June 23, 2019 • Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi)
Reading 1: Genesis 14:18–20
Reading 2: 1 Corinthians 11:23–26
Gospel: Luke 9:11b–17
The Solemnity of Corpus Christi — in English, The Body and Blood of Christ — celebrates the institution of the Eucharist. Of course, Holy Thursday also does that, but being in Holy Week, there is a pervasive sadness about that particular day and season. The feast of Corpus Christi is one of joy and exaltation. The feast was first celebrated on August 29, 1246 in Liège, Belgium, by order of its bishop. By 1264, the Pope ordered the feast to be kept worldwide, although it didn’t really take off until a second proclamation in 1311. Traditionally, it has been accompanied by a solemn procession of the Eucharist through the streets of the surrounding community, although this has lost favor in some areas. My former parish certainly did this, although my current parish does not, perhaps because it isn’t in a very good neighborhood for religious displays.
We have mentioned in our readings today the mysterious Melchizedek, King of Salem. Salem is generally believed to be Jerusalem, and not only was Melchizedek a king but also the priest of the area. There are several odd things about Abraham’s meeting with Melchizedek.
- He is mentioned as both a territorial king and a priest.
- He is a priest of “God Most High,” even though the Jewish priesthood had not yet been established and wouldn’t be until the time of Moses.
- He brings out bread and wine, although there is no reason given for this.
- Abraham, who is not ruled over by this king-priest, nonetheless gives him tithes from the spoils of his recently-won battles.
- Abraham is blessed by Melchizedek, even though Abraham was the man of the promise, chosen by God.
- The Epistle to the Hebrews says that he was “without father, without mother, without genealogy.”
- Melchizedek’s name means “king of righteousness,” and his title, King of Salem, means “king of peace,” which are two of Christ’s titles.
There is a lot packed into this man, and yet there is also so much that we do not know. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:
The silence of Scripture about the facts of Melchizedek’s birth and death was part of the divine plan to make him prefigure more strikingly the mysteries of Christ’s generation and the eternity of His priesthood. Abraham, patriarch and father of nations, paid tithes to Melchizedek and received his blessing. This was all the more remarkable, since the priest-king was a stranger, to whom he was not bound to pay tithes, as were the children of Israel to the priests of the Aaronic line. Abraham, therefore, and Levi “in the loins of his father” (Hebrews 7:9), by acknowledging his superiority as a type of Christ (for personally he was not greater than Abraham), thereby confessed the excellence of Christ’s priesthood.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say that:
At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood. Faithful to the Lord’s command, the Church continues to do, in his memory and until his glorious return, what he did on the eve of his Passion: “He took bread.…” “He took the cup filled with wine.…” The signs of bread and wine become, in a way surpassing understanding, the Body and Blood of Christ; they continue also to signify the goodness of creation. Thus, in the Offertory, we give thanks to the Creator for bread and wine, fruit of the “work of human hands,” but above all as “fruit of the earth” and “of the vine” — gifts of the Creator. The Church sees in the gesture of the king-priest Melchizedek, who “brought out bread and wine,” a prefiguring of her own offering. – Catechism of the Catholic Church §1333
So we understand Melchizedek to be a type, a prefiguring of Christ himself as Priest and King. However, no longer do the bread and wine remain only as bread and wine, but through the consecrating words of the priest, and through Christ’s death on the Cross, they are mysteriously changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. This is no Catholic myth, but in fact it has always been believed up until the year 1517, when the Protestant Reformation sought to deny this belief.
We see in the words of St. Justin Martyr, writing around 150 AD, that this idea was always taught. He says in his First Apology, chapter 66:
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
And by whom is this food blessed in prayer? We find the answer in chapter 65 of the First Apology:
Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. [This is known as the Sign of Peace in our modern Mass.] There is then brought to the president of the brethren [the president is one who presides, and priests today are said to preside over Mass] bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he, taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.
So we see that Melchizedek, priest and king offering bread and wine, prefigures Christ who is High Priest and King of Kings, offering His Body and Blood through the consecrated bread and wine, and through the laying on of hands at Ordination, even today our priests offer bread and wine so that it may become the Body and Blood of Christ. Melchizedek nourished Abraham, who in return offered tithes. Christ asked Peter to feed his sheep, and through the laying on of hands and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the other disciples did just that as they presided over Mass where believers offered tithes. And finally, through the laying on of hands and through the succession of the Apostles, we in turn are fed and nourished by this most Holy Food, and we also rightly offer our tithes to the priest who presides in the name of God.
In our Gospel we see a poignant foreshadowing of the priesthood the disciples would inherit from their Master. As evening wears on, the disciples are worried for the thousands who are listening to Christ. What will they eat? Who will feed them? They need to be sent to the towns so that they can find food and lodging. But Christ says No to this very reasonable request. He tells the disciples that they themselves should feed the crowd. A hasty inventory is taken, and a mere five loaves and two fish are found, hardly enough for the disciples themselves, let alone a crowd of thousands.
But Christ tells them to have the crowd sit down. He takes the bread and the fish, raises his eyes to heaven, and blesses them. He breaks them and hands them to the disciples, who take this little bit of food and feed 5,000 people with it. In faith they handed it out, and their faith was rewarded by all being fed, with 12 baskets of food being left over.
In faith our own priests today raise the bread and the wine, they bless it, and every day, the world over, they feed the crowds with plenty left over, the very Body and Blood of Christ, which unites us to Him and to each other. This Sunday, that is what and Who we are celebrating.