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Corpus Christi
June 6, 2021

Watch this homily! (Begins at 39:40)

    On a wall of my study hangs a crucifix I treasure. It caught my eye in an antique shop in Salzburg, Austria, and the moment I saw it I fell in love with it. It’s quite large and quite old – maybe as much as three-hundred years, give or take - and while you couldn’t really call it ‘high art – it’s more folk art – it speaks to me and stirs up very deep feelings. In the face of Christ there is great sadness, great resignation, and great peace; his arms are all-embracing, and from his wounded side flows blood, red and riveting, against the dark wood of the corpus.

     The blood of Christ. The blood he willingly shed on the cross out of love for us. The precious blood of Christ as the Church likes to call it. But no matter how precious, the blood of Christ is not, I think, something we give much thought to, not as much as we should. We’re a bit squeamish about blood. It has distasteful overtones, so closely associated is it with death, and we don’t like to think a lot about death. But blood is really more about life than death as was clear in both the reading from the Book of Exodus and the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews. When Moses poured out the blood of the sacrificial animals on the altar and then sprinkled it on the people, he was, in a dramatic way, sealing God’s great covenant with them, a covenant of life, a covenant in which they came to share in the very life of God. And in the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus becomes the mediator of a New Covenant by offering himself to the Father, willingly pouring out his blood on the cross for one reason only: so that we might receive life: our “promised eternal inheritance,” in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews.

     And then in the reading from Mark’s gospel, while eating the Passover meal with his friends, Jesus takes bread, breaks it, and gives it to them, telling them that the bread is his body given for them, his body that was about to be broken for them on the cross. Then he takes a cup of wine, telling them that it is his blood that would be shed for them and for all; the cup of suffering that would mean death for him but life for them; the cup that he and they would one day drink new in the Kingdom of God, when death would be no more, only life.

     Down through Christian history, whenever believers – including ourselves – have gathered to carry out the solemn command of Jesus, “Do this in memory of me,” they have – we have, through the power of the words of Jesus which live in the present as much as in the past, been mystically present at that Last Supper table as well as at the foot of the cross; and they  – we – have been nourished by the Bread that is his body given for us and by the wine that is his blood poured out for us. And deep down, we know that without the Bread of life and without the Cup of Salvation, we are really deprived of life.

     We experienced this in a striking way during this pandemic when, for quite some time, we were deprived of the Eucharist. Some of us still are. And there is no substitute for it, is there? - not a livestream broadcast, no matter how well done; not a virtual Eucharist; not so-called ‘spiritual Communion.’ None of these, no matter how much of a lifeline they may have been over these many months, has taken the place of the real thing, and they never will. No wonder more and more of us are returning to the Cathedral for Mass these days!

     I love to read stories about people for whom the Eucharist was literally a matter of life and death. Think of those faithful Catholics and intrepid priests during the Elizabethan persecutions of English Reformation times when to celebrate the Eucharist was a near death sentence, and often enough, an actual death sentence. Still, with great courage, they gathered in homes where priests hid away in so-called ‘priest holes’ – sometimes for days and weeks on end – for one reason only: to celebrate the Eucharist and to be nourished and fortified by the Body and Blood of Christ. They just couldn’t live without it so they were willing to take great chances to have it.

     Closer to our time - and this story I owe to Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominicans – closer to our time, during the Soviet Communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia, the Cardinal Archbishop of Prague shared a prison cell with Vaclav Hagel, the playwright and future president of the Republic. To celebrate the Eucharist was, of course, verboten, but that didn’t deter the two of them. They would engage in what appeared to be a game of chess but the queen’s crown had a few drops of wine in it and the king’s crown, a tiny fragment of bread. Unbeknownst to their guards, the two of them celebrated and received the Body and Blood of Christ. To quote Fr. Radcliffe, “Quietly whispering, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ they participated in the liturgy of heaven!”

     Dear friends, I hope these stories remind us of why we are here, why we need to be here, why we should long to be here. We cannot live for long without the Eucharist – any more than those brave Elizabethan Catholics could; any more than the Archbishop and the playwright could. The Body of Christ is the Bread of Life. Without it, we starve. And the Blood of Christ is our cleansing and our healing. Without it, we falter, we lack the strength we need to go on.

     As we celebrate this great feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, may we awaken to our need for the Eucharist, to what a gift it is, and may we be filled with gratitude for this greatest of sacraments that is, for us, life, healing, and hope!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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