By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Year C
First Reading: Genesis 14:18-20; Response: Psalm 110: 1, 2, 3, 4; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Gospel: Luke 9:11b-17
This celebration, commonly known as Corpus Christi, is an extension, into Ordinary Time, of the honoring of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The joy of the latter celebration is clouded by awareness of the commemoration of the Lord’s death on the following day, Good Friday. This joyful feast is a latecomer to our liturgy. The 13th century was witness to new debates about the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was increasing. The feast was established in 1246 in Liege, Belgium, in response to the request of two pious women, Juliana of Cornillon and Eve of St. Martin. In 1208, Julianna claimed to have had a vision through which she understood that Jesus lamented the absence of a feast in the Church’s liturgy specifically honoring his presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Her vision led to a campaign by pious women for such a feast day. Some clergy objected, while other clergy promoted its establishment. After Julianna’s death in 1258, her confessors kept the feast going. It spread from Liege to Paris, and to Germany, Bohemia and Poland.
An important proponent of the new feast was a former archdeacon of Liege, Jacques Panteleon. He became bishop of Verdun, then patriarch of Jerusalem. In 1261, he was elected to the papacy while visiting Rome for consultation on his work in the Holy Land. He chose the name Urban and became Pope Urban IV. Having come originally from Liege, Belgium, he was well acquainted with the feast of Corpus Christi celebrated there. In response to an alleged miracle concerning the Eucharist in 1263, and urged by Eve of St. Martin of Liege, he extended the feast of Corpus Christi to the universal Church. He commissioned the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas to prepare the new prayers (Propers) of the Mass. The result is the Mass of Corpus Christi in use to this day. As far as we know, there was no official provision for a procession or exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. These practices became customary in the 14th century and endure to our time.
Our first reading is part of a strange story found in Genesis 14. Abram (not yet Abraham) and his men were on the way back from a victory over a group of kings (bandit chiefs) who had kidnapped his nephew Lot and took lots of Lot’s possessions. He rescued Lot and captured much plunder. En route to his camp, Abram encountered Melchizedek, who is identified as a “king of Salem” (Jerusalem) and as “priest of God Most High;” or, in Hebrew, El Elyon. This was a divine title associated with the god of pre-Israelite Jerusalem. Custom eventually transferred this name to the Lord God of Israel as one of many titles. The Genesis story relates that Melchizedek brought out bread and wine – whether as a kind of culinary sacrifice or as simple hospitality, we are not told. He blessed Abram by El Elyon, praising the latter as creator of heaven and earth, who delivered Abram’s victory over the kidnapping robbers. Abram then gave a tenth (a tithe) of the plunder to Melchizedek. It sounds like a liturgy, or at least a prayer before a meal, with a reward to the man who provided the refreshments.
Christian interpretation of this story understood Melchizedek’s offering of bread and wine as a prototype of Jesus’ use of bread and wine at the Last Supper for the institution of the Holy Eucharist. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews makes much of this story as background to the priesthood or high priesthood of Jesus (See Hebrews 7:1-17). The Genesis story also made its way into Psalm 110, which is the response psalm of today’s liturgy. Thus, the people’s response to the psalm verses: “You are a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek.”
It may surprise some readers that our second reading contains the oldest version we have of the Words of Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. 1 Corinthians is written in the early 50s of the first Christian century. The gospels were all written later. In this section, Paul has been dealing with appropriate and inappropriate dress and conduct when they gather for the Lord’s Supper. Paul is not pleased. There are divisions among them, probably related to social standing in the community. The participants seem to have brought along food for a common meal with all members of the Christian community. How this was combined with the Lord’s Supper is not clear. Some, however, ate their own food before others arrived – let’s say slaves or day laborers. By the time they arrived, there was nothing left for them to eat. Paul solves the problem. He tells them to eat at home, then come together and celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their house churches. Here, our second reading begins with an instruction on what the Lord Jesus himself did at the Last Supper. Paul may be saying, “This is how the Lord’s Supper ought to be done.”
The gospel of this Solemnity is Luke’s version of Jesus feeding five thousand. The basic story is the same in all four gospels, but details differ. As the story opens, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing. Evening came. The 12 suggested he send the crowd into surrounding towns to find lodging and food. Jesus is abrupt: “You yourselves give them some food.” They found five loaves of bread and two dried fish, suggesting they might spread out and buy food locally. But for 5,000 people? Jesus was testing them. They failed the test. He took over. “Tell the people to sit on the grass in groups of 50.” It was done. Jesus took the bread and fish, blessed them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. “All ate and were satisfied.” The 12 disciples gathered the leftovers, 12 baskets of them. Note the words took, blessed, broke, gave. These words are similar enough in all four gospels to conclude that Paul’s description of the Lord’s Supper in our second reading was standard practice in Christian communities for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper by the last half of the first century. It is continued throughout the world to this day in our Eucharistic Prayers. The feeding of 5,000 is, therefore, an appropriate gospel for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord.