The Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Last Supper wasn’t a magic show

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Today is the feast of The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It used to be called “Corpus Christi.” And the Gospel reading (Mark’s account of the Last Supper) brings us into familiar territory. I mean we observed Holy Thursday just two and a half months ago. And here we are centralizing yet another account of Jesus’ final meal.

Of course, the emphasis on Holy Thursday and today is supposed to be different. On Holy Thursday the Last Supper was part of the account of Jesus’ final days. On Corpus Christi the focus is on the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, what we used to call “Holy Communion.” Today the spotlight is on the “Real Presence” of Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the “elements” which retain the appearances of bread and wine.

In the past, this was the time for sermons on “transubstantiation,” and the priestly powers conferred in ordination. Corpus Christi was an occasion for processions of the Blessed Sacrament even through town squares, for its “exposition” in “monstrances,” for solemn “benedictions” and “holy hours” of adoration.  

Historically, this feast has been a specifically Catholic affair implicitly contrasting Catholic belief with Protestants who since the Reformation denied the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence.

I won’t bore you by rehearsing the differences between Catholic “transubstantiation” and Protestant “trans-signification” and “trans-finalization.” Somehow it all seems rather quaint and beside the point, doesn’t it? I mean, who cares – except perhaps for a few brief moments on Sunday mornings between nine and ten o’clock? We have so many personal problems with our children, in our jobs, in our marriages. . . . Besides, the world is in such a dark state, who has time for such theological niceties?

And don’t even talk to me about the church; it is so problematic for most of us. How could we spend time and energy on inter-denominational disputes when we find the Mass itself increasingly meaningless? Each Sunday many of us end up struggling with the question, “Why am I still coming here?” Get real!

Well, getting real and retaining hope in the face of darkness on all fronts is actually what today’s account of the Last Supper is really about. It’s not about transubstantiation of bread and wine at all. It is we who need to be “transubstantiated” as people and specifically as Catholics. The Gospel calls us to fundamental change in our faith about Eucharist.

Consider what happened at the Last Supper and then what became of it over the years. Consider what we could make of it today.

For Jesus, this final Passover meal is wrought with anxiety to say the least. Jesus and his friends have now gone underground. After a demonstration in the Temple which turned violent, they are now being hunted. There is a price of 30 shekels of silver on Jesus’ head, and he suspects one of his inner circle is about to turn him in for the reward. The “safe house” Jesus has secured for the Passover meal has been located by a secret sign and a password.

In such dark circumstances, Jesus looks at the bread he breaks, and the action reminds him that his very body is under threat. The cup of wine he passes around becomes for him his own blood that soon could be whipped, nailed, drained and speared from his veins.

But he doesn’t lose hope. In effect amidst betrayal by a close friend, a price on his head, premonitions of his own death, and threatened failure of his entire enterprise, Jesus proposes a toast to God’s Kingdom. Despite everything he remains convinced God’s reign will soon dawn. In fact, takes a vow not to drink wine again until that happens. His fast from wine is another form of his familiar prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”  In the end, Jesus asks his disciples (come what may) to share bread and wine as he has done – with one another and across ethnic and other divisions (with Jew and gentile, woman and man, rich and poor, “clean” and “unclean”), and to do this specifically in his memory.

And that’s what the early Christians did. They broke bread in memory of Jesus, his values and the way he lived. In the early church, they called this a “love feast.” And people would come together with pot luck dishes and share with everyone. Until the 5th century women would often preside at the feast – as they usually do at meals in every home on the planet. Sometimes men would preside too. (It wasn’t until the 14th century that the Eucharistic “celebrant” had to be an ordained “priest.”)

And all would be invited, rich and poor. (In fact, one of the great attractions of early Christianity was the generosity with which Christians shared their bread with the needy.) Twice in the Book of Acts Luke describes the first Christians as leading what could only be called a “communistic” ways of life.  Acts 2:44 reads:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

That’s what the early Christians made of Jesus’ injunction to “Do this in memory of me.” They truly understood what later would be termed “The Real Presence:” bread is bread; wine is wine; when they are shared Jesus truly becomes present in his Holy Spirit. Early Christians understood that Jesus’ “Real Presence” could not be separated from the way he lived – at the service of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the hungry and thirsty.

The rub however is that the Eucharist gradually turned into something else. That business about actually doing what Jesus commanded – you know “Sell what you have; give it to the poor; and come follow me” . . .  That was too much for church leaders after they sold out to Constantine’s Empire in the 4th century. They started living like kings and needed something more comfortable. 

So they transformed the Christian “love feast” into a “Mass.” And as the middle ages progressed, the Mass turned into a magic show. Before our very eyes, bread was transformed into the body of Jesus, and wine became his blood. The priest alone had the requisite magical powers. Belief in that magic act became what the Eucharist was about.

In all of this, focus shifted from transformation of those participating in the Eucharist to transformation of the bread, which eventually became a plastic-like wafer that looks nothing like the bread whose sharing so concerned Jesus.

We could change all of that beginning right now. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be the dreary “hocus pocus” it became before Vatican II and threatens to become again today under extremely conservative church leadership. Like Jesus’ last meal, the Eucharist can reassume its character as an occasion for recommitment to God’s Kingdom, even as we experience a dark night of our Catholic souls and just as human beings. If Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by his circumstances, how can we be crushed by ours?

In fact, if we open our eyes in hope, we can see many reasons to toast God’s Kingdom despite our many problems as believers. For instance, did you know that a group of Catholics and Protestants of various denominations are forming an alternative Eucharistic congregation right here in our own community? Its intention is not to replace our attendance at Mass, but to supplement it with a celebration that can provide experience of what inspired, life-connected worship can be.

Also, this fall Fr. Matthew Fox, the fiery spiritual teacher, liturgist and theologian will be speaking at Berea College.  He has already expressed a willingness to meet with our parishioners to discuss church renewal with us. Similarly, Sr. Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun and spiritual leader, will be a Berea College convocation speaker this fall.

Additionally, next November 9th to 11th, the National Catholic “Call to Action” campaign will be holding its annual meeting in Louisville – at the Galt House. We could send a delegation of 20 people or more (including our pastor) to get inspired by world-class speakers and by what other churches are doing to revive the spirit of Vatican II.  Please mark your calendars for that event.  

Besides all of that, this October 11th is the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council. There will be observances of the occasion all over the world. We could mark the anniversary right here in our own parish with a “tent revival” with invited speakers, and with teach-ins on Vatican II. We could even pool our money to provide tuition for our pastor to update his theology in some progressive theological, liturgical or pastoral program.

All of these events have the potential to “transubstantiate” us as a community – to change us to the core as a community of faith.

So things might not be as dark as we might think. There may indeed be light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been struggling through for too long.

Jesus’ own faith in and hope for God’s Kingdom is our inspiration. If he could have faith and hope in his dreary circumstances, how can we not be hopeful? If he is for us, if we sup with him, who can stand against us? Let’s get on with it!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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