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?

Corpus Christi – “The Blood of the Testament”


EX 24:3-8; PS 116:12-13, 15-16, 17-18; HEB 9:11-13; MK 14:12-16, 22-26

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?


Sunday’s Readings: Corpus Christi, the True Bread

panisDT 8:2-3; PS147:12-13, 14-15, 19-20; 1 COR10:16-17; JN 6:51-58

In the Eucharist the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the daily miracle that we celebrate especially on this week’s great Solemnity of Corpus Christi. The word transubstantiation, which sounds a lot fancier in English than it does in Latin, simply means, “it is changed.” What is “standing” (-stant-) “underneath” the apperances (-sub-), the real reality of the thing, is now “different” (trans-). When he says, “this is my Body” . . . well, all we can say is, yes, I guess it “isn’t” really bread anymore, it “is” his Body – even though it still looks like bread.

But in order to fully appreciate what that means, with this Sunday’s readings, I would like to spend some time pondering the opposite point. Yes, the bread has become his body – but it is also true to say that his body has become our bread. “I am the living bread,” he says in our reading from John 6. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh.”

The Jews ask, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It’s not such a stupid question. The answer is, “transubstantiation.” But we do well to think about it a little.

Sometimes, when I emphasize Thomas Aquinas’s teaching about how it matters that Jesus comes to us under the form of bread, my students ask, “what if there was one of those Eucharistic miracles, and it became flesh?” They laugh – but I think it’s an important point – when I respond, “if it turns into flesh, don’t eat it.” In the Eucharist, he gives himself as bread.


In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses teaches the people in a mysterious way. He says God wanted to “find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger.”

Now, there’s two sides here, the spiritual and the physical. The ultimate point is their spiritual relation to God. But they learn through their physical relationship. The conclusion will be, “not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.” But the way God teaches them is with manna, bread.

Just as they rely physically on the bread God gives them, they are to rely spiritually on his word, his commandment. The physical sign of bread reminds them of the deeper spiritual truth that God himself is the source of life – and above all, the life of their soul. He is the true bread. (Bread even for angels, who don’t need physical bread.)


Our reading from First Corinthians is Paul’s central teaching on the Eucharist. Paul knows not the obscure manna in the wilderness, but the real body and blood of Christ. But he continues to insist on the symbolic meaning of bread.

“The bread that we break,” he says, “is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” And the cup “a participation in the blood of Christ.” (Notice, by the way, the phrase, “the bread we break”: in the New Testament, “breaking bread” is the central phrase for the Eucharist. It’s not a normal expression in Greek.)

Now, this “participation” has three interrelated meanings. First, it means the Real Presence. The bread (he still calls it bread, though we know it technically isn’t) IS the body of Christ. It “participates,” shares in the reality of Christ’s body.

But second, and in fact even more powerfully, it gives us a “participation” in the Body of Christ. The Fathers of the Church said, “the [Eucharistic] Body makes the Body [which is the Church]” – in fact, they called the Church the “true body.”

Third, and consequently, this Body gives us communion with one another. The word translated “participation” is actually the Greek koinonia. Through the bread we have communion – union – with God, and because of that, we are also in communion with one another. Paul underlines this: “we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

The bread symbolism remains important: because the Body of Christ has become bread, we can make it our source of life, and our act of table-fellowship. This only works because he has become bread for us.


John, instead of koinonia, uses the word “dwelling,” or “remaining.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” But then he emphasizes life-giving: “Just as . . . I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

Let us not forget that Jesus becomes our bread, our nourishment, our table of fellowship and our source of life.

Corpus Christi: The Thursday after Holy Trinity

Corpus-Christi-Holy-Quotes-Sayings-Wallpapers-Messages-SMS-3Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ – or it would be, if it didn’t get shunted off, in most of our dioceses, to Sunday.

(The argument is that in rural and under-staffed parishes, a major feast day requires a coordination of many part-time workers, which is just too hard to pull off during the week. Theoretically, I think it’s a shame to lose the sense that yes, the liturgy can and should interrupt our work week! But practically, we should always be willing to give our pastors the benefit of the doubt, just as we want the benefit of the doubt for the challenges of our own vocations. If they say they can’t make Corpus Christi happen on Thursday, we should be merciful with them.)


Now, this “Thursday after Holy Trinity – which is the Sunday after Pentecost . . . which is the seventh Sunday after Easter” is such an odd way to schedule things that it deserves our attention.

Corpus Christi is on Thursday because Thursday is the day of the Last Supper – way back during Holy Week. In our weekly rhythms, where Friday we remember the Cross, Saturday Mary’s waiting, and Sunday the Resurrection, Thursday too can be marked by a remembrance of the Last Supper, one of the key moments in the history of salvation.

Corpus Christi relives Holy Thursday, but under a particular aspect. So much is going on that night: we are anticipating the Lord’s death, entering the Triduum, recalling the institution of the priesthood, washing feet. But of course we are also recalling the institution of the Eucharist. And that particular aspect is worthy of a second run of Holy Thursday, another Thursday where we specifically recall the giving of Christ’s Body.

That’s why we celebrate it (or, in theory, would celebrate it) on Thursday.


But why now? Why this particular Thursday?

The simplest answer is that now it’s Ordinary Time, and there’s nothing else to compete with. This gets close to the answer – though let us note that strictly speaking, that’s really wrong. In fact, in Ordinary Time what it competes with is the orderly reading of the Bible. That’s what will get wiped out by moving it to Sunday. That was, in fact, a key point in the liturgical reform of Vatican II: we should try to live Ordinary Time well, not run it over with other feasts and exceptions. In one sense, the Thursdays in Easter are more “open” to getting bumped by Corpus Christi than is Ordinary Time.

Yet the real reason this reliving of Holy Thursday comes so long after Holy Week is precisely so that we can live out each part of the paschal mystery. Easter deserves its fifty days. And more to the point, Corpus Christi is not part of Easter.

In one sense, Corpus Christi is part of Holy Week – and in another sense, it is part of the time after Pentecost, the time of the Church, Ordinary Time. Corpus Christi, in fact, celebrates Holy Week radiating out into Our Time: Holy Thursday, and the whole Paschal Triduum, made present to us today.


Pentecost is the fulfillment of Easter, the radiating out of the heart of Christ into his Church. At the end of his forty days, Christ goes up to heaven – and then launches us on our way, with Pentecost.

Holy Trinity is the completion of Pentecost. In fact, Pentecost used to have an octave, an eight-day celebration, so that Holy Trinity is simply the last day of Pentecost. (Vatican II simplified some of these things: let’s just emphasize the fifty days of Easter, not fifty days, then seven more, etc. The same thing happened before Lent: the old season of Septuagesima, the pre-Lent preparation for Lent, was lovely . . . but let’s just focus on the forty days.)

Holy Trinity, for all its mysteriousness, is simply a celebration of the Father and the Son being one – and the Spirit they send us being part of that unity, so that Pentecost comes from the Father and the Son, and unites us back to them.

Corpus Christi is only four days later, the Thursday after Holy Trinity. After we have completed the Easter mystery with Pentecost-Holy Trinity, we take the very next Thursday, the first Thursday back into the ordinary year, to return to Holy Thursday, and find in it the source of our union. We find in Corpus Christi, in fact, the primary place where we receive the Holy Spirit, our entrance into the unity of Father and Son.

How could we better meditate on the unity between Easter, Pentecost, and the Mass?