Meeting Christ in the Eucharist
(Readings: Genesis 14:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-36; Luke 9:11-17)
Introduction to Mass
The readings for today's feast of the Body and Blood of Christ show how on the one hand what we receive during Mass is exactly what the twelve apostles received from Christ's own hand on the occasion that he instituted the Eucharist. At the same time the readings show how the spirit and the "programme" of the Eucharist have to be taken out by us from the Mass and offered to the society and the world in which we live.
My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
Last Wednesday, June 6th, was the feast of the German saint, St. Norbert, which coincidentally always occurs near today's great feast, Corpus Christi. I say "coincidentally" because Norbert, who isn't actually very well-known in our part of the world, is often called the Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament, and during the week I was reading what some of his biographers had to say about that main aspect of his spirituality - his devotion to the Mass and to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
St. Norbert was one of the great reforming figures in the Church of the twelfth century and a man of action rather than a contemplative who spent all his time in silent prayer, so his devotion was often expressed actively, in preaching campaigns that aimed to deepen the devotion of ordinary people to the Eucharist, and in energetic efforts to combat erroneous ideas about the Eucharist.
He was also the founder of an order who made great efforts to ensure that the Mass was celebrated in a lofty and dignified way in his own monasteries, and he had a profound sense of the value of the ordained priesthood as the means by which the food of the Eucharist is provided for the whole believing community.
But of course those sorts of principles and active measures came out of Norbert's own personal experience of meeting Christ in the Eucharist and of being fed and strengthened by the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood.
Norbert might be especially associated with devotion to the Blessed Sacrament but, when we think about it, all the great saints and holy men and women in the Catholic tradition have had the same kind of reverence and sense of awareness of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, and the same deep reliance on it as they carried out the practical or pastoral work they were engaged in.
And that leads on to something else that seemed to come out of Norbert's dedication to the Eucharist, namely, the stress that he placed on offering hospitality and caring for the poor in his houses and abbeys.
It was as though, having approached Christ's table and having been fed spiritually by Christ's Body and Blood, Norbert and his fellow monks then felt compelled to go out from the Mass to physically feed, or in some other way look after, those who needed it. The "programme" contained in the Eucharist, symbolised by the miracle in today's gospel reading, of everyone being fed by Christ and no one being neglected or left out, was put into practice by the Norbertine canons as a spontaneous expression of their participation in the Mass.
For example, some of his largest abbeys were in areas that fell victim to severe famine, and as long as it lasted, says one of the biographers, the community of monks "practiced rigorous self-denial and never had their own meal until after they had seen their own guests and the poor fed...The mother house [at Prémontré in France] adopted five hundred poor people whom they fed as long as the famine lasted and never bought food for the monastery without at the same time providing for the poor of the neighbourhood."
That was the expression of one saint's devotion to the Eucharist some nine hundred years ago, but in his recent Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Benedict makes essentially the same point about the "social implications", as he calls them, of the Eucharistic mystery. The Pope's language is precise, theological language - but also inspiring in the way it describes the practical task to which the Eucharist commits those who take part in it.
Our union with Christ which is brought about by the Eucharist, says Benedict, implies union with all those others to whom Christ gives himself.
"The recognition of this fact," he goes on, "leads to a determination to transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women, created in God's image and likeness". And he concludes that section of his Exhortation: "All those who partake of the Eucharist must commit themselves to peacemaking in our world scarred by violence and war, and today in particular, by terrorism, economic corruption and sexual exploitation".
So there are two complimentary aspects, I think, of what we believe about the Mass and the Eucharist which are particularly relevant for us to reflect on, on the feast of Corpus Christi.
When we take part in the Eucharist - with faith, of course, in the power of the sacrament to influence us and change us - it joins each of us individually to Christ and makes us more like Christ.
But the other aspect of taking part in the Mass is that in a sense we're then sent out from it, united in one body or community, to promote, together, all the values that Pope Benedict talked about and to find ways of injecting our distinctive Christian vision of justice and human dignity into the society and the world around us.
Today's feast focuses our attention on both these vital aspects of the Eucharist, which are just as important and relevant in our time as they were in St. Norbert's - or in any time.