(Originally published on June 16, 2009)
We are still in what used to be the Octave of Corpus Christi. Even though this octave was done away with in the 1962 rubrics, its ghost still lurks about the liturgy. We will, this Friday, have the feast of the Sacred Heart, whose placement was determined by its relation to the octave. What follows are some considerations on the Epistle for Corpus Christi (I Cor. 11:23-39). It is not an in-depth reading or scholarly exegesis. These are merely some meditations I offer for your consideration.
For background, it will help us first to know that Saint Paul has been rebuking the Corinthians for the way they conducted themselves at the agape, a “love-feast,” or little meal that some of the local churches did early on, before the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. In the context of setting in order their reprehensible behavior at that meal, the Apostle reminds his readers of the sober, sublime, and saving nature of the Eucharistic Banquet that is the Mass.
Another preliminary thought: It is consoling to see how clearly this passage sets forth the Church’s doctrine concerning the Holy Eucharist. About this Epistle, the Jesuit Scripture scholar Ferdinand Prat, said, “Those who wish to see in Christian dogmas only the completion of a slow evolution and the result of long-continued struggles that end by combining together after long ages of antagonism must experience great embarrassment in reading this passage, which was written less than thirty years after the institution of the Eucharist, and is also of an unassailable authenticity. Does the theological language of today describe in any more precise and explicit terms the most consoling and ineffable of our mysteries? Paul declares expressly that he received this doctrine from the Lord himself, for his words cannot be understood as referring to a revelation through an intermediary, which would not distinguish him at all from the least favoured of the faithful.” (The Theology of Saint Paul, Vol. I, p. 124).
And now we proceed to the text:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you…
As we have just heard from Father Prat, Saint Paul himself received this revelation directly from the Lord, meaning that, among the various apparitions of Our Lord to Saint Paul (we know of these in general from the Apostle’s writings, and from the Acts of the Apostles), one contained a very precise instruction on the Holy Eucharist. Saint Paul claims himself to be the authentic repository of tradition: “I have received of the Lord, that which also I delivered to you…” The word “delivered,” is, in Saint Jerome’s Latin, tradidi — whence we get the word tradition, meaning something handed over, or handed down.
Note that this is exactly the Catholic conception of Apostolic tradition: Jesus taught Paul directly; Paul taught the Corinthians, and all is consistent with the doctrine the other Apostles received and transmitted either in preaching or in writing.
And what did Saint Paul hand over to the Corinthians? He taught them the mystery of the Eucharist: the history of the Last Supper, as he here relates, but also the doctrine of the Eucharist, which he makes clear, as well as the ritual — the ceremony itself of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
…that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread. And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me.
Our translation says that Our Lord’s Body “shall be delivered for you,” which would seem in the context to refer to the Crucifixion. But Catholic commentators (e.g., Father Prat) point out that Saint Jerome’s translation — and therefore this English of the Rheims version we are using — is not quite accurate. Both Saint Paul and his disciple and companion, Saint Luke, speak in the present tense. The sense is this: “This is my body which is sacrificed for you. Remember, these words were spoken on Holy Thursday night. Jesus was not saying that “Tomorrow, I will deliver my body up for you.” He was saying: “I am now sacrificing my body for you” in this sacrifice of the Mass. And so, in every Mass, is this selfsame sacrifice offered in the present.
In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.
Just because we commemorate or memorialize Jesus at the Mass does not mean that the Mass is only a commemoration or a memorial. Where Saint Luke has Jesus saying, “Do this for a commemoration of me,” let us not forget that “Do this” refers to what Jesus Himself had just done, namely, turn a piece of bread into His Body and a chalice of wine into His Blood. In commanding the Apostles to do it, he also gave them the power to do it. That is, He made them priests so that they could offer this same sacrifice.
For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.
We are back to the words of the Apostle, who tells us that this ritual, this unbloody sacrifice, is a re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Calvary, and will continue until “he come,” that is, until the consummation of the world, when the Mass will come to an end.
Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord.
Let us be very attentive to our moral state when we receive the Blessed Sacrament. Whether we are merely inattentive when we receive, or are — God forbid! — receiving in the state of mortal sin, we are accountable to the God whose Body we receive. Further on in this chapter of the Epistle, Saint Paul attributes various misfortunes that have come upon the Corinthians to unworthy reception of the Holy Eucharist: “Therefore are there many infirm and weak among you, and many sleep” that is, have died (v. 30). If we are distracted during the Mass, at least let us heed the call of the celebrant at the Ecce Agnus Dei, shortly before we receive: “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world.”
But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice.
Before Mass, let us examine our consciences, heedful of what Saint Paul says further down: “But if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” Indeed, this verse gave Saint Francis de Sales occasion to warn readers of The Introduction to the Devout Life about the dangers of judging others rather than themselves: “Moreover, man’s judgments are hasty, because each one has enough to do in judging himself, without undertaking to judge his neighbour. If we would not be judged, it behoves us alike not to judge others, and to judge ourselves. Our Lord forbids the one, His Apostle enjoins the other, saying, “If we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged.” But alas! for the most part we precisely reverse these precepts, judging our neighbour, which is forbidden on all sides, while rarely judging ourselves, as we are told to do.”
For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.
Saint Paul could not be more explicit. It is the Body of the Lord we consume at the Eucharistic Banquet, and we had better discern it, that is fully attend with a knowing mind and a loving will, to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ under the appearances of mere bread. This is the mystery of faith, not that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again,” but that the slain, risen, and awaited Christ is now made present on our altars for us to adore, to thank, to repair, to petition — and to consume so that we may be one with Him and become divine.
Let us ask the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the most pure Heart of Saint Joseph to help us more and more to discern, and to love, the Heart of their Son under these sacramental veils.