Sermon on Corpus Christi

“This is the bread which has come down from heaven.”

On the day before He suffered, when our Lord took into His venerable hands first the bread and then the chalice, and consecrated the Holy Eucharist for the first time, and commanded the apostles to do the same, He had at least three distinct purposes in mind. In the first place, He was instituting the sacrifice of the new covenant. By the miracle of the twofold transubstantiation, by which the bread was changed into His own body and the wine into His precious blood, He was giving to them the living image of the passion that He would undergo next day on Mount Calvary. This is the sacrifice of the new covenant, and we who are ordained as Catholic priests are commanded to offer it in perpetuity; we “show forth the death of the Lord”, as St Paul says, until the day when He returns. 

That is the first of the three reasons why Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist, namely, that His Church, the Church of the new covenant, might have a true sacrifice, the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

The second reason why He worked this miracle was in order to feed the faithful. Here, we think of the Holy Eucharist no longer as that which is offered in sacrifice to the Blessed Trinity, but as that which is offered to us as a sacrament, in Holy Communion. The texts of today’s Mass of Corpus Christi are full of this theme: “He fed them with honey from the rock”, says the introit of the Mass. The Lauda Sion, the complex and very beautiful sequence that came before the gospel, also emphasises this theme of communion: “Behold, the bread of angels, become the food of wayfarers.” And our Lord, speaking in the synagogue in Capharnaum, says, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.”

Either of these two themes, the sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion, would be a fitting subject for Corpus Christi, but I shall speak instead of the third purpose which our Lord had in mind in instituting the Blessed Sacrament. This third purpose is His company. At the Last Supper, He told the apostles, “I will not leave you orphans.” And before the Ascension, He said, “Behold, I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” The Blessed Sacrament is the principal way, the way par excellence, by which He fulfils these promises. His substantial presence in the Blessed Sacrament is the way in which Christ gives us His company, remaining with His friends until the end of the world.

This abiding presence of our Lord was foreshadowed in the Old Testament, by one of the mysterious rites which God commanded the Jews, and more precisely the priests, to observe. You know that when God commanded the building of a temple — first of all, under Moses, a kind of portable temple, and later, under Solomon, the fixed building in Jerusalem — He gave precise instructions about its design. The inner part of the temple consisted of two chambers, called the holy place and the holy of holies. In the holy place three things were to be set up. You can read about it in the book of Exodus. In the middle, a golden altar for burning incense. On the left side was a seven-branched candlestick. And on the right side was a table with twelve loaves. These loaves were called the “bread of the presence”, or, as we can also translate the Hebrew phrase, “the bread of the face”. In some translations of the bible, they are called the bread of proposition, that is, “the bread which is set forth”. Every Sabbath day, the priests would eat the bread in the holy place, and they would replace them with twelve fresh loaves.

What was the meaning of this; why were these loaves called the “bread of the presence”? They represented God’s presence among His people. But how did they represent this? The Jews did not know; they simply obeyed what God had told them to do, through Moses. We Christians can see the answer: this bread in the holy place foreshadowed the Blessed Sacrament. We have the true bread of the presence, the bread that comes down from heaven. The Jews, as I mentioned, referred to these twelve loaves as the “bread of the face”; and whenever we enter one of our churches, provided the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle, we are truly coming before the Face of Christ, His Eucharistic Face. With the Jews, in the Old Testament, the bread had to remain permanently in the holy place, unlike the sacrifices, which were performed only at fixed times. This foreshadowed the will of Christ to remain permanently among His people by His real presence in the Blessed Sacrament, even outside the celebration of Mass.

Why did our Lord choose to remain on earth like this, even after His Ascension? St Thomas Aquinas asks this question, and he replies, you may be surprised to learn, with some words of a pagan philosopher: “It is fitting,” said this philosopher, “that friends should dwell together.” Our Lord foresaw that His friends would have many difficulties to overcome before they could be united with Him in the heavenly kingdom. He foresaw that we would need encouraging, consoling, strengthening. And so, He devised a way in which, without leaving heaven, He could nevertheless remain with us in what the spiritual writers call this place of exile, the earth. Even for those who are not believers, His presence on earth is a blessing. That town or village which has no tabernacle, or only an empty tabernacle, is not bright enough, or warm enough. It is lacking Him who is the sun of justice, Him whose divine heart, as we say in the litany, is a burning furnace of charity.

Yet there is another reason for Christ’s abiding presence on earth, and this is even more mysterious. Our Saviour Jesus Christ does not only wish to give us the happiness of His company and friendship during our lives on earth. He also seeks the happiness of our company and friendship. Someone might say, “But can Christ lack anything, now that He has entered His glory?” Yet remember that to God, each soul is unique. Our Lord therefore desires a unique friendship with each soul, especially with each baptised soul. No Christian can say: “But He already has the company of the saints in heaven, He cannot need mine.” No, in some mysterious way, the company of the saints is not enough for Him; He desires ours also, and so He remains near us. We have the power either to respond to this desire or to refuse it.

We have come into the month of June. This is a month which is traditionally dedicated to making expiation to the Sacred Heart. We can think, for example, of what the act of reparation calls “the public crimes of nations”, crimes which, alas, are multiplying, and multiplying especially during this very month. But we can also think of things which are not crimes but which, according to St Therese of Lisieux, wound the Heart of Christ more deeply than the sins of unbelievers, namely, the little love and the indifference of many of His friends; the fact that His friends often do not come to see Him in the sacrament of His love, that they take His presence on earth for granted. How could His heart not be wounded by this, even though It is in beatitude? So, let us make expiation either for our own past negligence, or for that of others. We know that one day, as it says in the gospel, the door will be shut; then will be no more time for those who neglected to seek His Face while they had the chance. In this month of June, may many Christians, and many of them who are not yet Christians, hear the voice of the Lord who calls to them from the tabernacle. For “it is fitting that friends pass their time together”.