Ars Praedicandi: The Body and Blood of Christ

by Edward Foley, OFM Cap

One of my personal challenges
about preaching at Old Saint Pat’s
is that I am not here every week,
and like other preachers move around from Mass to Mass …
Last week the 8:00, this week the 11:15, next week in LA.
The fun is that I get to celebrate with assemblies,
different teams of ministers of hospitality and musicians.
A downside from my perspective, however,
is that each homily ends up being sort of a discrete adventure,
often without the possibility of referencing
some previously made point.
This is especially true these special feasts after Pentecost –
last week Trinity, this week of the Body and Blood of Christ,
each of which have distinctive readings
out of sync with the lectionary cycle.

Last week I suggested that the Feast of the Trinity
could be considered “a feast of ideas.”
This is a designation that some theologians use
to distinguish those feasts
that do not have some historical basis
such as Christmas, or Good Friday
or what David Tracy calls “the Christian fact.”

Feasts of saints also have an historical anchor
like the feast of Patrick … we know he lived and died.

Which is why feasts like that of St. Christopher
were removed from the calendar after Vatican II
because there was no evidence
that the Christ-bearer ever actually lived.

Now you might be saying to yourself,
“Now just a minute Padre,
you seemed to have overlooked the gospel
which proves that the feast of the Body and Blood
Is NOT a feast of ideas … but an historical remembrance
of Jesus actually saying
‘This is my body … this is my blood!’
So the feast is not “idea” based … but history-based.”

And therein lies the mystery of this feast.
And also the danger of bad theology … even heresy.
For if we hold that this is essentially an historical feast
we could similarly assert
that when we go to communion
we receive the historical body of Jesus,
his natural flesh and blood born of Mary.
Which is not the teaching of the Church.

A few years ago, I read a powerful, dark and brooding novel,
The Buried Giant, by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro,
set in mythical post-Arthurian England.
Central to the narrative is some form of amnesia
that has enveloped the British countryside
and all its inhabitants,
both Saxons and Britons,
who live in a foggy peace with each other.

Besides the amnesiatic fog,
the novel follows Wistan, a young Saxon warrior,
and the Briton Gawain, an aging knight
and nephew of the long dead king Arthur.

Wistan and Gawain are respectful yet mortal enemies,
not fighting over some beautiful woman but an aging dragon,
whom Merlin enchanted years ago
after Arthur’s bloody conquest of the Saxons.

The dragon’s breath is the fog that induces this societal amnesia,
dampening the memories of hatred and slaughter,
rivalry and division,
that grew out of Arthur’s bloody conquest of the Saxons.

And so there was a Camelot of sorts,
but more a camelotic ruse,
and once the dragon is slain
memory returns …

A memory that will once again feed a smoldering anger
between Britons and Saxons
and lead to war.

Memory is the buried giant here,
and when it raises its fiendish head,
personal division and societal chaos ensue.

The revelation here is that the death of the dragon,
the lifting of the fog,
did not create the hatred and division,
rather it revealed it … in all of its destructive ugliness.
From time to time we witness the lifting of an amnesiatic fog.
Recently those have included the #MeToo movement,
exposing the destructive ugliness
of sexual harassment of women.

The “NeverAgain movement” begun by the survivors
of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
has helped lift the boomerang fog
that induces national amnesia
a few weeks after one more school mass shooting.

And then this last week
we witness an apparently Ambien-assisted tweet
by a high profile television celebrity.
Did not create, but revealed again
the vile and abhorrent racism
that yet courses through our national body.

All fog lifting, however, does not pull away the veil,
only on the abhorrent or obscene.

One could suggest, for example, that the recent wedding
of the now Duke and Duchess of Suffolk
not only lifted the veil that sometimes shrouds
the very diverse, even racially mixed British population,

But also that Meghan Markle may not be the first royal
of African Ancestry,
a first that seems to go to the 18th century –
Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.

On a smaller scale I find the best contributions
from “Storycorps”  or “This I believe”
or the long-running Harry Porterfield feature
“Someone You Should Know”
(featured on Chicago CBS Television Station Channel 2).

