Ars praedicandi: Body and Blood of Christ, Year B, Ed Foley

by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin

For some reason when thinking about preaching today’s feast
a single advertising slogan has stuck in my head.

Of course, that is the goal of advertisers:
to lodge an enduring verbal or visual trigger in your brain
that moves your subconscious to recognition
– it’s called brand loyalty –
and then to action –
that’s called spending your hard-earned cash.

Sometimes this subconscious process,
that psychologists now identify as “priming,”
is trigger by slogans that touch deep values,
like the enduring phrase from DeBeers “diamonds are forever”
or the insurance classic: “you’re in good hands with Allstate.”

Other times effective slogans amuse us,
like “Where’s the beef” from Wendy’s, or
Alka Selzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
We respond to this hit of dopamine
with subconscious approval of the product
and a heightened instinct to buy when given the chance.

The phrase that kept popping into my mind this week, however,
was not Nike’s “Just do it”
or the Army’s “Be all that you can be,”
but the spectacularly unsuccessful
“This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.”

That phrase was rolled out in the late 1980’s
when the Cutlass Supreme was introduced.
Oldsmobile was trying to appeal to a younger generation.
The blunder, however, was that most Oldsmobile customers
at that time actually were fathers!

Despite the colossal failure of this ad campaign
the phrase has morphed and thrived in public parlance:

“This is Not Your father’s root beer”
was one of the first hard sodas on the market.
The 2016 remake of Ben-Hur was touted as
“this is not your father’s chariot race.”
There was also the “Not Your Mother’s” cookbook series.
And the “This is not your mother’s laundry” service
was quite popular on college campuses.

While hoping to avoid the backfire of the original Oldsmobile ad
or the theatrical disaster of the Ben-Hur remake,
I would like to submit that today’s feast
is not your parents’ Corpus Christi Feast.

Liturgy geeks – and yes, we do exist –
know that the feast of Corpus Christi,
literally the feast of the “Body of Christ,”
originated during the late medieval period in Liège, France,
and in the 13th century was extended to the whole church by Pope Urban IV,
first celebrated on the Thursday after Pentecost
and then the Thursday after Trinity Sunday.

It was intended to be a kind of Holy Thursday celebration
outside the confines of Lent without the shadow of Good Friday.

This was a traditional day of eucharistic processions,
of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament
and more widespread reception of holy communion.

One seldom-noticed development in the liturgical year
significant for rethinking this festival
was the mid-19th century development of a separate feast of
“The Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

That a feast around the Precious Blood might appear
as a kind of liturgical afterthought
six centuries after the establishment of a feast for the Body of Christ
is not surprising.

Roman Catholics have traditionally had a much stronger devotion
to Christ’s presence in the bread.
We don’t reserve the consecrated wine, but only the bread,
so eucharistic devotion is clearly focused on the bread.
Even when you look at the history of elevations in the Mass,
the elevation of the cup appears almost two centuries
after the elevation of the host had been introduced.

While it might be a bit of an overstatement,
I would suggest that Roman Catholics
manifest a holy indifference to the cup and the precious blood.
For many centuries people received only the bread.
When communion under both forms was finally allowed
and the cup was actually offered to the people –
something I look forward again in the near future –
many people simply by-passed the cup.

They had already received the whole Christ in the bread:
body and blood, humanity and divinity.
There was no need for the cup, which seemed redundant,
especially because of its potential for spreading disease.

A little-recognized change in the liturgical calendar
some 50 years ago, however, offers a pointed correction here,
and metaphorically brings me back to my father’s Oldsmobile.

After the reforms of Vatican II,
the official feast of the Precious Blood was eliminated
and joined to the ancient festival of Corpus Christi.
So technically today’s feast is not your parents’ Corpus Christi feast
but the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.

Now you might be thinking to yourself,
wow, that is amazingly uninteresting, or, even worse,
the old priest has way too much time on his hands.
Instead of abandoning him to researching outdated slogans
or liturgical minutiae …
maybe we can get him a membership in the Audubon Society
or buy him some puzzle books.

While I appreciate your concern about my mental well being,
I would contend that this seemingly innocuous piece
of liturgical minutiae
should have major repercussions,
not only about the way we celebrate this feast,
but also about its foundational eucharistic spirituality.

