Readings: Deuteronomy 8:2-3,14-16; Psalm 147:12-15,19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58
Self-isolation, social distancing, lockdown: these have become household terms since mid-March. We know what they mean. We understand they’re necessary. But the human cost of them is very real. We’re not made to relate to one another only in voice or by virtual reality. Presence when it’s real is in the body. We need a hug, a warm handshake. We need not just spoken language but also body language. We are spirit and flesh. Without either, we are not fully real, we are not complete.
The same is true when it comes to church. The lockdown has helped us understand and experience more deeply that church is not brick and mortar but flesh and blood. A virtual church is also not fully real. We need the presence of one another in flesh and blood, to be near one another, to hear one another pray and sing, to stand, kneel and sit together. We need above all not just spiritual communion or the broadcast proclamation of the Word of God. We need to hear the Word live; we need the physicality of sacramental communion. The Church is not an idea in our heads or an image on our screens or words in our books and private prayers. It is in our bones; it is made up of our flesh; it is these which make truly present to one another our unique persons. The Church is not in whichever part of the world our internet connections can take us, but where our feet are on the ground as we stand together because called together by the Word of the One whose members we are, his Mystical Body.
This need of our humanity for physical presence and closeness is why we have Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, not only did Christ make us this way: some fathers of the Church tell us that he did so because he always intended to become man himself. If he were only present to us in his Word and even in his Holy Spirit, the Church would not be his Mystical Body. We would not be his members. The Church would only have been a spiritual association, perhaps even just a virtual community. But from the moment the Word became flesh, he already united himself in some way to every human being, body and soul. His purpose was nothing less than to unite every human being with himself in the flesh.
Jesus says today in the Gospel that he is the living bread come down from heaven. And he is not speaking in metaphors. Real food and drink are not the loaf and wine we buy, but his Body and his Blood. It is these we must eat and drink. When the crowd stands aghast at this, he hammers it home with even more vivid language: he says not only that they must eat his flesh but that they must chew on it. He has not yet told them how he will make that possible, though he himself knows that it will be through bread and wine changed by his power into his body and blood. His strong language is intended to shake them, to awaken their faith, to sort out his true followers from the fake. A few verses after today’s Gospel ends, we are told, in fact, that many of his followers left him because of this “intolerable language.”
But those who remain with him are then inducted by Jesus into the great mystery of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. And it is a great mystery! It is a great test of our faith, almost as much as is his resurrection from the dead. Yet, it is in believing his words, without explaining them away or somehow trying to make them fit our own limited human understanding, that we will learn to accept the mystery of the Eucharist. We can never understand it, strictly speaking. As with all the great mysteries of God, it is the mystery which comprehends us, envelopes us with its divine truth and glory. If we will not believe, we will not be admitted into the mystery because it can only be accessed by those who do not test it. That is the nature of the mystery itself. So, it is not for us to test the mystery (“if I don’t understand it, I won’t accept it”), but for the mystery to test us (“if you accept it, you will enter into its depths and heights which stretch far beyond the capacity of your mind and heart”).
By the Eucharist, the living Bread, that is, the Risen Christ in his entire human and divine reality, comes to dwell in us. His real presence remains as long as the bread and wine remain bread and wine in us (a matter of minutes). But if we receive him worthily and with faith, hope and love, he intensifies within us the presence of his eternal life, that is, his Holy Spirit. The Eucharist confers the Spirit upon us through the real presence of Jesus. This union of Jesus with us in holy communion surpasses the union of body and soul even of the most devoted husband and wife. It is even more intimate than the presence of a child in the womb. Jesus is truly and fully within us and, as he tells us, we are therefore truly and fully in him – provided we receive him free from mortal sin and with sincere faith, hope and love.
What this then implies is that, as He is in each of us, we are all in Him and therefore, through Him, in each other. This is the fullest expression of the meaning of the Church this side of eternity. The baptized who do not believe in the Eucharist or cannot receive it for whatever reason certainly belong to the Mystical Body in a very real way, but it is the Eucharist which completes that belonging and integrates those who receive it more fully into Christ. It’s not helpful to think of degrees or grades of belonging, as if there were class distinctions. We must leave it to the Lord to know and work with every soul to draw it more fully into where He wants it to be in the great Corpus of His astounding work of love which is the Church.
There is an even greater aspect of this truth which is almost overwhelming in its power and beauty. Saint Paul tells us that all things were created in Christ and for Christ. He then adds a short phrase with mammoth implications. He says, “in him all things hold together.” An image that might help us understand this is the image Jesus himself uses in the Gospel of the vine and the branches. If we consider the branches as “all things in heaven and in earth”, they are rooted in Jesus, they exist in and only because of Jesus. The Jesus in question is the Jesus who is the living Bread, the incarnate Jesus. To try and picture this is difficult but worthwhile. Imagine a gigantic Vine, and so a gigantic Jesus, and rooted in him all things that exist. All things. From the expanding universe to the tiniest microbe. In all their movement, living and dying, coming and going, milling around and being still: they are all held in existence by being rooted in Him. The mystery of the Eucharist, therefore, is also the mystery of the Body of the Risen Christ who literally incorporates everything into himself.
As we know, sin was the tragic attempt by humanity to uproot itself from God. The sin, death and chaos that exist in the universe as in the lives of humanity are somehow related to the mystery of evil. By becoming man, by dying and rising, Jesus has absorbed all of this into himself. He experiences in himself every sin committed, every brokenness of man and of nature. But because of his resurrection, he is irreversibly drawing everything that is pulling away from God back to God. And in the created world, now redeemed by him, the visible focus of that mammoth work of reconciliation and healing of all things in himself is the Eucharist in the heart of the Church. By that Eucharist in us who believe and love and suffer for him, Christ is associating the members of his Mystical Body with his mission to reconcile all things in himself and then, once death has been destroyed for ever, to hand it all over to the Father.
So, when we chew on the flesh of the Son of God and drink his blood, we are doing far more than engaging in a private devotion. We are associating ourselves with Christ’s ongoing work of the redemption and healing of the human race and of the entire universe. For he gives his flesh and blood “for the life of the world.” When we think of things along these lines, we can understand and repeat with so much more meaning the terms we use for the Eucharist: the wonderful Sacrament, the most Holy Sacrament, the Sacrament of Sacraments. The Eucharist as the fruit of the Sacrifice of the Cross is Christ’s “engine” in the universe by which he is drawing all things and all people back to himself and through himself to the Father.
Let Corpus Christi be for us this year an ever stronger stimulus to come to know and love more deeply the immense gift and the immense responsibility that is ours when circumstances will once again allow us to receive Holy Communion. May we never receive it unthinkingly or unworthily, but with pure hearts, pure conscience, sincere devotion and joyful gratitude. Let it drive us to work for Christ in the Church and in the world.