The Palatine Chapel in Aachen has a series of beautiful mosaics. One features the image of a pelican and her young offspring. The offspring are standing in front of her chest. The pelican with her long beak picks at her flesh creating an open wound from which her chicks can feed. The image reflects a belief in the ancient world that the bird, when no food could be found, would provide her flesh for her young.
The early Christians incorporated this image into Christian art as a representation of Christ’s self-offering of his body and blood for all humanity. The image is not an infrequent one in older churches. While today the ancient understanding of pelican behavior may have passed or has been proved inadequate, the offering of Christ endures forever and remains true.
This Sunday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, formerly known as Corpus Christi. The feast highlights the “real presence” of Christ Jesus in the Eucharist. The self-offering of Jesus on the cross is made present in the celebration of the Mass. His presence continues in the consecrated host and wine.
The second reading for Sunday’s liturgy recalls the earliest written account of the last supper where Jesus instituted the Eucharist. St. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, recalls what has been “handed on” to him. The words are familiar: “… Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
Jesus commands the disciples to continue this celebration both in what we call “the Mass” and, after being nourished and strengthened by the “Bread of Life,” in the living out of his sacrificial offering in our lives.
In the Gospel account for Sunday’s liturgy the feeding of the thousands is recalled. Jesus is moved with compassion for those who are following him. He knows that there is not enough food for them to eat because of the location and the great crowds. So he provides the food himself. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes reminds us that Jesus provides for his disciples.
Just before the miracle when the disciples raise the concern for the people and suggesting that Jesus dismiss them, he says: “Give them some food yourselves.” The words linger after the miracle when he provided the food. His saving work will continue after his departure in the lives of the faithful.
Jesus provides, in abundance, for the needs of the people for they all “ate and were satisfied.” What’s more, there are 12 wicker baskets full of fragments left over. The symbolism of “the twelve” lies with the role of the apostles and the church that is being prepared. The saving action of Christ continues in the life and work of the church and her faithful.
The first reading for the liturgy comes from the Book of Genesis. The passage recalls Abram’s (whose name will be changed later to Abraham) encounter with the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. This encounter is the only time that Melchizedek appears in the Scriptures. In the Genesis passage, Melchizedek brings out bread and wine as he blesses Abram.
The early church recognized in Melchizedek a foreshadowing of Christ, the great high priest. The Letter to the Hebrews elaborates on the eternal priesthood of the Son of God. The responsorial verse is taken from this letter: “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:6).
Jesus himself speaks of his real presence in the Eucharist when he says: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51).
Jesus continues after being questioned by incredulous people: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (John 6:53-56).
Adoro te Devote, written by St. Thomas Aquinas as a hymn of thanksgiving for the Eucharist, beautifully expresses the majesty and mystery of the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus takes bread and wine, the ordinary means of nourishment for the body, and makes them the extraordinary means of nourishment for the soul.
His presence in the consecrated bread and wine moves us from comprehension to wonder as we are invited into the mystery of God and his love. As the hymn expresses:
God with hidden majesty, lies in presence here,
I with deep devotion, my true God revere;
Whom this outward shape and form secretly contains,
Christ in His divinity, manhood still retains.
All my other senses, cannot now perceive;
But my hearing, taught by faith, always will believe;
I accept whatever God the Son has said:
Those who hear the world of God, by the truth are fed.
God lay stretched upon the cross, only man could die.
Here upon the altar, God and man both lie.
This I firmly hold as true, this is my belief,
And I seek salvation, like the dying thief.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.