a separate feast for the Blood, July 1, and there is still a tradition of thinking about the Eucharist in June and the Precious Blood in July.
The Gospel reading takes us back to Holy Week. This year we are reading Mark, so we get Mark’s account of the Last Supper. This backward reference is the liturgical key to the feast. Holy Thursday is a busy day: such an important feast, and there are so many things to think about. So a separate Thursday was set aside to think just about the Eucharist. But we celebrate Easter for seven weeks, and then Pentecost for a week after that, so really, this week is the very first free Thursday. (That’s kind of funny.)
Yes, it should be on Thursday, and yes, the Bishops always transfer it to Sunday. But until we have been bishops (that is, never) let us lay off criticizing their prudential judgments. That could be a nice way of remembering the feet-washing part of the Eucharist: Christ doesn’t give us his body so that we can tear one another apart. Let us focus not on our judgment of the bishops, but on this great gift to us.
This year, the readings focus on the Precious Blood. In the Gospel, let us just notice two points. First, in the Synoptic Gospels, the Last Supper is introduced with “when they sacrificed the Passover lamb.” We imagine the blood of Christ shed. Perhaps when we hear “a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water” we should think of the union between the blood of Christ and Baptism – and Baptism as our preparation for the Eucharist.
Second, Jesus’s words about his blood are more complicated than those about his body. First he simply says, “Take it; this is my body.” But then he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
The Roman Canon used to make it clear, too, that the blood specifically is the “mystery of faith.” The blood is significant. . . .
And so in the reading from Hebrews, too, we hear, “he entered once for all into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.” What is going on with this “blood of the covenant”?
The richest reading this week is perhaps the first, which tells us of the original Passover, in Exodus. This is the symbolic world that Jesus perfects with his own blood.
At the end of the reading, Moses “took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you.’” When in Matthew’s Gospel the Jews says, “His blood be on us, and on our children,” they are not embracing their guilt. In the Jewish tradition, this is about accepting Christ himself. Those are the words we should say.
Now, there’s a bit of a controversy about translation. Nowadays we often use the word “covenant,” which talks about mutual relationship. That’s definitely present in this reading. The people say, “We will do everything that the LORD has told us.” They offer sacrifice. And the book of the Law is called “the book of the covenant.” “Covenant” nicely describes how this is a two-way relationship.
But we can learn something from the older usage, which translated the same Greek and Hebrew word as “testament.” Testament seems above all to refer to a will, a promise to give an inheritance to someone when you die. The New Testament often invokes exactly that idea. A testament is not a two-way relationship: one side gives, the other receives.
We could almost translate this as “promise”: God’s promise to us. And then we might think of our moral obligations, and our obligation to sacrifice, not as upholding our half of the deal but as our inheritance. The Law is not what we give to God – it is what God gives to us, sheer gift.
So too the Eucharist. It is not our end of the deal. Christ’s Precious Blood is given to us as sheer gift, his “testament” to us. The Mass is something we do – and something we give thanks for getting to do. Thank God we have been given his blood to “splash on the altar.” His blood be on us and on our children!
How could we express greater gratitude for the Mass in our daily life?