“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you …” (1 Cor. 11:23)(+)
This weekend we stand within the Octave of Corpus Christi, which is the special Feast Day Mass we celebrated in Chicopee this past Thursday evening.Corpus Christi, which is Latin for the Body of Christ, is simply the delayed celebration of the Holy Eucharist and its place within the church as Holy Communion.On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus said over the loaf of bread, “This is my body,” and over the cup of wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”But within a few hours of saying those words of institution, Jesus would be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, abandoned by His disciples, denied by Peter, tortured by the Romans and ridiculed by His own people, and finally would die a slow death on the cross.It would be inappropriate to joyously celebrate the God-given gift of the Eucharist under such circumstances.And so the church waits.Now that the Easter Season has run its course, we’ve celebrated the sharing of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and last weekend we tied all of that together with Trinity Sunday, now is that appropriate time.Now we return to the Eucharist and celebrate its eternal gift of bringing us and Christ into a holy communion.
On the actual Feast of Corpus Christi, the liturgy calls for us to process with the Eucharist to four altars set-up at the four corners of the church.The four altars represent the four corners of the world, that the Eucharist is an offering of God for all people.This was and is a radical departure from typical religious practice.The Eucharist is Jesus Himself mystically present under the forms of bread and wine.If we think back to the practices of the JerusalemTemple, the Temple that stood in the same city at the same time that Jesus gathered in the Upper Room and said the words of institution, then we see there an image of restricted holiness.Women and Gentiles were only allowed into the outer court of the Temple.Jewish men were allowed into the inner court.Only the Jewish priests could enter the Temple itself, and finally only the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year on the Day of Atonement, and it was in the darkness and emptiness of that small, confined, walled-off space of the Holy of Holies that the presence of God touched the world.It was a separated presence of the divine.This was the definition and the experience of holiness that surrounded Jesus as He gathered together with His small group of followers and gave us Himself in the Eucharist.
Jesus gives us another perspective on holiness.The Eucharist is pre-figured in the life of Jesus by the miraculous feeding of the thousands, and that’s why one of those Gospel stories has been chosen by the church to be read today.Luke tells us that about 5,000 men were present when Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the bread, and then gave it to the disciples to distribute to the others.These words intentionally mimic those of the Last Supper, but importantly the Evangelist tells it to us in the third-person.We don’t actually see Jesus do any of these things or hear Him say the words of blessing.That will have to wait for the dramatic moment of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist.But also think about the fact that thousands of people received that miraculous bread and yet only a handful stood by Jesus at the time of His trial and death.Jesus offers the gift of this miracle to people that He knows will not remain faithful to Him.
If we go a bit further into Luke’s Gospel story, we know that Judas was at the Last Supper because as soon as Jesus has distributed the bread and wine, He says, “‘And yet behold, the hand of the one who is to betray me is with me on the table.’” (22:21)Jesus knows that Judas will betray Him to death, and yet Jesus does not withhold the Eucharist from him.Think about this in contrast to the separated presence of the Divine as symbolized by the imposing structure of the JerusalemTemple.Jesus as present in the Eucharist is a universal gift intended for the peoples of the four corners of the world.It is pre-figured in the miracle of the loaves as shared with thousands, 99% of whom will not stay with Jesus as a follower.It is even offered on the night of its institution to Judas, the apostle who within moments of receiving it will betray Jesus over to the hands of His enemies.And yet the Eucharist remains holy.The Eucharist remains the presence of Christ in our world.The Eucharist promises holy communion with God to all who will receive it faithfully.The Eucharist actually changes the definition of holy from a separated presence to a communion shared with God.
We’re about a week away from Flag Day, the day which commemorates the designation of the Stars and Stripes as our national emblem since 1777.The protocol of the flag may help us to better understand the rituals surrounding the Eucharist.The flag is to be respected, but it doesn’t have to always be protected.I think of the flag I saw displayed at FortMcHenry.It survived the British attack during the War of 1812.It was torn and tattered, but the fact that it still flew inspired the writing of our National Anthem.We should respect the flag, but we don’t always have to protect the flag.Likewise, we should treat the Eucharist with great respect by fasting, Confession, and rituals such as kneeling before the tabernacle, blessing ourselves after receiving Communion, and trying to lead lives worthy of carrying Jesus with us from this place.But the Eucharist is also offered in Open Table, which means that if a person approaches in good conscience we do not withhold the sacrament because sometimes the Eucharist is most needed in times of moral turmoil.The sacrament is meant to be shared not used as a punishment against sinners, the divorced or even people who vote the “wrong” way.This is because the Eucharist is to be respected, but need not be protected.This respects the example of holiness that Jesus gave us in His life’s example and in His institution of the sacrament.May we pray together to always reverence the presence of Jesus in the sacrament of our altar no matter how often we receive it, and may we pray that its grace when shared with all people may bring them to a greater devotion to God and that’s why it must be shared as Open Table.For these things we pray in Jesus’ name.Amen.(+)