This Sunday, the Church celebrates the Solemnity (Feast) of the Body and Blood of Christ, often known as “Corpus Christi.” It’s often celebrated with a Eucharistic procession, where members of a local parish community will process with a monstrance holding a consecrated through their community. Our belief in the real presence of Jesus here is a big part of why I work in Catholic youth ministry rather than in a different community which might have a larger staff or a more significant budget. I love this part of being Catholic.
The first reading comes from Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14B-16A, wherein Moses reflects on the ways that God cared for and fed His people during their forty years of wandering through the desert. The second reading is 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, where we hear St. Paul reflecting on the ways that the bread and cup shared by Christians are a share in the Body and Blood of Christ. The Gospel is John 6:51-58, a part of Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse, where Jesus challenges His listeners (the crowd of five thousand He had just miraculously fed with five loaves and two fish) with the idea that to gain eternal life, they will need to “eat His flesh and drink His blood” (John 6:51), a conversation which causes many of His followers to leave Him (John 6:66).
Check out the full text of the readings in your own Bible or on the USCCB website.
The readings for this Mass reflect Catholicism’s deep-seated belief that the Eucharist is much more than just holy bread – that, in the Mass, it really does become the body and blood of Christ. To an outsider, this probably sounds crazy, much like it would have to Jesus’ audience in the Gospel today. Jesus called Himself the “bread of life” (John 6:51), and the crowd began to argue about what he meant (John 6:52). While this would be a good moment for Jesus to back down and say here’s what really I mean… it was just a symbol – Jesus in fact did the opposite. He told them that “…unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (John 6:53).
In the verses that follow this week’s Gospel, we read that many of his followers found this whole teaching difficult to accept (John 6:60), and eventually left Him (John 6:66). Again, this would be another moment where He could have tried to explain Himself, to invite them back, to soften His teaching… but that’s not what Jesus did. Insted, He turned to those who are left, most notably the twelve apostles, and asked them: Do you also want to leave? (John 6:67).
The twelve didn’t go, and Simon Peter gave voice to a weak act of faith (John 6:68): Lord, to whom shall we go? While I’m sure they didn’t comprehend Jesus’ words that day or imagine how we’d believe in and celebrate the Eucharist today, our belief fits in to the narrative of faith that has (and had) been celebrated in the Jewish faith for centuries.
Exodus 12 tells us the story of the first Passover – God’s incredible rescue of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. We read that God asked each household to sacrifice a Lamb, to mark their doors with the blood of the lamb, and then to eat the lamb that had been sacrificed. The death of the lamb and the sign of the lamb’s blood protected them from death and ransomed them from slavery – and in eating the lamb, they were joining themselves to that which was being offered to God (essentially, making an offering of their own lives.
At Mass, we repeatedly refer to Jesus as the Lamb of God. It is He who has been sacrificed, His blood a mark of our faith. Whenever we receive the Eucharist we are not only marking ourselves with His Blood, in similar fashion to the way the Hebrew slaves had marked their homes, but we are also eating the Lamb and joining ourselves to He who has been sacrificed for our sake.
Our belief that Jesus is really present under the form of bread and wine also fits into the narrative of our Christian faith. When Jesus came the first time, He was born in a hidden, unexpected way: He came to us as an infant child. For Him to come to us again as we believe He does on the altar is another hidden, unexpected encounter with Him.
It may all still sound a little crazy to you – that little white host being Jesus – but remember here Peter’s act of faith. In a perfect world, we’d all be able to look to the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist and say, with St. Thomas ‘My Lord, and my God!’ (John 20:28)… but it may be that we will turn to Him like Peter and say ‘where else can we go?‘ (my paraphrase of John 6:67).
After all, Jesus did accept both Peter and Thomas’ acts of faith and invited both to deepen their faith in Him. He does the same for us. May we have eyes to see Him and hearts to love Him as we celebrate the great gift of the Eucharist this weekend.