Christ could have nourished us in any way he wanted to. Instead, he chooses to take up the good things of this earth – wheat, water, wine.
A few summers ago, when I was serving as a deacon at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in Manhattan, one of the friars in the community was admitted to Rosary Hill, a home for patients dying of cancer run by the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters. Prior to his move, our brother had spent over thirty days in the hospital. Receiving all his nourishment from a feeding tube, he was unable to receive communion for several weeks. When one of the priests at St. Vincent Ferrer told a few of us about the wonderful way the sisters were caring for our brother, he noted that he was now able to receive communion daily, and that this was an answer to his (the priest’s) prayers. Someone asked him with mild surprise, “That’s what you were praying for?” Without missing a beat the priest replied, “Of course! That’s what it’s all about!”
Indeed, that’s what it’s all about, and every year the Church gives us the beautiful feast of Corpus Christi to celebrate the wondrous gift our Lord left us on the night before he died. Few prayers better encapsulate all that we receive in the Blessed Sacrament than St. Thomas’s O Sacrum Convivium, a prayer with which Dominicans frequently begin our communal recitation of the Divine Office: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ becomes our food, the memory of his Passion is celebrated, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
Christ Becomes our Food
In the Blessed Sacrament, “Christ becomes our food,” and in so doing he teaches us about himself, about ourselves, and about creation. To begin with the last of these, the Holy Eucharist reminds us of the goodness of creation, particularly of material creation. Christ could have nourished us in any way he wanted to, by a simple word or in a purely spiritual manner. Instead, he chooses to take up the good things of this earth – wheat, water, wine – and use them as instruments of his sacramental presence.
In the Blessed Sacrament he transfigures creation in a hidden manner and floods it with his glory. In this sacrament he also teaches us about ourselves, affirming the goodness of our bodies and how they work. Again, the Lord doesn’t simply zap us with grace – he nourishes us in the natural, bodily way in which we take ordinary food. “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55). Most stunningly, in this Sacrament he teaches us about himself. In itself, the Incarnation is already an unfathomable act of humility – the eternal Son took on our lowly human flesh.
As if that weren’t enough, he lowered himself to the point of death, death on a cross, as St. Paul says (Phil 2:8). But even that wasn’t enough to show the depths of his humility. Now he makes himself available to us under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine, and he makes himself present through the instrumentality of ordinary, unworthy priests.
The Memory of His Passion is Celebrated
In the Blessed Sacrament “the memory of his Passion is celebrated.” The Eucharistic Prayer proclaims this truth every time we attend Mass: our Lord left us this gift on the night before he died, thus interpreting for us his gruesome death as the greatest act of love the world has ever known. In this sacrifice, made present every day on the altar, Christ shows us the full meaning of God’s great acts in the Old Testament. As the sequence for this Sunday’s feast puts it, “Truth the ancient types fulfilling, Isaac bound, a victim willing, Paschal lamb, its lifeblood spilling, manna to the fathers sent.” These signs, all of which manifested God’s love for his people, come to completion in this perfect sacrifice.
By our participation in this sacrifice, we are made one. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading for the feast, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:16-17). By his passion, commemorated and made present every day in this sacrament until he returns, Christ heals the wounds of division, making us one in him.
The Soul is Filled with Grace
In the Blessed Sacrament “the soul is filled with grace.” The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who first came to dwell in us through baptism, come to us again and again, renewing their presence within us and giving us life: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (John 6:54, 56-57). This is why the Second Vatican Council described the Holy Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life.” The Christian life is a supernatural participation in the very life of God, a life that is renewed and strengthened within us every time we receive the Lord in Holy Communion.
A Pledge of Future Glory is Given to Us
Finally, in the Blessed Sacrament “a pledge of future glory is given to us.” The exalted food and drink that we receive at the Mass doesn’t prevent our frail bodies from falling apart and eventually succumbing to death. But in the Holy Eucharist we have a promise that death is not the end. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” These bodies of ours, weak and frail though they may be, by the grace of God bear his presence within them, serving as temples of the Most Holy Trinity. And he who is the source of our life, both body and soul, will one day conform our bodies to his own glorious body.
J. R. R. Tolkien, the twentieth-century English author most famous for his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, once wrote to one of his sons in a letter, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth.” This Sunday as we celebrate this great feast, let us give thanks to God for this ineffable gift, approaching to receive him with reverence and devotion, so that we might one day come to the fullness of eternal life in the glory of the resurrection – because that’s what it’s all about.