THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST – June 26, 2011

Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

John 6:51-58

 

Repeated often enough and even the most shocking statements can become mundane to the hearer.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are a case in point.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them on the last day.  I have never heard anyone gasp when that message was proclaimed.  I don’t think anyone ever stomped his feet and stormed out from the Assembly.  No one ever put her hands over her ears and cried, “Enough!”

Why then, do you suppose, did the first audience have such a violent reaction and added to that cries that Jesus was a madman?  John is quite clear that at the end of this discourse most of those present turned on their heels and departed.  There were only a few, stunned, shocked, who remained with Jesus.  Of them he asked, Will you also go away?  We don’t know the thoughts that raced through the disciples’ heads as they watched the scene unfold.  At the beginning of the address there were crowds pressing in to catch every word that came from Jesus’ mouth.  (Remember, crowds are made up of those who have not yet made up their minds about Jesus.  They watch and listen and wonder if he is the one.)  The size of the gathering would have affirmed the disciples’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah.  With the Messiah would come the kingdom he would establish and they would have prominent places in it.  Wouldn’t they?

How quickly things can change.  At the conclusion of Jesus’ lesson, near violence erupted and some may even have picked up stones to hurl at him, so revolted were they by what he had said.  The few who remained with Jesus probably wanted to duck for cover lest they find themselves in harm’s way.  What degree of confidence do you imagine was in Peter’s voice when he was asked if he would go away also, he responded, Where can we go?  We believe that you have the words of everlasting life.  These disciples were, after all, the ones who had given up everything to follow Jesus.

What is so shocking in Jesus’ remarks?  He leaves no wiggle room.  Remember the line from the song?  With me it’s all or nothin’/ it’s all or nothin’ at all.  Crudely put, that is exactly what Jesus has said.  Everything of importance depends entirely upon Jesus.  Life today and for all eternity depends on gnawing at his flesh and drinking his blood.  That is the language he used.  Jesus wants his disciples to devour him.  I am the living bread come down from heaven.

Accommodation takes over after that for many of us.  As we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ we immediately think we are celebrating the feast of the Eucharist.  Of course that is part of this feast.  With that we objectify the meaning and mystery that Jesus puts before us.  We think of a host.  We think of a cup of wine.  In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer, we look at the bread and proclaim the Body of Christ present.  We look at the cup and proclaim the Blood of Christ present.  And we adore.  All well and good – but there must be more.  To look and to adore keeps the reality at a distance.  We focus on the transcendence of the presence and do not have to deal with the imminence.  Nowhere in the Gospels and certainly nowhere in the Institution Narrative does Jesus say, this is my body, adore it.  Nor does he say that about the blood.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  Now, you do this in my memory.  Everything depends upon this.

Again, accommodation takes over.  It always has.  We look for more palatable interpretations for so much of what Jesus announced.  The centrality of poverty in the Christian walk – surely he didn’t mean that literally, did he?  What, then, do you suppose he meant when he said, Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me?  What did he mean by the injunction: If you would follow me, take up your cross every day and follow me?  Then there is the commandment Jesus voices in John’s Last Supper account that says nothing about the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.  During John’s Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his stunned and embarrassed disciples.  When he has finished he returns to the table and says to those gathered at table with him, As I have washed your feet so must you wash one another’s feet.  Don’t miss the force of the word, must.  That is quite a bit stronger than, I think it would be a good idea if you would do this.  No, basic to discipleship is total dependence on Jesus, simplicity of life, and the pouring out of self in service.

There is a term that you might hear frequently today in reference to people who are inactive in the practice of their Catholic faith.  They are called Cultural Catholics as if Catholicity were an ethnicity the way being Swedish, or Italian, or German is.  Being Cultural Catholics means they were baptized into the Body of Christ in the Catholic Church, have never denied that they are Catholics, but the faith has no practical bearing on decisions made or lifestyle lived.  And of course they do not attend Mass on Sunday, that action that is central to our identification as Catholic Christians has gone by the wayside.  I think it is safe to say that that is not what Jesus had in mind in issuing the call and challenge to be his disciples.  Jesus expects us to live lives that make no sense were it not for our faith in him.  And that only happens as a result of our eating his flesh and drinking his blood and devouring his every word and putting that faith into action.  Today’s feast then is a call to action, formation, and transformation.

Did you ever ask yourself what difference it would make if Jesus were not in your life?  Would there be any observable difference besides not having to go to Mass on Sunday?

One final note: the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is also the feast of the Church.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  That is what Vatican Council II defined and declared to be an article of faith.  We, you and I, and all one billion of us are that Body.  What impact does that have on our lives?  Certainly that is not something to boast about.  Nor should the fact become an icon on a tall pedestal to be gaped at in awe.  The truth is a call to action.  The Body of Christ in every age is to be broken and distributed though loving service.  It is all about love as the supreme call.  The commandments by which the Body lives are reduced to one all encompassing mandate: As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  There is nothing more demanding than love.

I have written before about my admiration for Dorothy Day  (I strongly recommend Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own.  The book is intertwined biographies of four great Catholic writers of the last century.  One of them, Flannery O’Connor, whose short story gave the title to the book, was Catholic from infancy.  Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day were converts.)  It was the reality of the Church as the Body of Christ that motivated Dorothy Day’s conversion.  She had been an avowed atheist and a Communist.  She had had an abortion.  Then came the experience of the Church that resulted in her conversion.  Actually, it happened through a Catholic who challenged her to serve the poor, and when she did, she found Christ.  She lived the rest of her life witnessing to what acceptance of that reality meant in practice.  The Catholic Worker movement and houses of refuge for the poor are only two examples.  Her life of poverty and prayer are others.

Rejoice in the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  Rejoice and be glad.  But please don’t stop there.  Embrace the implications.  You will never be the same.  You will never regret it.  Dorothy Day never did in her lifetime and neither will you.  It is not my word you have on this.  It is the Lord’s.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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