As welcome veil-lifters,
light-shedders,
and laser pointers
to the good, the gracious, and the generous
that surrounds us each day in bountiful and beautiful ways

What is always staring is in the face
is not always clear,
is not always even perceptible,
until someone … for good or for ill …
disperses the fog and lifts the veil.
I have taken this excursus into
the work of Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro,
racist tweets and royal weddings,
because of their fog-dispersing
and veil-lifting power
to teach us something important
about today’s gospel,
about today’s feast,
about the very act of communion,
and thus about Christian life.

It is true that three of our Gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke –
have Jesus identifying the bread with his body
and the wine with his blood …

But it seems to me that those were fog-lifting,
veil-rending,
mystery-dispersing words
attempting to provide clarity for his disciples
about the schooling he had provided them
over the previous three years
as his earthly life was clearly and precipitously
coming to a close.

In selecting, mentoring, and sometimes chiding his disciples,
it is clear that Jesus has been concerned
about their moral and spiritual and social development
in standing with the poor and the marginalized,
the contaminated and the sick,
the widows and the orphans.

It is also clear, in his rejection of empty ritualism,
that Jesus was not overly concerned about rubrics,
and he did not put the letter of the law
ahead of the good of God’s people.
Thus he had no problem with healing people on the Sabbath.

Thus in these famous words about body and blood,
Jesus is not teaching his disciples how to say Mass
or giving them a doctrinal lesson on transubstantiation.

Rather, as I imagine it,
Jesus is saying to his disciples something like:
“For the past three years you have feasted on me,
you have devoured my teaching,
dined on my Word,
basked in the glow in my intimacy with my Father,
drunk too much wine at that wedding feast,
and been nourished by the power of healing.

You have eaten me up and sometimes spit me out.

In case you haven’t noticed it,
the authorities are hunting for me
and soon I will go the way of John the Baptist,
decapitated or crucified … one way or the other,
I will be gone.

Eucharist, Daniel Bonnel, 2011

And who will carry on this ministry,
who will announce good news to the captives?
Heal the sick?
Protect the children?
Offer respect to the divorced and the outlier?

In a phrase, who will be my body in the world?

If you eat this bread … which I now identify as my real self,
then you too become my real self,
for this bread is my body … and if you eat it
you commit yourself to being my body as well.”

“But there’s a catch.” Jesus continues. “If you want to be my body,
it is not about prestige or privilege,
about apostolic honor or clerical pride …
For if you want to be my body in the world
You have to drink of the cup.

It is a cup of joy and a cup of blood,
a cup of blessing and a cup of sacrifice,
a cup of dying and one of rising.

Drinking of this cup is drinking of the covenant in my blood,
the blood that will soon drain out of my earthly body.
If you drink of the cup
you enter a life of sacrifice …
which is the only way you can truly be my body in the world.”

From the horrors of the death camps during World War II
comes the story of a small group of Christian prisoners,
forbidden to worship, as were their Jewish sisters and brothers.
But one night, as their Jewish friends kept the guards busy,
the Christians huddled together.

The pastor began:  “This meal reminds us of the torture, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He asked us to remember him by repeating this action in the spirit of fellowship. The bread which we do not have today, but which is present in the spirit of Jesus, is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread and the hunger of so many millions of human beings. When Christ distributed bread among his disciples and when he fed the people he revealed the will of God that we should have bread and be bread for each other.

The wine which we do not have today is his blood present in the light of our faith. Christ poured it out for us to move us toward freedom in the long march for justice. Christ made all persons of one blood:  the blood of Christ represents our dreams of a unified humanity, of a just society without difference of race or class.”

The pastor then held out his empty hands to the person on his right and left, and others around the circle did the same; as he placed his hand over theirs he boldly exclaimed:  “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me. Take, drink this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with humanity.” Then they raised each other’s hands to their mouths, kissing the scarred and bony flesh of their fellow prisoners, and so received the body and blood of Christ, and returned to prison life with new hope, and awareness of the presence of Christ that lived in and through them.

