Theological Meditations, Uncategorized

Corpus Christi: A Biblical Meditation

 

Behold, the Lamb of God. Behold He Who takes away the sins of the world.

May the Lord accept the Sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of His name, for our good and the good of all His Holy Church.

 

Today is the feast day of Corpus Christi, a feast day dedicated to the Holy Eucharist and Christ’s presence therein. Although it wasn’t instituted as a feast day until 1264 by Pope Urban IV, the Church, throughout most of its history, has had a strong devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

 

 

The readings from today strongly emphasize the reality of the Eucharist. (To read this week’s readings, click here). The first reading comes from Exodus 24:3-8. After devoting chapters 19-23 to describing Moses receiving the Law from God on Mt. Sinai, chapter 24 describes Moses return from the mountain to confirm God’s covenant with the people, which he did through reading to the Israelites God’s revealed Law, which they assented to, and by offering a sacrifice. The sacrifice here is described in Hebrew as a zebāhîm šelāmîm. The last part of this term, in Hebrew, is a variant on the Hebrew term shelem, which in turn is related to the Hebrew term for “peace” (shalom). A shelem was a peace offering, a sacrifice offered in order to solidify or secure a friendship [1]. The first part was, in turn, rooted in the Hebrew term zebach, which means “sacrifice.” [2]This term, in essence, refers to a “peace offering” or (as the New American Bible translation renders it) a “communion offering.”

 

It was a sacrifice offered for the sake of solidifying the covenant relationship between God and Israel, to commemorate that there was peace between God and His people, that they were on good terms with each other. Verse six says that Moses then divided the blood into two, sprinkling half of it onto the altar where the sacrifice was performed, and the other half onto the people.

 

This obviously is a prophecy of the sacrifice of Christ. The sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificed bull to signify the sanctification of the people and their dedication to the covenant represents the washing away of our sin by the death of Christ. This parallel is particularly strong when one compares Exodus 24:6 to Revelations 7:14, wherein the author of the text has a vision of a group of beings paying homage to a Lamb seated upon the throne, and some of those are described as ones who “have washed their robes and have been made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The Lamb represents Christ; the ones made clean by His blood represent those who have been saved, whose souls have been made clean by the shedding of Christ’s blood upon the Cross.

 

Being made clean through the blood of the Lamb closely parallels, at least in terms of the imagery employed, what Moses did in sprinkling the blood of the bull onto the People of Israel in order to represent their devotion to the covenant. Moses made a sacrifice to commemorate the formation of the covenant between God and Israel, and symbolized the people’s commitment to said covenant through sprinkling them with blood; in a similar manner, Jesus fulfilled this covenant and founded the New Covenant through the sacrifice of His death, the fruits of which initiate us into this covenant and wipe clean our soul of its sin.

 

That Christ’s death was a sacrifice is evident from the second reading for today, taken from the Letter to the Hebrews, chapter 9. The High Priests in the Old Testament were believed to be mediators between God and the group of people gathered to worship. Jesus, as both God and man, was the true mediator between God and man, and thus fulfilled the role of High Priest. Because He was the true High Priest, Christ’s Sacrifice was not only one sacrifice among many done for the forgiveness of sins; rather it was THE DEFINITIVE sacrifice performed for the forgiveness of sins, thus making it a fulfillment of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. Thus, the author of Hebrews writes, “For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, Who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself unblemished unto God, cleanse our conscience of dead works to worship the living God.” (Hebrews 9:14-15)

 

Not only did Jesus provide the once and for all Sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, but also provided us with the means by which we could participate in this Sacrifice, namely the Eucharist. This is, of course, why we read, for the Gospel reading, the Last Supper narrative. Closely paralleling the first reading, Jesus describes the cup of wine as “My blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.” Just as being sprinkled with the bull’s blood was a sign of the solidification of the Old Covenant, partaking in the blood of Christ was a sign of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant and the founding of the New Covenant. Yet, not only was Jesus’ reference to His blood shed for many for the forgiveness of sins a reference to what He was going to do; it was also a reference to what He was doing then. Jesus was instituting something new in the Last Supper, namely a means by which we could continually participate in Christ’s sacrifice. It is for this reason that Luke 22:19 describes Jesus as saying during the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of Me.” That Christians traditionally saw the Eucharist as a perpetual institution of Christ can be seen from the historical data, even relatively early on Church history (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34; St. Clement of Rome’s Letter to the Corinthians, 44:4; St. Ignatius of Antioch’s Letter to the Philadelphians, chapter 4; St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology, chapters 66-67 [3])

