The Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ Sunday, June 2. We might ask, “don’t we always celebrate this at every Mass”? The answer is yes. However, today we focus on the real and abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The first reading from Genesis recalls the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, King of Salem. While other passages in Scripture refer to Melchizedek, this is the only place where he actually makes an appearance. Melchizedek is both king and priest; and in this he prefigures Christ. As priest he offers the sacrifice. Here he brings out “bread and wine” before he blesses Abram in the name of God Most High.
The priesthood of Melchizedek does not come from a lineage for he predates the priesthood of Aaron and Levi. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees this as another prefigurement of the priesthood of Jesus. Abram recognizes his priesthood and offers him “a tenth of everything.”
The second reading from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians recalls the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus. This is the oldest account of the “institution narrative” in the Scriptures (Paul’s letter predates the earliest written gospel).
Paul notes that he is handing on what he himself has received when he recalls the institution. In recalling the institution he specifically notes that it was on the night Jesus was “handed over” that the Eucharist was instituted. Jesus takes bread, gives thanks and breaks it saying: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
He associates the bread with His body, which will be broken on the cross. His instruction to the disciples is to continue this practice in memory of Him. The memory is the remembrance of the cross. The memory of which Jesus speaks is not just a “calling to mind” but rather a participation in that which is remembered. So when we celebrate the Eucharist we are mysteriously joined to those saving events that took place, and have been celebrated, for 2,000 years.
Jesus then takes the cup saying: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Once again the association with the cross is made with the mention of “my blood.” A new covenant is now being established between God and His people. The covenant of reconciliation and love is brought to fulfillment in the passion, death and resurrection of the Lord. Jesus concludes: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the coup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Thus the celebration makes present and proclaims the paschal mystery. In this remembrance and proclamation Jesus Himself is present.
In addition to the institution account (in 1 Corinthians, Matthew, Mark, Luke) there are several other narratives that are associated with the Eucharist. The Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John is one. Another is the washing of the feet at the last supper, again in the Fourth Gospel, which has Eucharistic significance in the imitation of the self-offering of the Lord.
Today’s gospel recalls another event associated with the Eucharist, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The reading for today’s Mass comes from the Gospel According to Luke. The context of this miracle is Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God and his healing. The disciples press Jesus to dismiss the large crowd so they can find food and lodging. Rather than dismissing them to provide for themselves, Jesus gives them food Himself.
Thus He miraculously multiplies the five loaves and two fishes so that the 5,000 men (not counting women and children) could be fed. St. Luke tells us, “all ate and were satisfied.” No one was sent away hungry. Jesus satisfied the needs of all.
Not only that but there were 12 wicker baskets of leftover fragments. The 12 baskets signify the 12 apostles. Earlier in the passage when the apostles had urged Jesus to dismiss the crowds so they could eat, Jesus had said: “Give them some food yourselves.” The Twelve now have the food to give the disciples. They indeed continue the work of Jesus. As Jesus fed the 5,000, the apostles will feed the multitudes who will follow Jesus. The work has continued through the centuries. All are welcome to come to the Church and to be fed by Christ.
Through the Eucharist we are gathered by Christ and formed into His Church. The Second Vatican Council reflects on this reality saying: “As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about. All men are called to this union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, and toward whom our whole life strains.” (Lumen Gentium, 3)
As we celebrate the Eucharist we celebrate the mystery of Jesus’ presence in the Sacred Species. His presence is real. He is with us in this celebration and in the consecrated bread and wine. Through this living memory we enter into His passion, death and resurrection. Through this remembrance Jesus is present to us; healing us; feeding us; forgiving us; loving us. Through this celebration we are formed as one body in Christ Jesus. As we celebrate this solemnity we offer thanks to God for this great gift, the gift of Jesus Himself.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.