Soon most of us will join a wondrous procession.
Accept the bread and affirm it as the body of Christ.
Drink from the cup and affirm it as blood of Christ.

But that is not the only procession we need this day.
For if it is an authentic feast of the Body and Blood of Christ,
we need a second communion procession
out the door,
into our city streets, neighborhoods, workplaces,
schools, shopping malls and homes,
becoming fresh flesh and blood incarnations
of the living bread for which the world hungers –
through sacrificial living
for which we were baptized.

In the words of St. Theresa,
“Christ has no body now but yours ….”
But ours.
Let us, as St. Augustine urged us,
become what we eat,
and do so in the sacrificial spirit of what we drink
through Christ our Lord.

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28 comments

  1. Wonderful – to your concluding point. Watched the Saturday vigil mass (this is a long standing tradition) – in attendance were 26 diocesan seminarians who then accompanied less than a hundred catholics from our church north of downtown to the Cathedral – it was a Eucharistic procession – the *old* Corpus Christi procession.

    Let me focus on my use of *old* – this Corpus Christi procession focused on the *presence* (what we see) while completely missing the *meaning* – it is an *old* sign that only demonstrates half the story. There is no effort in this *tired* procession to process out into the world to feed the hungry, heal the sick, address injustice, etc.

    Which is sad – that procession would make so much more sense if it wound its way through Dallas neighborhoods that are looking for Christians/Catholics fed by the body and blood of Christ to help them seek justice. There are many Dallas parishes in neighborhoods that are well below the poverty level – yet, this *old* procession is all bells and whistles….no meaning. In fact, who and why are they really processing? Who benefits? It appears to be an exercise in *navel gazing*.

    Dallas is one, if not the most, unequal city in the USA both economically and class wise. The current bishop just initiated a Be Golden campaign….it would be nice if this *old* Corpus Christi procession could be updated to address the *meaning* of the feast rather than an exercise in historical piety.

    1. What should a *new* procession look like in your opinion?

      I have never been to Texas and so I do not know what the Corpus Christi procession in Dallas is like, but I wonder if you have talked to a large-enough number of participants before determining that it has all ‘no meaning’. I would actually guess that praying for God’s blessing for the city and the fruits of the earth should be enough of a meaning.

    2. Bill – you raise very good questions, and your suggestions are intriguing, and a positive contribution to this discussion.

      Berthold Kress – if your aim is above all to defend your (pre-conciliar) vision of things and fight against what is said at Pray Tell, rather than enter into a respectful dialogue with other contributors and commenters, I would ask you not to comment further here. It’s not a good use of your time or ours, and it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing much.

      awr

      1. awr – It seems uncharitable to interpret Berthold as promoting some purposefully antagonistic viewpoint, especially such a well-intended comment. Disparaging Eucharistic processions as meaningless navel gazing (as Bill does) seems to ignore the reality of the True Presence.

        “In fact, who and why are they really processing? Who benefits?” – They are processing the Risen Lord; they are processing to declare His lordship and publicly glorify Him; the whole city benefits.

        This is not to say we can ignore economic justice issues; faith without works is truly dead. Processing the Lord without heeding His call to justice for the poor is hypocritical. But defending a Eucharistic procession as having meaning is certainly not some regressive, pre-conciliar viewpoint.

      2. Will, my comment is based not just on this comment, but on many, many comments, not all of which remain at this website, that point to a clear pattern. I stand by my assessment.

        No one – and I mean no one! – is ignoring or denying the Real Presence. This is a misreading, and a common one in the blogosphere.

        A critique is to be made, though, of those (I don’t necessarily mean you) you misunderstand Real Presence by taking it out of context and focusing on it in a way which is a distortion. This misunderstanding sometimes leads to suspicions and false accusations against mainline Catholics. It sometimes presents itself as it is a deeper or better understanding of Real Presence, alas.

        awr

      3. I definitely wouldn’t go so far as to accuse someone as denying the Real Presence, more neglecting its centrality and sufficiency as an explanation for the tradition of Eucharistic processions. It’s certainly laudable to call out places where we as a Church should more fully live out Christ’s call. As Devin correctly notes, homilies can serve this end, and the procession is just a single component of the celebration of Corpus Christi.

