The readings for Sunday, May 29, 2016, The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Cycle C, are Genesis 14:18-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and Luke 9:11b-17.
The name of this feast day, Corpus Christi, is the Latin word for “Body of Christ.” Although this ancient name is still used, the new name, “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,” more fully expresses what is celebrated. The origin of the Feast was this way. In 1209, a religious sister, Juliana of Liege, (today in Belgium), claimed to have a frequently repeated vision of the full moon with one dark spot marring its perfection. She interpreted the full moon as the Church and this dark spot as the absence of a liturgical feast to honor the body and blood of Jesus reserved in the Blessed Sacrament. A clergyman who was familiar with the celebration of this feast in Liege was elected in 1264 as Pope Urban IV. Impressed by a miracle attributed to the Eucharist, he extended this feast to the universal Church and commissioned Thomas Aquinas to compose the instructive liturgy for this feast. Thus we have the memorable hymns Adoro Te; Sacris Solemniis; Paniis Angelicus; Pange, Lingua, gloriosi, and the superb Sequence, Lauda, Sion! The latter is a summary of the doctrine of the Eucharist.
The primary celebration of the Eucharist is Holy Thursday. This day and its liturgical celebration of the Eucharist are overshadowed by the sadness of Jesus’ impending death commemorated the following day, Good Friday. The joyful liturgy and triumphal processions of the Feast of Corpus Christi soften the sadness of Holy Thursday and celebrate the joy of Christians fed with “the bread of angels.” This is one of the titles of the Eucharist used in Thomas Aquinas’ composition, Sacris Solemniis. This title, Panis Angelicus, appears in the sixth stanza of the hymn. This title was first used in the Second Book of Esdras (100 B.C.) of the manna which nourished the Israelites in the wilderness.
The gospel reading for Corpus Christi is Luke’s version of Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand who had gathered near the city of Bethsaida on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. Luke notes that “Jesus welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God.” The context of the story is this. Jesus had sent the Twelve on their first mission “with power over demons, to cure diseases, and to proclaim the kingdom of God.” It was well known that these men were associated with Jesus. Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, had been responsible for the execution of John the Baptizer. His conscience troubled him as he concluded the Baptizer, now as Jesus, had been raised from the dead. The Twelve return and report their success to Jesus. He leads them from the western shore of the Sea of Galilee to a retreat near Bethsaida on the NE shore.
The fact that Jesus and Co. were looking for peace and quiet makes it the more remarkable that “Jesus welcomed” this huge crowd and addressed them. The fatigue of the Twelve can explain the unwelcome that happened next. As evening approached they came up to Jesus and said, “Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and the surrounding countryside to lodge and obtain food.” This seemed to practical businessmen as the eminently practical way of handling the situation. But the ways of the kingdom of God are not always the eminently practical thing to do. Jesus had a surprise for them. He said, “You give them something to eat.”
Luke composed his Gospel in the eighties of the first Christian century. By that time the words of the Eucharistic formulation were established and somewhat standardized, as we see in the second reading of today, written by Paul thirty years earlier to the Corinthian Church, about the year 52. Luke is obviously influenced in the composition of this story by the Eucharistic practice of the Church in this story and in his (Luke’s) version of the Last Supper. The “words of institution” are the same, as they are even to this day in our Eucharistic Prayers, “took, blessed, broke, gave.”
Jesus involves his disciples in the feeding of the crowd, “He gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” At least in this way they obey the earlier command, “You give them something to eat.” This command of Jesus, written down by Luke fifty years after Christianity was already well established in the Mediterranean world, were surely intended by Luke as a command to the Christian Community to feed the hungry. The fact that the story began with Jesus “welcoming the crowd, healing them and curing their diseases, and speaking to them of the kingdom of God” indicates that “feeding the hungry” extends beyond food for the stomach. “All ate and were satisfied” recalls the words of Psalm 22:26,”The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”