The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Year C)
1 Cor 11:23-26;
You are a priest for ever, in the line of Melchizedek
Eucharist - “Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission”
“The feast of Corpus Christi invites us to renew each year the wonder and joy of this wondrous gift of the Lord which is the Eucharist,” so Pope Francis reminded us during the Angelus, in Saint Peter’s Square, Saturday, 23 June 2019. Therefore, we celebrate with joy this Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which is fixed after the Sunday of the Holy Trinity (Thursday according to ancient tradition, in some countries such as the Vatican or Poland, Sunday in other countries such as Italy or Vietnam). From this succession of feasts the Eucharist emerges as “a free gift of the Blessed Trinity,” just as Pope Benedict XVI called it in his Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis precisely “on the Eucharist as the Source and Summit of the Church’s Life and Mission,” as stated in the title. I would like to invite all to reread this beautiful document for a proper review and deepening of the Eucharistic mystery (perhaps also consulting the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject). Here, we focus on three interesting aspects from a missionary perspective, following the logical thread of some peculiar details of the Gospel of the Mass.
1. The “Missionary” Context of the Multiplication of Bread
Today’s Gospel recounts the story of the multiplication of bread according to St Luke. This miracle, found in all four Gospels (a sign of a common ancient tradition), represents a kind of “anticipation” of the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus during the Last Supper, as suggested by the evangelists themselves. However, St. Luke, more than the others, placed the whole event in a missionary context. In fact, the passage begins, as we have heard, with a generic “Jesus spoke” (without any time indication). This actually corresponds to the precise moment of the return of the apostles after being sent by Jesus “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal [the sick]” (Lk 9:2). Thus, the multiplication of bread has a very significant setting, which states fully, “When the apostles returned, they explained to him what they had done. He took them and withdrew in private to a town called Bethsaida. The crowds, meanwhile, learned of this and followed him. He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and he healed those who needed to be cured”(Lk 9: 10-11).
In the light of such a precise description of St. Luke, the completely missionary perspective of the event emerges very clearly. The Twelve “apostles”, that is to say the “sent” ones, had just returned from their mission. Jesus then foresaw a time together with them “in private”, but for the crowds who “followed him”, he rested no more. Indeed, He “received them” and “and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and he healed…”, carrying out exactly the two activities entrusted to the Twelve in their mission, as seen above (cf. Lk 9:2). This reminds us of the words of the prophet of God, full of zeal for the salvation of the people: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, / for Jerusalem’s sake I will not keep still, / Until her vindication shines forth like the dawn / and her salvation like a burning torch” (Is 62:1). These are words which now find their complete fulfillment in Jesus.
2. The “complete” bread offered by Jesus
Therefore, Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the Gospel even in “inopportune time” (to use St. Paul’s expression) continues, despite physical fatigue. The multiplication of bread is then inserted in this context of Jesus’ tireless mission for the Kingdom of God. And it all begins with the beautiful welcoming action, a sign of limitless love, to the point of forgetting oneself to serve others. In fact, the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark made it clear that at that moment, “[Jesus] saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things”(Mk 6:34).
Furthermore, as underlined by the Lucan account, before feeding the people with bread, Jesus had taught them the things of God until the waning of the day! In this way, on that memorable day, the bread He shared with the crowd was not only the material one made of barley or wheat, but also and above all, that of the Word of God. Jesus offers a “complete” care for the people, giving all of himself in the mission.
This is also the case with the “Eucharistic bread” that Jesus offers with the institution of the Eucharist, when his “hour” has come. It will be the bread of his body and the blood of his flesh “for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51), but at the same time it will also be the bread of the teaching of Him, the Word of God, who has “the words of eternal life,” as seen in the extended Eucharistic discourse of Jesus following the multiplication of bread in the Gospel of John (cf. Jn 6:26-58,68). This is the “complete” bread that Jesus offers with love for the salvation of the world.
