Feast of Corpus Christi
14 June 2009
Urgent and important truths are often expressed in two words: heart attack, new-improved, te amo, you’re fired. The words have impact because they are engaging and brief. They grab our attention and focus it on the reality. They make us aware of some important change, maybe even a life-altering one.
Today’s readings, too, can be summarized in three two-word phrases: we agree; New Covenant, Corpus Christi. Each of these words has an impact because they engage our spirits, souls and bodies, grab our attention and make us aware of a life-altering change.
Walt Disney is given credit for an important one-liner: change is inevitable; growth is optional. Nancy Adler likens the challenge implied in this truth to a hot-air balloon ready for flight. The only thing preventing the balloonist’s soaring into the air is the load of sand ballast holding it down. We say we want to fly higher, to reach new physical, moral or spiritual perfections, but we hesitate to take the risk of putting aside old, growth-impeding habits. We fear to let go of the sand that binds us to the old ways, the old comforts. Change is inevitable, but it is also threatening, particularly if we don’t trust the ones with whom we are flying.
Here are the people of Israel, six weeks after being delivered from the power of Pharaoh, hearing the words of the covenant: worship the one God alone, keep the Lord’s day, honor your parents, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not commit adultery. . . They had seen the Lord’s deeds of power in their favor. What did He want from them in return? Love God and be fair to their family. Of course they said “we agree.” The covenant with Abraham would be fulfilled by the people of Moses–they thought.
But in short order they were worshiping the false gods of the lands they traveled through: the Baal of Peor, with his obscene rituals. And they lusted and stole and murdered, even when they attained the land of promise. Over and over again God forgave them and rescued them from their dozens of enemies. And over and over again they fell back into their evil habits–idolatry, infanticide, adultery and despoiling their land. So God threw them out of the land He had given them. But this change, this awful loss, could also mean growth and renewal.
Ezekiel, singing his prophecy in the place of exile, promised that there would be a New Covenant, and that the new Law would not be written on tablets of stone, but on the living tablet of the human heart. That Law, as always a law of loving God and loving neighbor, reached perfect fulfillment in Jesus Christ, whose human heart completely loved the Father and loved us so much He gave His life for us. We had broken the covenant and deserved death, but He–the God made man–took on the burden of our sin and paid the ultimate price in His own blood. This is the blood of the New Covenant, the blood shed on the cross for every man, woman and child’s redemption. The inevitable change of death meant that for those who latch onto Jesus’s death, our physical death is changed into victory.
The Body broken once for us, the Blood poured out once for us, is still a living reality. On the night before He suffered, the God-made-man, Jesus Christ, celebrated Passover early with His extended human family. The Passover bread became the Bread of Life; the fourth cup of Passover contained His Precious Blood under the appearance of wine. He told the disciples to take and eat; take and drink, and he told his apostles–his first bishops–to continue to celebrate that sacrifice in His memory. Corpus Christi–the Body of Christ. Sangre di Cristo–the Blood of Christ. We latched onto His death when we were baptized and confirmed. But, weakened as we are by original sin and the surrounding culture of death, we sin after that first rebirth. So this sacrifice, this sacrament of initiation, Holy Communion, is given to us so that we can experience a new cleansing of our little, daily sins, a renewal, a spiritual growth.
Sometimes we look at the host and drink from the cup and wonder “what change?” The physical appearances–color, taste, feel, scent–are all the same before and after the Eucharistic prayer. The first communicant, who still believes in things he or she can’t see, taste, feel and smell, like flying reindeer, rabbits who leave candy at Easter, and parents who know everything, has little trouble believing in the divine magic of the Mass. In adolescence, however, many discard belief in anything that can’t be sensed. They even question what their parents say, so also question what the Church teaches. “I don’t see a change, so how can I believe that what was bread and wine at the beginning of Mass is now the Body and Blood of Christ?” Many, many adult Catholics never outgrow that skepticism. We know from recent surveys that the largest religious group in the United States–30 million–is the collection of ex-Catholics. That’s a terrible loss, mostly to those who no longer take the Body and Blood of Christ each week, but almost as terrible for the rest of us who lose their fellowship.
There is a solution. God never lets us have a problem without the grace to solve it. The solution is to show the change to the world–to give the world what I call a “Mira moment.” We can’t, of course, short of a miracle, demonstrate that who we take in communion is the Body of Christ. But we can show a change in the living, working, walking and talking Body of Christ–ourselves. The change we can demonstrate is twofold.
First, we can show that the Body of Christ changes us into one body ourselves. We can come together more often to pray and work together doing good. We can dedicate more of our resources to the support of the Church’s good works. We can come together as Catholics in ways the world will find awe-inspiring.
And we can show that we ourselves are as persons being changed into images of Christ. Let me suggest first of all that you consult someone who knows ways in which you are not imaging Christ. That would be your spouse, your parents, even your children. It could be something as simple as breaking yourself of the habit of cursing or using the Lord’s name in vain. Instead of saying “O my God”–or texting OMG–just add the words “have mercy” or the initials HM. You have changed a sin into a prayer. It could be something as complex as breaking a habit of pornography or self-abuse, of backbiting. It could be getting off your backsides on a Saturday and helping to build a home for a poor family, or weeding your elderly neighbor’s yard (be sure to ask permission first!) In other words, doing good and avoiding evil.
I think the only way we can show that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ–the action of the Holy Spirit–is to let the Holy Spirit transform us and to become more like Jesus. People leave the Church because we don’t act like Christ. They won’t start coming back until we can be seen to be acting like Christ. Yes, change is inevitable. With the grace we receive in this sacrament, growth can be both real and perceptible.