 

That the Eucharist is a renewal or participation in Christ’s sacrifice does not in any way undermine the unique nature of Christ’s death. Firstly, because the Eucharist is not a “re-sacrificing” of Christ – as many anti-Catholics present it as – but rather is a renewal, perpetuation, or re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice. Secondly, as Dr. Scott Hahn has frequently pointed out, “If the Last Supper was just a meal, then the Crucifixion was just a Roman execution.” No one would have recognized Christ’s death at that time as a sacrifice. Thus, the death of Christ must be looked at in light of what came before it on the previous night. The fact that Jesus deviated from the normal liturgical customs surrounding the Jewish Passover meal was a sign that He was instituting something new for the Apostles to follow. What He did on the Last Supper was fulfilled or consummated in the Passion. As Dr. Hahn notes, “He didn’t lose His life on Friday if He had already freely given it to us by instituting the Eucharist as the Passover of the New Covenant on Holy Thursday. He wasn’t the victim of Roman violence and injustice. He was the victim of Divine love. He made His life a gift, freely laid down before anyone laid their hands upon Him and tried to take it. … [I]f the Eucharist is a meal, then Calvary’s an execution. But if the Eucharist is the Sacrifice of the New Covenant, then, and only then, do we see that Calvary’s more than an execution; that indeed it is the consummation of the Sacrifice of the New Covenant Passover Lamb.” [4]

 

We as Catholics are thus in possession of a great treasure. In the celebration of the Eucharist, we commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection. Yet, not only is it a commemoration: Christ becomes actually, literally present among us, and we become partakers in the central act of redemption. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia notes various Biblical scholars’ views on the nature of the peace offering. According to some, the shelamim were a covenant of friendship, a sign of communion between God and His people. Others say that it was done for the forgiveness of sins, while others claimed that it was a sacrifice of thankfulness [5]. The Eucharistic sacrifice has all of these elements. It is meant to showcase our thankfulness towards God (the term “Eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving” in Greek); it has the ability to wipe away venial sin; it is a re-presentation of, participation in, and commemoration of that event whereby mankind and God were reconciled, whereby man ceased to be God’s enemy and found his peace with God. And through receiving the Eucharist, we not only commemorate union with God, but we live it; we enter into a state of communion with God more intimate than any other form of communion imaginable.

 

We should thus, meditating upon this, sing the words of the traditional Eucharistic hymn Pange Lingua Gloriosi:

 

Sing, my tongue, of the Savior’s glory, of His Flesh the Mystery sing, of His blood, all price exceeding, shed by our Immortal King, destined for the world’s redemption…On the night of that Last Supper, seated with His chosen band…first fulfills the Law’s command; as food to His Apostles, gives Himself with His own hand. Word made flesh, the bread of nature, by his word to flesh He turns; wine into blood He changes; what though sense no change discerns … Down in adoration falling. Lo! The sacred host we hail. Lo! Over ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail; faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble sense fail.

 

Sources:

 

  1. Dr. James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible; with their renderings in the Authorized English Version, pg. 117, #8002. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Reference Library Edition) (Iowa Springs: World Publishers)

 

  1. Dr. James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D., A Concise Dictionary of the Words in the Hebrew Bible; with their renderings in the Authorized English Version, pg. 34, #2077. In Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (Reference Library Edition) (Iowa Springs: World Publishers)

 

  1. For a good translation of these works, I recommend Early Christian Fathers, vol. I, translated and edited by Dr. Cyril C. Richardson, Dr. Eugene R. Fairweather, Dr. Edward Rochie Hardy, and Dr. Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr. (New York City: Touchstone, 1996)

 

  1. see Dr. Scott Hahn, “The Bible and the Sacrifice of the Mass,” delivered at the Defending the Faith conference, July 27, 2012. Accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0uL_IAJWvX0&t=613s

 

    5. This information can be found in the entry for “Peace Offering” by Louis Grossman,          on the online edition of the Jewish Encyclopedia (originally published in 1906).                   Accessed on: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/11966-peace-offering

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s