As some of you know, the “butterfly effect”
was language developed by meteorologist Edward Lorenz.
In 1961 Lorenz was running an experiment on weather modeling
and in the process, he discovered that even the divergence
of one-thousandth of a decimal point
would render vastly different results.
A few years later he delivered a celebrated lecture titled:
“Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil
Set off a tornado in Texas?”

Taking the covenantal cup of Christ’s Blood seriously
might seem like little a small flap in our theologies,
but the resulting whirlwind of insight and action
should not be overlooked, either in Texas or Brazil.

One of the clues to the influence of this little change
is apparent in today’s readings
in which blood imagery appears quite prominent,
especially in the first and second readings.

Depictions of people being sprinkled with the blood of bulls
recalled in both of those readings
might strike us as at least strange
if not offensive.
On the other hand, last weekend on Memorial Day
we recalled the ultimate sacrifice
of those who died for our freedom
and unfurled tens of thousands of flags
whose red stripe reminds us that our freedom
was purchased with the blood of many.

How many times have national poets and politicians evoked
images of the blood-soaked fields of Europe and the Pacific
where the seeds of freedom and democracy were re-sown?

How many other cities and towns, beaches and outposts,
have been consecrated by the blood of heroes and victims,
martyrs and the innocent,
taking a stand for human dignity and human rights?

When we receive the consecrated bread at communion
we not only welcome the Eucharistic Christ into our lives,
but commit ourselves in a particular way to being Eucharist.

Many years ago my godson was preparing for his first communion.
After they had returned home from Mass
a few weeks before that event,
as the mother was making pancakes,
Brian and his younger brother Cameron
began to argue about who would get the first pancake.
The mother, thinking this could be a teaching moment
for Brian in his preparation for first communion,
said to him, “you know Brian, if Jesus was here
he would say ‘give my brother the first pancake.’”
Without skipping a beat, Brian turned to his younger brother
and said, “You be Jesus!”

Not to put too fine a point on it,
the act of receiving the bread announces in no uncertain terms
“you be Jesus.”

Notably, the Cup proclaims a parallel yet distinctive truth.
In the words of the biblical scholar Xavier Leon-Dufour,
the bread announces “what we are to become.”

The Cup, however, does not do the same.
We are never asked to be the blood of Christ.
Rather, the cup reveals “how” we become Christ’s body:
by pouring ourselves out for each other
in service, even suffering for one another.
Not only in our living, but even in our dying
our sacrificial stepping aside, letting go
so that others might flourish. [1]

One of the great spirits of the English Church in the 20th century
was Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster.
His care for folk, especially the marginalized and vulnerable
was legendary.

In the early 1980’s Ethiopia was experiencing terrible famine.
Millions died of hunger.
Hume made a visit during this crisis and when he returned home
told this story:

On one occasion, I boarded a helicopter that flew me to a mountain settlement high up in the hills where people were starving and waiting for food, food which perhaps was never to arrive.

When I stepped out of the helicopter, a little boy of ten ran up to me and took my hand. He wore only a loincloth around his waist. The whole time I was there, he would not let go of me.

As we walked around the settlement, he never spoke a word. But whenever we stopped to greet a group of people, he raised his free hand and pointed to his mouth and, with the other, he lifted mine and rubbed it gently up and down his cheek.

I was terribly moved. Here was an orphan boy, lost and starving, who had managed with two simple gestures to express our deepest hungers, our deepest hungers as human beings, namely our hunger for food and our hunger for love.
I have never forgotten this incident, continued the Cardinal, and, to this day, I wonder if that little child is still alive.

I do remember, however, that as I boarded the helicopter to leave this tragic place, I turned back and looked down and saw the boy standing there, gazing up at me with eyes of sadness and reproach.

Engaging in eucharist is an invitation to feed our own hungers
of spiritual food and divine love.
But the specter of that cup of blood poured out for us
also missions us to feed others,
to pour ourselves out in menial tasks and great projects
so that the world does not view us
with eyes of sadness and reproach,
but instead sees this living body of Christ,
fulfilling its baptismal commitment
to satisfy hungry hearts and broken lives
with bread and love born of sacrificial living,
through Christ our Lord.

[1] Xavier Leon-Dufour, Sharing the Eucharistic bread: The Witness of the New Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 64.

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