Corpus Christi – June 26, 2011 – St. John’s
This feast enables us to spend a few moments reflecting on the central element of our Catholic faith and life, the mystery of the Body and Blood of the Lord. For that purpose, I would like to make use of a traditional Latin eucharistic hymn, written in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas as part of the liturgy for today’s feast. It is a wonderfully concise and poetic evocation of the theology of the Holy Eucharist that St. Thomas developed at length in his great work, the Summa theologica. Here is how it goes: O sacrum convivium in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. “Oh sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
This is, first of all, a sacred banquet, a convivium, the Latin word from which our English word “conviviality” comes. The Eucharist is something we do with others; it is a social event, an event within our life together. We are not alone–I don’t think we would use the word “banquet” to describe a meal that someone eats alone. We should think of an occasion when people come together for a banquet to honor someone or to celebrate an anniversary, or, perhaps most appropriately, imagine a wedding reception. That is, of course, one of the biblical images of the Kingdom employed by Christ in his parables; it is the event in which he himself took part at Cana; and we cannot forget the meals that he took with his disciples, for which he was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners, nor, of course, the last meal he took with his disciples before he went to his death. St. Augustine said that every eucharist is a celebration of the marriage between Christ and his Church, that is, between Christ and us. In any case, the Mass is not something that anyone of us is doing alone. We are here with others, enjoying what they enjoy, with the joy greater, not lesser, for being shared with others, receiving what they receive. Listen to the prayers of the Mass and note that all the major ones are in the first-person plural.
Three dimensions of what we are doing and what we are receiving here are then set out in the hymn. The first is that “the memory of Christ’s passion is renewed.” “Passion” here does not mean only Christ’s suffering, but the whole saving event of his “passing” to the Father, his death and resurrection, and indeed his entire life and deeds. This memory is renewed through the readings of the Scriptures, the center of the first part of the Mass. In them Christ becomes present through our remembering him and his words and deeds, so that through the Scriptures he continues to enlighten and instruct us, to challenge and correct us, to comfort and confirm us. And especially in each Eucharist we obey Christ’s injunction at the Last Supper when he commanded his disciples to “Do this in memory of me”–Do this so that he will be remembered, remembered because encountered once again in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist.
If in that way what we do here looks back to the past, it also looks forward: the hymn says: “A pledge of future glory is given to us.” Here once again we recall the parables of the Kingdom as a great wedding feast that a King holds for his son. Every Eucharist anticipates the banquet that will gather all God’s people together for an endless feast of life, light, and love. That is why everyone is welcome at a Eucharist, because to that eternal feast shall come people from every tribe and nation, and we cannot truly anticipate that final banquet if our own gathering is not also catholic already.
And between the past to which we look back in memory and the future to which we look forward in hope, there is the present moment when our minds, our souls, our hearts, are filled with grace. We live between memory and hope, between past and future, which assure us a different present, defined by all for which we are grateful and by all to which we aspire. Through the faith and through this sacrament of faith we are now in communion with Christ and in him in communion with each other and indeed with all the holy ones who are already with him and whose presence we acknowledge at each Eucharist when we take up ourselves the “Holy! Holy! Holy!” which they endlessly sing in praise of God and of his Christ.
In all these ways, the Eucharist is indeed the “sacred banquet in which Christ is received.” He is received in his Word; he is received in memory and in hope; he is received in the Body that was broken for us and in the Blood that was poured out for us; he is received in the love that this all evokes in us.
All this is lovely, and lofty, theology, but we should not think of it as true in some ideal world. No, it states the truth about what actually happens when we gather for the Eucharist, or at least the truth about what may happen, or ought to happen, when we gather. For none of it happens automatically or magically. It happens to the degree that we all bring our faith, our hope, and our love to these eucharistic celebrations. If we are inattentive, or merely passive, then none of this happens, but if we are alert, if we can respond in the Creed with a genuine “I believe” to the evocation of the memory of Christ and with a genuine “Amen” to the great prayer of thanksgiving, if we receive the Body and the Blood in faith and in love, then all this does happen, and the great and sacred banquet is realized among us, “in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”