Corpus Christi – B

The Book of Exodus tells us that after Moses came down from the mountain, bearing the commandments of the Law, he called the people together and announced God’s intention of entering into a covenant with them. The people responded: “All that the Lord has said, we will heed and do.” Moses poured half of the blood of the sacrificed young bulls upon the altar and he sprinkled the other half on the people, declaring, “This is the blood of the covenant.”

The Letter to the Hebrews uses the example of the sacrifices of the Old Testament to demonstrate how Jesus gave Himself for us. The Letter to the Hebrews asserts that if  the blood of goats and bulls or the ashes of a sacrificed heifer can sanctify us from defilement, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered Himself up unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God!” (Heb 9:14).

Hebrews is describing what Jesus accomplished through His death but these words also refer to what Jesus does now, as the Letter to the Hebrews asserts, “the blood of Christ… cleanses our consciences… He is our mediator.”

According to Thomas Aquinas, the cleansing of our consciences is “accomplished by faith” in the blood of Jesus. Thomas considers the words of the Acts of the Apostles, ‘Purifying their hearts by faith’ (Acts 15:9), Thomas explains that faith purifies, “inasmuch as it makes one believe that all who adhere to Christ are cleansed by His blood.” We are enabled to serve God by Jesus’ blood, “that they may come… by the blood of Christ to the spiritual service of God” (Commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews).

Today’s Gospel, which is Mark’s account of the Last Supper, relates that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them, saying “This is My Body.” He also took a cup and gave thanks and passed it to them and said, ‘This is My Blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.’ Notice the word, “covenant.” As the supper took place, shortly before Jesus was to be taken away by soldiers, Jesus’ giving of the bread and wine signifies the giving of His Body and the shedding of His blood for us.

Luke tells us that when Jesus declared the bread to be His Body, He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Lk 22:19). After the Resurrection, the two disciples at Emmaus recognize Jesus when He “took the bread, and said the blessing, then broke the bread and gave it to them” (Lk 24:30-31).

Paul, who wrote his account of the Last Supper before the Gospels were written, also recounts Jesus’ words, “Do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:24). Paul speaks of those who take the bread and the wine in an unworthy way as being “guilty of sin against the Lord’s body and blood” (1 Cor 11: 27). John, in his Bread of Life discourse, states, “My flesh is real food, My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me and I in him” (Jn 6:55-56).

Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus’ actions inaugurated the way that He would be present with His followers after His death and Resurrection: during the Eucharistic liturgy, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

In 1264, Pope Urban IV, while residing in the Italian city Orvieto, instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the entire Church, emphasizing the Church’s belief in Jesus’ real presence in the sacrament.

During this time, Thomas Aquinas was teaching at the Dominican priory in Orvieto. Thomas is generally acknowledged to be the author of three Eucharistic hymns, Adoro Te, probably written in Orvieto in 1264. Thomas’ hymn, Pange Lingua, is customarily sung during the procession with the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The last two verses of Pange Lingua, the Tantum Ergo, are usually sung at Benediction. An additional hymn is the sequence for the liturgy of Corpus Christi, Lauda Sion Salvatorem. The three hymns witness to Thomas’ devotion to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Although Thomas’ Adoro Te has been beautifully translated into poetry, we can offer a simple translation of some of the verses. Thomas begins with adoration: “I adore You, God, hidden under appearances. My whole heart surrenders completely, contemplating You.” Jesus, although God, is hidden under appearances. Thomas contemplates Jesus in the Eucharist and surrenders His heart to the Eucharistic Christ, indicating that our response to Jesus in the Eucharist should be one of contemplation and surrender.

Thomas declares that “taste, touch and sight fail.” The presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is believed only by hearing. Paul has stated “Faith comes by hearing” (Rom 10:17). Thomas proclaims: “I believe whatever the Son of God has said, by this Word of Truth.” Thomas believes because the Word of Truth has declared that the Eucharist is His Body. For Thomas, Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist can only be recognized by faith in Jesus’ words, here and now.

On the Cross, Jesus’ humanity was evident but His divinity was hidden. Here the humanity is also hidden. “I believe and I confess both the divinity and the humanity.” Christ is not present in the Eucharist in some partial way. Thomas affirms his belief in the presence of the whole Jesus, divine and human in the Eucharist.

Thomas requests what the thief asked on the cross, to be with Christ in paradise. Thomas does not see the wounds, as Thomas the Apostle did, but “I confess You also as My Lord.” Thomas asks “Make me always believe in You more, have hope in You and love You.”

Thomas declares that the Eucharist is the “memorial of the death of the Lord” and the “Living Bread giving Life to us.” He asks “Grant my mind to live with You and always taste you sweetly.”

This union with Christ is, as Thomas has already stated, by faith. In his Commentary on the Creed, Thomas explains: “… through faith the soul is united to God, and by it there is between the soul and God a union akin to marriage. ‘I will espouse you in faith’ (Hosea 2:20).”

A Medieval legend claimed that a pelican would wound her own breast in order to feed her young with her blood, when they lacked other food. Thomas beseeches Jesus, “Merciful Pelican, Lord Jesus, wash me clean in Your blood, one drop of the blood could wash the whole world of all its sins. Jesus, I now behold veiled, I pray for which I thirst, that your face uncovered, I may have the sight of the blessedness of Your glory.”

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P. This article reflects the work of Robert Wielockx, “Poetry and Theology in the Adoro te devote: Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist and Christ’s Uniqueness,” in Christ among the Medieval Dominicans. Ed. Kent Emery, Jr. and Joseph Wawrykow (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1998), 157-174.

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