    3. A service (like a Corpus Christi procession) or sermon that focuses on one aspect of the Eucharist to the exclusion of other aspects (no matter how important or indispensable those aspects may be) are fine. No doubt many homilies were preached on Sunday that focused either exclusively on meal/community or sacrifice. One is no better than the other.

      The only small quibbles I have with Fr. Foley’s amazing sermon is that it seems to imply that social justice (as indispensable as it is) is the sole purpose of the sacrament. Also the rubrics comment is debate especially in light of Mark’s Gospel which seems to suggest a great attention to preparation and detail.

    4. Sounds like it was actually a wonderful procession that probably gave spiritual strength to many of those involved. One man’s “meaningless navel-gazing” is another’s spiritual nourishment. People need strength to live the Gospel.

  2. Philippa of Hainault † 1369, Queen of Edward III, was referred to sometimes as black. A contemporary account, reported to Edward II, before the marriage, when she was 9(?) :-
    Her nose is fairly smooth and even, save that is somewhat broad at the tip and flattened, yet it is no snub nose. Her nostrils are also broad, her mouth fairly wide. Her lips somewhat full and especially the lower lip…all her limbs are well set and unmaimed, and nought is amiss so far as a man may see. Moreover, she is brown of skin all over, and much like her father; and in all things she is pleasant enough, as it seems to us.

  3. It seems to me that the meaning and purpose of Real Presence is often distorted by placing all the emphasis on devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. I am quite weary, for instance, of individuals who cite polling data which points to significant numbers of Catholics who don’t believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. What many don’t believe is that the Eucharistic presence is a physical one by which one can say that Christ is here or over there—in direct contradiction to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas who provided us with the language of transubstantiation in the first place. We certainly may and ought to give great reverence to the Eucharist, but Jesus directed that we eat and drink to proclaim his death until he comes again in glory. That proclamation is most fully expressed when by dying to ourselves we not only recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread but in our neighbors, especially those who are hungry, thirsty, naked,homeless, sick, or in bondage. Instead of exclusively focusing on the consecration of bread and wine we should give greater attention to the consecration of our very selves because we have obeyed his commandment to take and eat, take and drink. Jesus is really present in the world to make all things new through the members of his body whom he wishes to transform.

  4. I hope I won’t be roundly mocked for saying so, but I am perplexed by Fr. Foley’s assertion:

    “For if we hold that this is essentially an historical feast
    we could similarly assert
    that when we go to communion
    we receive the historical body of Jesus,
    his natural flesh and blood born of Mary.
    Which is not the teaching of the Church.”

    In the USCCB’s “The Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist: Basic Questions and Answers” from 2001, the response to Q.14 includes the following statement:

    “During the Eucharist, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. As human, Jesus Christ has a human body, a resurrected and glorified body that in the Eucharist is offered to us in the form of bread and wine.”

    I can’t see how the two statements square. I also have difficulty squaring Fr. Foley’s assertion with the received and venerable text, “Ave verum corpus, natum de Maria virgine, vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine…”

    I’m not attempting to be crudely physicalist here. As the Council of Trent says, Christ is present, “by a manner of existing, which, though we can scarcely express it in words, yet can we, by the understanding illuminated by faith, conceive, and we ought most firmly to believe, to be possible unto God.” But that the historical flesh of Christ is in fact really part of what is present under the species of bread and wine by this manner of existence — I just don’t see how that can be denied within the Catholic tradition.

    I’m sure I’m missing something. Please help.

    1. Excellent question, Sean.

      Fr. Foley is correct. (I’m not surprised – his doctorate is in theology and he has spent a lifetime studying, teaching, and writing about this stuff.)

      In Communion we do not simply receive the historical body of Jesus, the natural body he had when he walked this earth. We receive, rather, his resurrected and glorified body, as the USCCB says, which is the only human body he now has. This resurrected and glorified body is related to his natural, historical, pre-Resurrection body, to be sure, but it’s not the same thing.

