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

Reflections for June are by Bishop Robert Kurtz, Bishop of Hamilton in Bermuda      The Most Reverend Robert J

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Solemnity of the Boy and Blood of Christ, Corpus Christi, always awakens memories of my childhood when I served as an altar boy in the Corpus Christi procession at Saint Hyacinth Church, a Polish-American parish in the city of Chicago. The elaborate procession circled around the parish grounds and through the neighborhood, stopping at seven decorated altars for a Gospel reading, prayers and Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament. I always hoped that I would be assigned to carry the thurible and incense or to be part of the group of four that rang the bells during the procession—each set of bells pitched to a different note. Years later, when I visited Poland as a Bishop, I was invited to carry the Holy Eucharist in a very long procession that wound through the fields of a small rural parish near Gdansk—the same seven altars, lots of incense, bells and more childhood memories! Today I give thanks to God for the faith of the good people who have formed my faith in the Holy Eucharist. I give thanks for the practices of popular piety that have helped me grow in love for the Liturgy of the Church—the Liturgy that gives external form to the great mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, that we celebrate today.

For many people, the Scripture readings for today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ might appear strange and disconnected from our popular religious celebrations of Corpus Christi. But a closer look at the Scripture readings that the Church has chosen for today’s feast can provide us with a deeper and more profound understanding of the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. In this regard, I have found the insights of Fr. Robert Baron, the founder of “Word on Fire Ministries,” to be very helpful. He makes the point that we will never truly understand the mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ unless we come to terms with the meaning of blood sacrifice in ancient Israel. Deep in the hearts and consciousness of ancient peoples was the felt need to take something of God’s creation and symbolically offer it back to God in a spirit of thanksgiving or repentance, be it the first fruits of the harvest or the first born of one’s flock or herd..

Our first reading from the Book of Exodus recounts the sealing of the covenant between God and the people of Israel. The covenant was sealed and ratified in blood, the symbol of life, in a context of ritual animal sacrifice. Think, for a moment, about the meaning of the term “Blood Brothers” in our own day, where the blood of club members or even gang members is mingled to symbolize a “sacred” bond of union, a covenant. In our reading from Exodus, the symbol of the sacrifice of Moses and his sprinkling the people with the blood of the sacrificed animal implies that all the people are now “Blood Brothers and Sisters of God,” bound by the same covenant of Law, the Torah.

Our second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews is also a challenging text because it requires an understanding of the ritual sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem that continued the Mosaic tradition of animal sacrifice.

Our second reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews is a challenging text because it requires an understanding of the ritual sacrifices that took place in the Temple of Jerusalem—a continuation of the Mosaic tradition of animal sacrifice. Our reading describes the activity of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the highest holy day of the Jewish liturgical calendar. On that day, and only on that day, the High Priests is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in the Temple. He brings with himself two animals—a goat and a sheep. The goat will be sent forth to die in the desert as the “scape goat,” symbolically carrying the sins of the people. The sheep is sacrificed and the blood of the sacrifice is used to purify the Holy of Holies. Then the High Priest, carrying the rest of the blood of the sacrifice, passes through the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the greater Temple area and sprinkles the people with the sacrificial blood. The blood represents God’s forgiveness and union with his people and the restoration of order and harmony in the world.

The actions of the High Priest and the Temple ritual help us to understand the words and actions of Jesus as his earthly life comes to a close. Jesus tells the Jewish authorities in the Temple: “You have one greater than the Temple here.” All the Moses did and all that the sacrifices of the Temple accomplished are now summed up in Jesus who is the meeting point of suffering humanity and gracious divinity. Thus, Jesus says: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” These are the prophetic words of Jesus regarding the Jerusalem Temple and its animal sacrifices.

At the Passover and the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus speaks the language of ritual Temple sacrifice when he says of the bread: “Take this, this is my body.” And giving them the cup he says: “This is the blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.” This is now the ultimate blood sacrifice offered for the reconciliation of man with God.

What is anticipated sacramentally at the Passover meal takes place in physical reality at the crucifixion of Jesus the very next day. On the cross, Jesus is the Lamb of God, the victim offered in ritual sacrifice. Jesus is the “scape goat” who takes upon himself the sins of humanity. The blood that flows from the side of Christ, the High Priest, is the blood that purifies the people as on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. When Jesus dies on the cross, the Gospel of Mark tells us that the curtain in the Temple of Jerusalem was torn in two. Jesus, the one and only High Priest, has passed through the curtain to bring final and definitive atonement, the eternal reconciliation of divinity and humanity.

What a great gift we have received as believing Catholics to be able to participate in the sacramental re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ at every Mass we attend, even a quiet weekday Mass with few people in attendance. What a great blessing it is to be able now to receive both the body and the blood of Christ in Holy Communion. As the Liturgy teaches us: “This is the Mystery of Faith: When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim you death, O Lord, until you come again.”

Let us pray:

Faithful God, whose everlasting covenant with us is sealed in the blood of Christ, be present in our midst, in the assembly of your people: “For all that you command us we will do.” In the book of the covenant, speak to our hearts. As we give thanks with bread and cup for the mercy that has found us, gather us your children in forgiveness. For this we ask, through Jesus Christ our mediator, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God forever. Amen.