Sermon: The Living Body of Christ
Last Saturday, I had the great joy of attending a combined ordination Mass of a new priest and six new deacons for our Diocese. After all the isolation and distance of the pandemic it was great to see brother priests and celebrate the occasion of our most treasured possession – the priesthood of Jesus Christ – being shared with a new brother, and to see these six new deacons lay down their lives for the Lord as well as they enter the final stages of preparation for sharing in the Lord’s priesthood.
As you can imagine, it was rather different than a typical ordination Mass. The Mass was not in our gorgeous cathedral, but in a church with a greater seating capacity. Most of the priests were not able to join in the laying on of hands and the fraternal exchange of the sign of peace – important signs of our sharing in the ministerial priesthood of Christ that we greatly look forward to each year. We were not able to sing the hymns and antiphons that are used every year at the ordination Mass, and there were no brass or timpani to mark the jubilance of the occasion. The faithful were not able to receive first blessings from the newly ordained priest.
And yet, the most important thing of all happened. God chose for Himself and for us a new servant who will share in the priesthood of Christ from now into eternity. He is able to forgive sins and consecrate the Eucharist just as well as any priest whose ordination was marked by greater festivity.
A few weeks before that, I participated in a video conference with local pastors about reopening our churches. I was the only priest participating, the others coming from Protestant communities. I was asked at one point: “Father Gregerson, what will you do at St. John’s when you reopen? You won’t be able to have Communion, will you?” I explained that there really was not such a thing as a Catholic Mass without Holy Communion. Or at least, if there were, people would not come for it.
We also talked about the issue of congregational singing, something that I am sure we all miss very much right now. Upon learning about the dangers involved in congregational singing right now, some of the pastors in the conference admitted that there was no point in opening up at all if they could not sing together. One even remarked “I think that singing is for us what Communion is for Catholics.” I suppressed a chuckle.
Many non-Catholic churches in our area are still not having in-person services, and others are considering their congregation as a “live studio audience” for a primarily online experience. I am glad that we can still offer Mass via streaming for those who are not ready to be here in person, but I think we can all recognize what it is that makes the critical difference for the Catholic approach to divine worship.
Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – Corpus Christi. In this, as in so much else, we find the crucial difference of the Catholic faith. The Eucharist is the core of everything we believe not because It is a ritual exclusive to Catholics (although it is that), but because when the Catholic Church celebrates the Eucharist, the result is the real, true, and substantial presence of the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist is the center of our faith because the Eucharist is Christ.
Many people have told me how they have grown in devotion to the Eucharist over the past few months because the experience of the pandemic has taught them about the true importance of the Eucharist in their lives. This experience illustrates the fact that the Eucharist is so much more than merely a symbol, but instead is the true presence of Christ’s Body and Blood.
Today’s Mass is one of the few that includes a sequence between the second reading and the Gospel acclamation. This beautiful piece of poetry was authored, along with all of the other prayers for the office of Corpus Christi, by St. Thomas Aquinas in the 1200s when Pope Urban IV declared the universal celebration of this feast. (Which means that this is one of the very few traditional liturgical prayers for which we know the author – almost all the others are lost in the dust of antiquity.) The sequence contains some profound truths about the reality of the Eucharist that it would be useful to review today:
“Sight has fail’d, nor thought conceives, But a dauntless faith believes, Resting on a pow’r divine.” It is only through the theological virtue of faith that we can believe in the Eucharist. There are no logical proofs or arguments that have the power to convince the skeptic. We can convince someone that the Church’s faith in the Eucharist is consistent with the witness of scripture, but without theological faith, belief in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist is impossible.
“Here beneath these signs are hidden Priceless things to sense forbidden; Signs, not things are all we see.” Another text of Thomas says, “Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived.” The appearances of bread and wine that we behold are signs, not symbols. Their outward appearance signifies their inner reality. We can sometimes become concerned that we cannot see what is happening at the altar. Actually, it is impossible to see what is happening at the altar. Even the priest cannot see bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist is a reality that goes beyond our senses and our feelings.
“Blood is poured and flesh is broken, Yet in either wondrous token Christ entire we know to be.” The whole Christ is present under the appearance of either species – bread or wine. The species of bread primarily signifies the Body of Christ, and the species of wine primarily signifies His Body, but Christ cannot be separated into parts. He is present entirely under either species. This is of the utmost importance because the Body of Christ we receive is His real, living, resurrected Body! A living body is animated by blood, and blood outside the body is not alive. If we deny this teaching – known as the doctrine of concomitance – we deny that the Eucharist is the real, living, resurrected body and blood of Christ. There is only one Christ – not the Christ who was on the Cross and the Christ who was in the tomb and the Christ who is in Heaven and the Christ who is present in Holy Communion. No, there is one Christ, and He has a living, resurrected body that He shares with us miraculously in Holy Communion. To deny the doctrine of concomitance – that the entire Body and Blood are present under either species – is to deny, then, that the Body we receive is a living Body, and thus to deny that the Eucharist is really Christ. As we just noted, the Eucharist is a reality that transcends appearances and feelings. Even if we do not feel like we are receiving Christ’s blood because we only receive under the species of bread, the whole Christ is there present.
“Thousands are, as one, receivers, One, as thousands of believers, Eats of him who cannot waste.” The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. It is what unites believers across the world and across space and time. It is a scandal, then, that the Eucharist has become a point of division amongst those who profess faith in Christ. We should pray fervently that all Christians will recognize the true doctrine of the Eucharist and return to the visible flock of Christ that celebrates the true sacrament.
“Bad and good the feast are sharing, Of what divers dooms preparing, Endless death, or endless life. Life to these, to those damnation, See how like participation Is with unlike issues rife.” As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:27), reception of Holy Communion in a state of grace is a source of life and grace to the soul, but receiving Holy Communion in a state of sin (that is, with unconfessed mortal sins on our conscience), is a source of damnation. We see here how the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality, but a powerful medicine indeed that does great good for those prepared to receive it and that is dangerous for those who are not.
We should regularly examine our consciences and confess our sins to the Lord in the Sacrament of Confession – the only sacrament that forgives mortal sins committed after Baptism – before approaching His sacred banquet. We cannot judge the state of a person’s soul from outward appearance or a cursory examination of our feelings, but only through a thorough examination of conscience. Jesus died to give you the Eucharist. On the night before He suffered, He said that “This is my body, which is given up for you,” referring to the way that same body that you receive in Holy Communion was handed over to sinners and nailed to the Cross. If He died in order to give us this gift, then we must die to ourselves and die to sin in order to receive It.
Lastly, we note that, “When the sacrament is broken, Doubt not, but believe ‘tis spoken, That each sever’d outward token doth the very whole contain.” Every tiny particle of the Sacred Host and every tiny droplet of the Precious Blood contain the entire Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ. This should motivate a profound sense of reverence for the Eucharist and the utmost care in its handling. Watch sometime at the great caution exhibited by the priest as he cleanses the sacred vessels after Holy Communion. Usually it is good to focus on our own thanksgiving during this part of Holy Mass, but from time to time observing these actions can build up our own sense of reverence for Christ’s Body and Blood.
After the ordination Mass last Saturday, I was reminded of Christmas morning as told by Dr. Seuss: “It came without packages, boxes, or bags.” Our experience of Holy Mass is still somewhat different than we are accustomed to. But these realities – wearing masks, not singing together, and not sitting in our favorite pew – these are all externals. What is most important has never changed – Christ’s real, true, substantial presence, His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity made present on this altar for the salvation of your soul.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
Corpus Christi, A.D. MMXX