The Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi). Fr David McLean reflects upon the rich symbolic meaning of Holy Communion.
Every year, lots of children are prepared for their First Communion, which is of course quite relevant to today’s feast of Corpus Christi, sometimes known by its English title of the Body and Blood of Christ. The English title perhaps sounds a bit blunter. Some catechetical material for preparing children for First Communion warns against talking about ‘blood’ in case it frightens the children. That may seem a rather demanding restriction to some catechists: talking about the body and blood of Christ without referring to the blood.
There is, of course, much more to Corpus Christi than language redolent of sacrificial worship. Catechetical material for First Communion often compares the Mass with a family meal and such a comparison does have its merits. A family meal is not only a chance to eat the food we need for physical sustenance, it also sustains the family as a family. It binds the family together and builds up the family; gives them a sense of communion as a family; even celebrates the family.
The Mass has its points of comparison with a family meal. The Mass is where we receive our spiritual food that sustains us spiritually. And coming together to share the Eucharist gives us a sense of communion as a community. The Mass is a celebration of that communion. And hopefully, as with the family meal, the Mass is a celebration we look forward to, that we anticipate eagerly, and wouldn’t miss for the world.
Analogies though only take us so far. They never give us a complete picture. Nobody at a family meal suggests that we drink blood, symbolically or otherwise. Seeing the Mass as a nice family meal takes us so far, but then we have to add a lot more to it. We have to bring Jesus in to it. We have to bring the Last Supper into it. We have to bring the Jewish Passover into it. We have to bring in the even more difficult concepts of Jesus’ body and blood, and of Jesus as the Lamb of sacrifice. We have to bring God into it. We have to bring God’s people as the worshipping body of Christ into it
The Mass is at the heart of our worship, because Jesus broke bread with his disciples the day before he died and said ‘do this in memory me. And the Mass is not only a celebration of the communion of the people at a particular Mass, not only those who celebrate the same Mass with us all over the world, but also those who have celebrated the same Mass through history, back to Jesus himself. All these people make up the living community, the living body of Christ – not an inert dead body, but a living body with life-giving blood coursing through it.
The Jewish Passover comes into it, because what Jesus and the disciples were doing at the Last Supper was celebrating the Jewish Passover. They were good Jews observing the Passover, Jewish people celebrating their covenant with God. We have a spiritual bond with the Jewish people that we should never forget.
The body and blood of Jesus come into it, because Jesus said the bread and wine were his body and blood; the means by which Jesus is really present at the Mass and in the Church. The imagery of blood also recalls the idea of sacrifice, and Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. Sacrificial religions are not too popular just now, but they were all the rage in Jesus’ time. Even the Jewish religion contained sacrifice. A lamb was sacrificed in the temple at Passover as an expiation, to atone, for the sins of the people since the last Passover. For us, Jesus becomes that Lamb of sacrifice, once and for all times; uniting us with God: creating communion between us and God.
Not all these ideas are easy to grasp, and especially so for children. Individuals will identify more with some aspects than others. There is depth to the Mass that is probably beyond the grasp of one individual. The feast of Corpus Christi encourages us to explore the many layered depths of the Mass: our communion with God and each other. Ultimately, our deliberations should bring us to an understanding of ourselves, the Church, as Christ’s living body. If Christ is living bread given to the world, then we are also living bread given to the world.