The Eucharist: Memorial, Sacrifice, Spiritual Food
(Readings: Exodus 24:3-8, Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26)
The feast of Corpus Christi developed in the Middle Ages partly out of popular devotion to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and partly as a response to various heresies which denied the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine.
To begin this Mass we acknowledge the times when we've been casual or indifferent to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We ask God to deepen our appreciation of this gift to us and help us to respond to the grace that's offered to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
At first glance the set of readings for the feast this year seem to emphasise the idea of the Eucharist as a sacrifice. The second reading talks about Jesus as "high priest" offering the sacrifice of his own life, for our salvation. And the gospel passage shows the Last Supper taking place - and Jesus giving the disciples bread and wine as his body an blood - as an anticipation of his death the next day.
Apart from anything else this shows that the Eucharist always takes place under the shadow of the cross. It always commemorates Jesus' death and it's always a memorial of that sacrificial love which Jesus showed both during his life and in his death.
As followers of Christ we're committing ourselves to a way of life which also has that self-sacrificing love at the centre. If we're conscious of what we're doing, taking part in the Mass and receiving Communion during Mass will always have the effect of reinforcing that commitment on our part.
Ideally, we come to Mass with that principle having already taken shape, because love, as Christ revealed it - the love which is the core of God's own nature - is a love that shows itself in sacrifice, in self-surrender, in the acceptance of powerlessness.
For those of us who believe in Christ, taking part in the Eucharist should always strengthen this orientation of our lives: that we find God and come closer to him when we get rid of all our motives of self-assertion and self-exaltation, and embrace his humility and self-surrender and love instead.
Today's feast also draws attention to an idea that follows on from that: the Eucharist is spiritual food, and Jesus gave the Eucharist this meaning from the start, at the Last Supper.
All the sacraments in their different ways exert an influence on us. They're not just man-made rituals, or human gestures or symbols that we've made up. They're points of contact with God that bring us closer to him, make us like him and help us to share more closely in his life.
And this is especially true of the Eucharist. Many of the other sacraments have a "one-off" character: baptism, confirmation, marriage. But the Eucharist is a sacrmanet that we're supposed to take part in again and again during the course of our lives.
We know the effect that ordinary food has on us physically: it nourishes us, sustains us, keeps us healthy, keeps us alive. People are sensitive today - too sensitive, maybe - to the idea of getting the right kind of food, a healthy balance, enough vitamins and so on. If they don't they're not fostering their physical health as well as they could.
The Eucharist isn't physical food. We're not cannibals, eating human flesh and drinking human blood. In the Eucharist Christ is giving us himself as spiritual food and the meal of the Eucharist has the same kind of effects on us spiritually that our ordinary meals have on us physically: it nourishes, strengthens, builds us up, keeps us alive, makes us healthy.
Jesus could have thought up another sign or another ritual on the night before he died and he could have said, do this in memory of me. But he deliberately picked the form and the imagery of a meal, and the symbolism of eating and drinking, as the way of continuing his active, transforming presence among his followers. It's a symbolism that emphasises that Christ is the source of our life and health, similar to the way that ordinary food gives us physical life and health.
In the Mass and in Holy Communion Christ offers himself to us as someone we can return to again and again, so as to take him into ourselves and be nourished by him.
As I say, it's got nothing to do with being cannibals. Eating and drinking Christ's body and blood, sacramentally, needs to be understood in terms of St. Paul's saying, "it is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me". Taking part in the Eucharist is taking part in an action that makes that actually happen; and again, that's the significance that Jesus gave it when he said, eat my body and drink my blood - and carry on doing this, in memory of me.
This is the kind of imagery we have to bear in mind to make sense of what we're doing when we carry out Jesus' instruction to re-enact the Last Supper - not just as a memorial of his death and his sacrificial love, but as the ritual meal which strengthens the power of that same love - God's life - in us.