In this regard, the reflection of Pope Benedict XVI is quite indicative:
In the Eucharist Jesus does not give us a “thing,” but himself; he offers his own body and pours out his own blood. He thus gives us the totality of his life and reveals the ultimate origin of this love [of God]. He is the eternal Son, given to us by the Father. In the Gospel we hear how Jesus, after feeding the crowds by multiplying the loaves and fishes, says to those who had followed him to the synagogue of Capernaum: “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven; for the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:32-33), and even identifies himself, his own flesh and blood, with that bread: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). Jesus thus shows that he is the bread of life which the eternal Father gives to mankind. (Sacramentum Caritatis 7)
3. The Bread of Jesus and the Mission of the Community of the Faithful
Returning to the Gospel account of the multiplication of bread, we note that Jesus’ mission was shared with the apostles. The latter, who were already collaborators of Jesus in the proclamation of the Kingdom and in the care of the sick, will also be called to cooperate in the miracle of bread at the end of that memorable day. In fact, when they wanted to send the crowd away to “find provisions”, “he said to them, ‘Give them some food yourselves.’” Furthermore, the apostles will be asked to make the people sit “in groups of about fifty”, organizing them just as in the time of the journey of God’s People in the desert (cf. Ex 18:21,25). And even more importantly, it will be the disciples who will receive the loaves and fishes from Jesus to distribute to the crowd: “Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them [lit. “he blessed them”], he broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd”(Lk 9:16). Finally, in the mention that “the leftover fragments were picked up, they filled twelve wicker baskets,” it can be understood that it was these disciples who collected them (as stated in the Gospel of John [cf. Jn 6:12-13]).
As in the multiplication of bread, Jesus also involved his disciples in the Eucharistic Mystery with the explicit command to them: “Do this in memory of me.” Indeed, this recommendation is repeated twice in the account of St. Paul in the second reading, both after the words on bread and after those on wine. With this in mind, St. Paul concluded his concise account with a precious observation on the action of proclaiming Christ that goes together with participation in the Eucharist: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (1Cor 11:26).
And here is a beautiful reflection by Benedict XVI regarding the Eucharist and the mission of the community of the faithful:
The love that we celebrate in the sacrament [of Eucharist] is not something we can keep to ourselves. By its very nature it demands to be shared with all. What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him. The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission: “an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church.” (234) We too must be able to tell our brothers and sisters with conviction: “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 Jn 1:3). Truly, nothing is more beautiful than to know Christ and to make him known to others. The institution of the Eucharist, for that matter, anticipates the very heart of Jesus’ mission: he is the one sent by the Father for the redemption of the world (cf. Jn 3:16-17; Rom 8:32). At the Last Supper, Jesus entrusts to his disciples the sacrament which makes present his self-sacrifice for the salvation of us all, in obedience to the Father’s will. We cannot approach the eucharistic table without being drawn into the mission which, beginning in the very heart of God, is meant to reach all people. Missionary outreach is thus an essential part of the eucharistic form of the Christian life. (Sacramentum Caritatis 84).
In view of the aforementioned phrase of St. Paul to the Corinthians in the second reading, we recall the important clarification of the Pope on the nature of the Christian proclamation that starts from participation in the Eucharistic mystery:
Emphasis on the intrinsic relationship between the Eucharist and mission also leads to a rediscovery of the ultimate content of our proclamation. The more ardent the love for the Eucharist in the hearts of the Christian people, the more clearly will they recognize the goal of all mission: to bring Christ to others. Not just a theory or a way of life inspired by Christ, but the gift of his very person. Anyone who has not shared the truth of love with his brothers and sisters has not yet given enough. The Eucharist, as the sacrament of our salvation, inevitably reminds us of the unicity of Christ and the salvation that he won for us by his blood. The mystery of the Eucharist, believed in and celebrated, demands a constant catechesis on the need for all to engage in a missionary effort centred on the proclamation of Jesus as the one Saviour. This will help to avoid a reductive and purely sociological understanding of the vital work of human promotion present in every authentic process of evangelization. (Sacramentum Caritatis 86).
Finally, another reflection of the Pontiff in the same document on the farewell greeting at the end of the Eucharistic celebration will also be useful for us:
After the blessing, the deacon or the priest dismisses the people with the words: Ite, missa est. These words help us to grasp the relationship between the Mass just celebrated and the mission of Christians in the world. In antiquity, missa simply meant “dismissal.” However in Christian usage it gradually took on a deeper meaning. The word “dismissal” has come to imply a “mission.” These few words succinctly express the missionary nature of the Church. (Sacramentum Caritatis 51).
Let us then pray in conclusion that, as Pope Benedict XVI expressed, “through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, may the Holy Spirit kindle within us the same ardor experienced by the disciples on the way to Emmaus (cf. Lk 24:13-35) and renew our “eucharistic wonder” through the splendor and beauty radiating from the liturgical rite, the efficacious sign of the infinite beauty of the holy mystery of God”(Sacramentum Caritatis 97). We pray that all of us may always welcome with joy and gratitude the gift of the “complete” Bread that Jesus offers us in every Eucharistic celebration, the Bread of his Word and of his Body and Blood, to share it with others in our life, announcing the death and resurrection of the Lord, “until he comes.”