Corpus Christi: Jesus Gives Himself With His Own Hand
SCRIPTURES & ART: This ‘hard teaching’ is the source and summit of Christian life.
Today is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, often called by the Latin name, “Corpus Christi.” The feast emerged in the Middle Ages, on the initiative of St. Thomas Aquinas, and was extended by Pope Urban IV to the universal Church. Like many other feasts, the American bishops have “pastorally” transferred it from the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, i.e., this year on June 8 (when it is observed, for example, in much of Europe), to the following Sunday.
In one sense, Holy Thursday is the feast of the institution of the sacrament of the Eucharist. But that joyous event (remember that, at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, vestments are white or gold and the Gloria is sung for the first time since the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) is overshadowed by Jesus’ imminent Passion and Death. Corpus Christi as a self-standing solemnity following on Easter season allows us to focus on and celebrate the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Today’s Gospel is the penultimate part of Jesus’ Eucharistic Discourse in John 6. This is the central place in John for Eucharistic teaching, so much so that the Evangelist does not even include an institution narrative in his otherwise extensive treatment of the Last Supper.
Jesus makes clear in this passage that the Eucharist is his Body and Blood. It’s not a symbol of his Body and Blood. It’s not just a meal to remember him. It is his Real Presence, really present, this day and in this place, in his Flesh and Blood.
The Jews who heard that discourse “quarreled among themselves.” Protestants, who otherwise slavishly insist on reading all the other passages of the Bible literally, refuse to read John 6 for what it says, turning the Eucharist into a “real absence.” (The Catholic Church celebrates the Eucharist every day except Good Friday and Holy Saturday. The typical Protestant Sunday service displaces the Eucharist with Bible reading and preaching. In most Protestant churches, “celebrating the Lord’s Supper” is generally an add-on service, relegated to the Sunday service once a month or once a quarter).
Most Catholics don’t “quarrel” about what Jesus says because they either don’t listen, don’t take Jesus’ words seriously, or reduce his words to mere “symbolism.” That’s why the Catholic bishops of the United States have undertaken this multi-year effort to renew Eucharistic faith (though one might be more optimistic if there was more catechesis about the Eucharist and more coherence to the Eucharistic discipline it entails).
Jesus does not soft-pedal his Eucharistic teaching. Immediately following today’s Gospel passage, John adds that many of those who listened to what Jesus said about the Eucharist declared it “a hard teaching” and left him. They walked off. Even though Jesus makes clear that “eating my flesh and drinking my blood” is a prerequisite to “remaining in me and I in him,” they chose not to stay.
Jesus does not “clarify.” He does not backpedal. He does not “listen” and reformulate a “more welcoming message.” He turns to his Apostles and asks them if they want to go, too. One accepts Jesus’ message on Jesus’ terms, or not. There is no middle ground, no fudging, no “well …”
Today, I want to focus on a line from St. Thomas Aquinas’ great hymn he composed for Corpus Christi, “Pange lingua gloriosi.” In the hymn, the Angelic Doctor speaks of Jesus at the Last Supper: “Then as food to all his brethren//Gives himself with his own hand.”
“Gives himself with his own hand.”
As today’s Gospel tells us, that was exactly what kindled Jesus’ rejection. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they say in John 6:52. Clearly, for them, it is Jesus’ “giving” (δοῦναι) on his terms that is the stumbling block causing many of his followers to desert him.
In the institution narratives found in other Gospels (and basically repeated at every Mass), there are a number of verbs whose repetition shows the essential moments of the Eucharist. Jesus “took” bread, “blessed” it, “broke” it, and “gave” (ἔδωκεν) it to the Apostles, saying, “This is my body” and, “This is the chalice of my blood.”
When Jesus joins the disciples in Emmaus for supper, his “having taken, blessed, and broken” (ἐπεδίδου) the bread is the catalyst that opens the disciples’ eyes (Luke 24:30). Jesus does not even need the words of institution: the disciples recognize him in the Eucharistic action, rendering unnecessary his continued physical appearance to them.
Jesus is the Father’s gift given to us: last week’s “throne of mercy” depiction of the Father “giving” us his Son is matched by the Son “giving” himself to remain with us in the Eucharist.
Jesus continues to “give himself with his own hand” through the theology of the priest as alter Christus.
Today’s Gospel is best rendered artistically by the 16th-century Spanish artist Juan de Juanes (Vincente Juan Masip). “Christ the Savior with the Eucharist” is the central part of an altarpiece, whose side panels include Old Testament Eucharistic antecedents: Melchizedek offering bread and Aaron the priest with incense. “Christ the Savior with the Eucharist” is a spare depiction of this notion of “giving.” Jesus is alone, looking directly at the viewer. In his right hand he holds the Eucharistic host; by his left arm stands the chalice. Jesus is depicted as presenting, “giving” the Eucharistic species to the viewer.
(The artist shows Jesus in a similar pose in his version of the Last Supper, where eleven Apostles are shown in reverential postures toward the gift Jesus gives, while Judas turns away).
Apart from showing the traditional theological connection between the Eucharist and Jesus’ Sacrifice on Calvary, Juan de Juanes may have chosen to emphasize that doctrine in light of Protestant attacks on the sacrificial nature of the Blessed Sacrament which had been underway for about 25 years. The connection between the Eucharist and Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary is reinforced in three ways. In lieu of a prominent halo, Jesus’ head is surrounded by three, three-pronged red lines, which taken together form a cross (as well as alluding to the Trinity). Jesus’ cloak is blood red. The Eucharistic host clearly has an image of Calvary impressed on it.
The oil painting is in the Prado in Madrid.
[For an excellent presentation on the Eucharistic doctrine in John 6, from which today’s Gospel is taken, see Trasancos and Elliott, Behold, It Is I!]