      “Ave Verum” hails the true body that was born, suffered, and sacrificed, but it does not claim that this is what we’re receiving, or all that we’re receiving, in the Eucharist.

      I think Ave Verum would be clearer, and maybe we should read it, as if it said “ONCE born… ONCE suffered and was sacrificed…” – for all of that is very true of the resurrected, glorified body. The natural, historical body of Jesus is the one that was later resurrected and glorified. We receive the latter, but it once was the former.

      awr

      1. Resurrected and glorified Body? Yes, to be sure. But he showed Himself alive and in still in a completely natural body by many proofs after the Resurrection. If He is not in a natural body now, then our humanity has no chance of the glorification that He received. And I would say it’s also historical, otherwise the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension are myths. A better way to describe It may be that His body is now in It’s perfect state, but certainly not two different bodies, one “natural and historical” and the other “resurrected and glorified.”

      2. Hi John,
        This isn’t my understanding. The post-Resurrection accounts in the Scriptures are ambiguous and complicated. Taken as a whole they seem to suggest that they are appearances of a body which is the same body as the natural pre-Resurrection one, but in a different state. It can pass through walls, but can be touched. I don’t think Scripture scholars or theologians hold that the post-Resurrection Jesus is identical in every way with the natural body before the Resurrection. Nor does it need to be in order to be capable of transforming our natural bodies. It’s OK for Jesus to be at a different, more advanced stage of transformation than we are yet.
        I’m not an expert in Scripture studies. If others have a better understanding, please share it.
        awr

  5. Perhaps in homilies this weekend, there were those who focused on Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. That said, I don’t know of anyone who consistently focuses exclusively on the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament to the exclusion of service to the poor or disadvantaged. I would think that even the most rabid proponent of Eucharistic devotion would expect that devotees follow through with service.

    That said, already in the first century, the bishop of one of the most ancient sees condemned those who “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”

    Perhaps devotion to the Blessed Sacrament may serve as a beneficial corrective to those who would adopt a merely symbolic approach.

    1. Who are these Catholics who adopt a “merely symbolic” approach that doesn’t truly affirm the real presence? I don’t know of any serious thinkers who do. (At the popular level I’m sure there are all kinds of misunderstandings.)

      I think I sense what you’re trying to counteract, but I think it is profoundly unhelpful to label it “merely symbolic.” The label and the wording suggests that “symbol” is bad or deficient or not real – which cripples the conversation. “Merely symbolic” is the kind of wording that makes some suspicious people (I don’t mean you) wrongly think that Catholic writers are denying the real presence when they’re not.

      To move the conversation forward helpfully, to promote greater mutual understanding, it would be important to clarify that symbols are real. It would be important to deepen our faith-based understanding in the Eucharist as a symbol – which is not to say it is less than real, but that it is more real than we might have realized – as a sacrament and not as a physical, natural, localized body. I’m sure many Catholics who believe the latter think they’re affirming the Real Presence, and they sometimes feel commissioned to critique Catholic writers whom they think aren’t sufficiently affirming the Real Presence. But it’s all based on a misunderstanding. Christ is really, truly, bodily, substantially present in the Eucharist – as a symbol, not as a physical relic.

      Then the next question would be: what kind of liturgical practice, what kind of devotional practice, would serve to promote the authentic understanding I’ve briefly described here? And what kinds of practices and devotions might be promoting the misunderstanding I’ve described?

      awr

  6. Why place worship of the Blessed Sacrament and serving the poor in opposition to one another? There is a time and place for both. Indeed, rightly the former should lead to the latter. Nor is it helpful to imply that those who engage in Eucharistic adoration are lacking in living the Gospel love of neighbor. Christian charity was not invented at Vatican II.

  7. To quote you – “Nor is it helpful to imply that those who engage in Eucharistic adoration are lacking in living the Gospel love of neighbor.”

    Sorry, in my review of all commenters, no one *implied* that anyone lacked in living the Gospel love of neighbor.

