Jijo Kandamkulathy, CMF
Claretian Publications, Macau
Corpus Christi – Year C
On the solemnity of Corpus Christi, we read about Jesus giving bread from heaven, and he emerges as the new Moses of the New Testament. The setting is made to look like the Sinai Desert as they say, “this is a deserted place.”
Jesus asks them to collect the leftovers to preserve them just as Moses asked Aaron to preserve some manna, with the scene departing from the Sinai Desert. But the solemnity of Corpus Christi calls us to a deeper mystery of the body and blood of Christ that the multiplication of the bread suggests.
We start from the jar of manna that the Israelites kept in the Ark of the Covenant from the time they were fed with manna (Exodus 16:33–34) as a sign of God’s unceasing providence. After the construction of the Jerusalem Temple, they started keeping 12 loaves of unleavened bread in the Holy of Holies, which would be changed every Sabbath, as the priests consumed the previous ones. One cannot say that the Catholic tradition of preserving the Eucharist came from this practice, as the earliest writings of the Church show that the Eucharist was preserved for distributing to the sick. However, the bread of the presence of the Old Testament is an incomplete prefiguration of the reservation of the Sacrament today. It is the symbol of God’s desire to live with humanity forever.
The other symbol is that of the Passover Lamb. Passover is the most significant Jewish feast that commemorates the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. It is mandatory to have bread, wine, herbs and roasted lamb for the Passover meal. The Last Supper was a Passover meal. But notably the roasted lamb is absent in the meal. An uninformed reader would ask, “We have the table and bread and wine set. Where is the lamb for the Passover meal?” The lamb of sacrifice is Jesus himself. So no other lamb is on the table. At the time of the Last Supper, the unleavened bread and the Passover lamb merge into one. “This is my flesh,” Jesus says, taking the bread.
The Passover lamb is different from that of the scapegoat used as the sin offering during the Jewish feast called Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur. Christ is identified with this scapegoat in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:29; 1:36) and the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 9). In a once-a-year ritual, the Israelites transfer their sins onto a scapegoat, and slaughter or send it to the wilderness to be eaten by wild animals. But in the context of today’s Gospel of Mark, the lamb mentioned is the Passover lamb. This lamb delivers Israel from Egyptian slavery (sin, symbolically) and leads them into the Promised Land (eternal life).
As Jesus mentions, “This is my body, take and eat,” the entire import in the context of the Passover lamb is, “I am the new Passover lamb. Eat my flesh that you be saved from the bondage of sin (Egypt) and pass over to liberation. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live forever.”
The solemnity of Corpus Christi evokes four unique aspects of the Catholic faith, all derived from their biblical foundation. 1. The Eucharist is a sacrifice. 2. The Eucharist is a meal. 3. It is a covenant 4. The Eucharist is the real presence of Christ.
The name for the Eucharistic bread is “host,” which means “victim.” That term refers to the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, where Christ, the victim, is sacrificed for the eternal forgiveness of the sins of humanity. The sacrifice ritual of the scapegoat during Yom Kippur (Lev 16; Heb 9) is the antecedent of this Eucharistic concept. The second part of that ritual is sprinkling the sacrificial animal’s blood on the participants to seal the covenant. In the new covenant, the sins of humanity are transferred to the new sacrificial lamb (Jesus Christ), and the disciples share his blood as a sign of agreeing to the covenantal terms. Usually, in a sacrifice, someone else chooses the victim of the sacrifice. Here Jesus himself chooses to be the victim of the sacrifice. When he gives, he distributes his own body; he becomes the priest of the ceremony.
The Eucharist is a meal. Christ shares his own body to be eaten. Sharing a meal with someone is the expression of a very close friendship. Although setting a feast with one’s own body is a little scary to imagine, given its ritual and symbolic import, we understand that it is the greatest expression of love.
God who wants to live with humans forever chooses to live in and among them as the Eucharist. Like the food that is digested and becomes part of our body, so does Christ in the species of the bread and wine. We carry in our bodies the strength of that food and drink given from above.
The Eucharist is a covenant. It is a challenging and risky covenant. Jesus, one party in the covenant, leaves his body to be victimized in the hands of the other party for the forgiveness of their sins. He makes that generous offering of his body with the risk of being disrespected, desecrated and destroyed by the undiscerning humans. Yet, he makes that risky offering of his body and blood to humanity. In that offer is an invitation to respect the body, especially when it is fragile and defenseless.
It is applicable not just to the body of Christ. The body of the other is the symbol of God’s love for us. Every body is fragile. Protecting every body, born, unborn, dead, or alive, and treating them with respect as the Holy Eucharist, is a responsibility for anyone who shares in the Eucharist.