The Last Supper, Jaume Huguet 1463, Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain.
While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body.” Mark 14:22
During the course of salvation history as recounted in the Old Testament, God slowly revealed many qualities and characteristics which had been unknown to the Hebrew people. These were in many ways very different from the qualities worshipped in the pagan idols of the peoples surrounding the Holy Land back then. One quality in particular was certainly unique to the Jewish God. In Exodus chapter three, God, speaking to Moses in the burning bush, revealed the sacred name Yahweh, or I AM WHO AM, and thereby established a personal relationship between God and Moses, and through Moses to the entire people. In the days I taught religion, when we came to this section of the course, I would ask the students if anyone had a friend but you didn’t know his/her name. Quite often there would be one or two who said they did. Carefully pursuing this, it would become quickly clear that this was unusual, and they would themselves sometimes admit this, because how could you have friends and not know their names? Knowing God’s name, then, which had been unknown until that moment (the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is a title, not a name), meant there was a deeper link between God and the Hebrew people. Then when the people arrived at Mount Sinai, having escaped the slavery of Egypt, this relationship became even deeper. God offered to be their God if they were prepared to be his people. How could that be? By accepting God’s law and promising to live by it. In other words, to obey the 10 Commandments. They agreed, and so it was. Today’s first reading then described what happened, a ceremony to solemnize the agreement. An altar was erected symbolizing God, and surrounded by 12 pillars, representing the 12 tribes, the people of Israel. Animals were sacrificed, and their blood preserved. Half was poured over the altar, and other half sprinkled over the whole people. A strange procedure, but heavily weighed with symbolism. Remember that the night they were released from slavery by the Egyptian pharaoh, they had daubed the blood of a sacrificed lamb, one year old and spotless, over their doorposts, and the angel of death passed over their homes as the first-born sons of the Egyptians died. Therefore, the blood symbolized life, not death as it preserved the Hebrew first-born sons from the angel of death. So at the foot of Mount Sinai, the blood of the animals splashed over the altar, representing the invisible God, and the people represented the life of God linked to the life of the people, in a covenant which the Jewish people recognize to this day as the covenant between them and God sealed in blood. So the blood of Passover night and the blood of the Covenant both were symbols of life.
The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci 1490s, Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy.
Today’s gospel from Mark is about Jesus and his friends preparing and celebrating the Passover, as God had instructed his people 1000 years before to do every year, and done right to this day. Except this time it was different. The unleavened bread they used (again from the original Passover night, when the food had to be prepared hurriedly, so there was no time for leavened bread dough to rise) was taken by Jesus who blessed it and declared that they had to “take and eat for this is my body”. Similarly, he took the wine at table, blessed that too, and handed it to them saying “take and drink for this is my blood of the covenant”. The gospel of Luke is clearer, where Jesus says this is my blood of the new covenant (Luke 22:20), and at Mass the priest says that the wine is the blood of the new and eternal covenant. In other words, Jesus raised the feast of the Sinai covenant to an entirely new level, declaring that the blood of the new covenant was sealed with none other than his own, not the blood of sacrificed animals. He linked his own life to us in the consecrated wine of the Mass, now his own blood. It is impossible to imagine a deeper, more profound or intimate relationship between God and us: we are told to take and eat, take and drink none other than the body and blood of Christ himself. How closer can we get to the life of God than this? Hence the relationship between us and God is total. God’s life enters our very bodies, to strengthen us and guide us in the ways and truth of God.
Now, just a little note about Christian history. At the Reformation, this whole belief and teaching was heavily questioned, and even dismissed by some reformers. Several of them claimed that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were symbolic of Jesus’ presence, and therefore not real, as the Catholic (and Orthodox) church proclaims. So the term “Real Presence (of God)” refers to this distinction between the two. Many other protestant churches, however, declared belief in the real presence of the Lord at the Lord’s Supper. The Catholics, however, declared in no uncertain terms that the consecrated bread was and is indeed Our Lord, truly present among us, and even developed rituals designed to demonstrate this belief loudly and clearly.
Corpus Christi Procession, Morogoro, Tanzania.
A Monstrance, http://www.marianland.com/veritas/10_443.html
The two photographs immediately above show this conviction in practice. The first photo above was taken in Morogoro in Tanzania at a Corpus Christi Sunday procession. Such processions are normally reserved for today’s feast, but in Lourdes, in southern France, it takes place every day. Lourdes is the town where, by tradition, Bernadette Soubirous was graced with visions of Our Lady, the mother of Jesus, as the Immaculate Conception, in the mid-19th century. In the course of these visions, Bernadette, following the vision’s instructions, unearthed a rivulet of water, which over the years has become closely associated with healing miracles. Although the church has only recognized a handful of miracles as undoubted (67 since 1858), very many more people have claimed to have been cured there than that. Many have taken place during the course of the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, when the consecrated bread is carried before the faithful. Many parishes throughout the world on this day will have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament through the streets near their church as you can see above. In this way, the neighborhood and its people can witness the belief and devotion of Jesus’ followers as they honor and respect his Body in the consecrated bread. For such purposes, the consecrated bread is placed in a monstrance, an elaborate vessel designed purely for these occasions, as in the first photograph above and also seen below. Such an event in a way shows that Jesus is a real and present neighbor! These are a tradition dating from the 13th century, and are generally limited to the Catholic Church. The same idea rests with the Catholic ritual known as Benediction, where the gathered faithful are blessed with the consecrated bread, the real presence of Christ. .
Pope Francis blesses the congregation at Benediction in St. Peter’s Basilica, New Year’s Eve, 2015.
So all this is an expression of belief, hope and trust. It is a simple statement of belief in Jesus’ words “This is my body, this is my blood” and, additionally, in Luke 22:19 “Do this in remembrance of me”. And so we do, at every Mass. The feast of Corpus Christi displays not only the Eucharist but has built traditions based on it, all declaring the Catholic belief in Jesus really present among us here and now. All this makes the dismissal command at Mass all the easier, perhaps, to obey: Go and announce the gospel of the Lord, because we take the Lord with us having received his body and blood at communion. One final thought. The Protestant churches which deny the real presence tend to be called fundamentalist, taking every word of the bible as literal truth, such as the universe being created in six days, something the Catholic Church does not accept as scientific reality. However, when it comes to the Words of Institution (“This is my body….”), the Catholics become fundamentalist and the fundamentalists become more flexible, if that is the word. Intriguing.
Blessed Sacrament Procession, Lourdes, France, 2013.