    Rather – this was suggested: “…..that procession would make so much more sense if it wound its way through Dallas neighborhoods that are looking for Christians/Catholics fed by the body and blood of Christ to help them seek justice. There are many Dallas parishes in neighborhoods that are well below the poverty level…..”
    In addition – “The current bishop just initiated a Be Golden campaign….it would be nice if this *old* Corpus Christi procession could be updated to address the *meaning* of the feast rather than an exercise in historical piety.”

    Focus is on the *meaning* of the procession with a suggestion that an update could be *both/and* and an actual experience of the bishop’s Be Golden campaign – appears that an assumption is being *implied* in your comment.

  8. The reserved Eucharist, the Body outside of the celebration of Mass, is reserved only to take to the sick or other person in need of it at an unusual time. That is to say, the Eucharist that is acclaimed in processions is a sign of justice for the poor! It is for the poor and hungry, and it is as a manifestation of God who comes to us in our neediness that we worship it. There is no disjunction between the reserved Eucharist and concern for the hungry.

    Having said that, it certainly is possible for devotion to the Eucharist to forget this. It is possible to conduct a procession that holds out the Bread of Life and leaves the people who see it as hungry as they were before. Spiritually hungry as well as physically, with the food revered in defiance of hunger instead of as an answer to it. A procession that is too concerned with devotion, and not concerned with sharing the bountiful grace of the Eucharist, misses the reality of the Eucharist.

  9. On a hasty first reading, Francis’ own Corpus Christi homily at Ostia — as reported by “Whispers…” — seems to be generally in tune with Bill deHaas’ approach. I would be keenly interested in the thoughts of the pros.

  10. One powerful way of converting “symbol” to action is to publicly break the host used for procession/adoration into smaller pieces and have those pieces taken as Holy Communion to the sick and housebound, having informed those watching that this is what will happen. In a very simple way it makes the point that devotion should not be inward-looking.

  11. If there’s one thing that Pope Francis is clear about it’s that he is the Vicar of Christ for all Christians and for all who are seeking God. And I am sure he would like to see every bishop be a good shepherd for all the people in their respective flocks. But he meets with resistance, opposition, and even contempt from those whose primary image of the church seems to be that of a fortress in possession of all truth that its officers must safeguard above all else. Right doctrine and practice were important to Paul and the apostles, and to their successors in the early centuries of the church, but that didn’t prevent them from affirming the totally unforeseen revelation that the gentiles could be saved by faith through grace. Jesus said they will know his followers as his disciples by their love, not by their ability to articulate doctrines. Those who style themselves as “orthodox” Catholics have a harder time living with this overarching reality: Jesus is the truth but he did not impose it on anyone because he had other sheep to care for. The sooner we retrieve the image of the church as the Body of Christ which prevailed in the first millennium the sooner people will come to believe that Christ gave himself fully (body & blood, soul & divinity) so that his body would be bread for the world. The kind of bread that satisfies all hungers.

  12. There is a parish in our area that uses the big hosts and breaks them up because the pastor said he didn’t want anyone making the mistake they were not connected to the people who received Communion before and after them.

    The Diocese just asked that the practice be discontinued because of the possibility that the small particles could be profaned. Going back to Fr. Foley’s imagery: it is in the breaking of the bread that the fog is lifted.

    And so we wait while the priest or seminarian meticulously runs his finger along the creases of the corporal so that each particle will be be found. Meanwhile, following Fr. Foley’s imagery, the fog comes back.

  13. “It’s OK for Jesus to be at a different, more advanced stage of transformation than we are yet.”

    Father, I think that you’re saying the same thing as I did. After the Resurrection He still ate and drank, could be touched, and was able to appear and disappear, and pass through solid objects, and yet still bears the wounds of His Passion. His human body is now perfect. I don’t think that Holy Scripture supports that It’s anything but the same natural and historical body, but glorified, and not two different bodies. I’m open to correction though.

    1. I am not a scripture scholar either, but the relevant passage is 1 Cor 15. If you can make sense of it, let us know what you think.

      “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.
      If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.” 1 Cor 15:44

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