June 6, 2015

Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), June 7, 2015, Year B

René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

"Take it; this is my body." (Mark 14:22)
Image from Juanes' The Last Supper, 1562
(Click here for today’s readings)

I presume all the adults reading this have made a will, your “last will and testament.” Perhaps you made it a long time ago and it is no longer serves the purpose you had in mind. Nothing prevents you from changing it if you so choose. And if you do, you will then have your very own “old testament” and “new testament.”

For many years now, the word formerly translated as “testament” in the Bible is more often given as “covenant.” The meaning, in English at least, is actually quite different. When you write a will, you can do that on your own, with or without the help of a lawyer, but you are not required to involve the persons to whom you will be leaving that jewelry or that moose head or your millions. There is no covenant, no contract with them.

A contract or covenant, on the other hand, implies at least two parties who agree to its terms, preferably in writing, though a handshake will sometimes serve. In the reading from Exodus, however, the covenant between God and his people is sealed in the blood of a sacrificed animal. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews applies this to Jesus who, instead of bringing animal blood, brings his own blood into the presence of the Father as the “mediator of a new covenant,” and “obtaining eternal redemption” on our behalf.

There are several covenants in the Bible. The first is with Noah and his family, and its sign is the rainbow. The next is with Abraham and his descendants, and its sign is circumcision and the promises. The third is also with the descendants of Abraham, but it is given through Moses in the Law, and its sign is the “blood of the covenant.” When the people abandoned the covenant, the prophets promised yet another, everlasting covenant. And finally Jesus, at the Last Supper, says of the wine, “This is my blood of the covenant.”

You will have noticed that the “words of Consecration” in today’s Gospel are not precisely the words we use at Mass. In the New Testament there are in fact four accounts of that first Eucharist: in Matthew, Mark (today’s), Luke and—no, not John, but St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. No two have the exact same wording. It is very interesting to compare them, and I recommend that you undertake such a study.

What we use at Mass is a sort of merging of them all, a distillation, if you will, of the essence of all four accounts. “Take...Eat... My body... Given up for you... Take...Drink... My blood... New and eternal covenant... Poured out for you and for many, for the forgiveness of sins.”

We observed earlier that a covenant is different from a will because it involves at least two parties. Both sides agree to something. For Noah, it was a matter of just a few very basic dietary restrictions. Abraham’s agreement is externally signified by the circumcision, but at a deeper level by placing complete trust in God’s promises. In Moses’ time, the people’s agreement is expressed clearly: "We will do everything that the Lord has told us" and, a few verses later, "All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do." They commit themselves to the observance of the Law which, interestingly, is called “the book of the covenant.”

In Jesus’ new covenant, we do our part or, more accurately, a part of our part in honoring his command to “Do this in memory of me.” But we commit ourselves to a great deal more than carrying out this ritual action. That may well be why St. John, in his account of the Last Supper, does not mention Jesus giving his disciples bread and wine as his body and blood, but instead describes his washing their feet, and concluding: “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” The Church has always understood that we cannot separate our celebration of the Eucharist from the rest of our life. Everything we do is in memory of Jesus.

That door swings both ways.

To go to weekly Mass and live a totally unchristian life the rest of the week would be more than illogical. (Note, I say “would be,” because in forty-two years of priesthood I have witnessed this phenomenon only rarely.)

But to live a Christian and Catholic life and not nourish it with the Body and Blood of Christ doesn’t make a lot of sense either (though it is more common than I might wish). We remain sinners, we know we will never be perfect, we admit, “Lord, I am not worthy.” But we may always hope to derive from the Sacrament and from the Christian Community the strength to go on.

This is God’s “last” testament, the definitive covenant. I am reminded of a wonderful phrase in John Milton’s Paradise Lost where at the end of the story of creation, the poet describes the woman, Eve, as “Heaven’s last best gift” to Adam.

Given to us at the Last Supper, the Eucharist is, among so many blessings, Jesus’ “last best gift” to us. In this, as in all the covenants, God took the initiative. In this, as in all the covenants, we accept the gift, rejoice in it, and let it gradually transform us into the true image and likeness of him who feed us with his own body and blood.

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