June 19, 2022 Feast of Corpus Christi

Welcome Father Martin Today’s Readings: Gn 14:18-20 | 1 Cor 11:23-26 | Lk 9:11b-17

Catholic Christians celebrate Corpus Christi today. Some people find the feast a little suspicious (especially in northern latitudes) and pass it over. Perhaps they suspect that relics of denominational acts of profiling might haunt the celebration or that the whole thing is too sensual for them: the procession, the Eucharistic blessing and all that. And indeed we do something unusual on this day: we do not simply celebrate Mass as we usually do on Sundays, but we celebrate that we are allowed to celebrate Mass. We not only intonate Eucharistic - that is, thanksgiving - praise to God, but we give thanks that we can give thanks in this way. The Mass is by far the most familiar worship gathering to Catholic believers. And as with everything that is “familiar”, there is a danger of the ordinary. That’s why it’s good to do something unusual sometimes, in order to make the familiar more profound. If we understand Corpus Christi in this way, we can make the surprising discovery that this feast reminds us in a very unique way of the centre of Christianity.

It is only when the Eucharistic gifts come to the fore as they do today that we are struck, as it were, by the fact that something quite unique is happening in that The celebration of the Mass - this high form of encounter with God - is not completed in overwhelming emotion, not in ecstasy, not in nameless silence before the mystery, but it is completed in the fact that we - are given food and have a meal. One theological teacher, the New Testament scholar Franz Mußner, triggered a heated argument among his colleagues because he had entitled a small article with the succinct title: Das Wesen des Christentums ist synesthiein” - The essence of Christianity consists in eating together.

The Pauline specialist Mußner had come to this conviction from the Epistle to the Galatians and the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Both letters of the Apostles document fierce conflicts, and both revolve around eating together: In Galatians, Paul recalls how he clashed fiercely with Peter in Antioch: the spokesman for the apostles had come to the Gentile Christian community there and - which was strictly forbidden to him as a native Jew - had held table fellowship with the Gentiles who had become Christians: a telling expression of the fact that something radically new had begun with Jesus, that the old differences no longer counted, nor did the borderline between Jews and Gentiles, circumcised and uncircumcised, because all are one in Christ, as Paul puts it. But when a few representatives of the Jewish Christian community from Jerusalem come to Antioch, Peter no longer eats together with the former Gentiles because he does not want to cause offence among the Jerusalemites. Paul confronts Peter and resists him to his face because such behaviour does nothing but deny the newness that has come with Christ, this reconciliation across all differences and boundaries. If it is true that faith in the Gospel reaches deeper than the difference between slave and free, man and woman, Jew and Greek, then this core of Christianity is indeed expressed in a special way when they all - those who are outwardly so different - share a meal together. It is true: the essence of Christianity is “synesthiein”, eating together.

The conflict in Corinth is, as it were, the horizontal counterpart to this spiritual community It had obviously become customary for those who could afford it to eat properly even before the community meal and the Eucharist embedded in it, while others who did not have the means hungrily celebrated the liturgical rite. It was unbearable for Paul that the Lord’s sign of remembrance, the shared bread, the shared cup, the image of togetherness and for-each-other-ness, was literally belied by what was actually lived. So, my brothers, he writes, when you come together for the meal, wait for one another - one must add: wait for one another, so that you do not play at fellowship, but are fellowship. For without the reconciled and the solidary in the human, one does not understand anything about being reconciled with God. Just as, conversely, being reconciled with God makes being reconciled with one another possible in the first place. Both belong inseparably to each other. Later, theologians will speak of the inseparable unity of love for God and love for one’s neighbour, that the one happens in the other and vice versa, and therefore both have their common embodiment in the sharing of the meal of believers. It really is true: the essence of Christianity is “synesthiein”.

The other day I read about a situation which, on the face of it, has nothing to do with theology and yet somehow gives us an idea of why this is so: in the early 1930s there was a baker’s shop in a Paris suburb Customers went there not so much because of the good bread, but because of the young baker’s father. Some smiled furtively at him, asking behind closed doors if he had it all together. To others, he seemed to have a very peculiar aura. Because sometimes he did very strange things. As if bread wasn’t just for eating. One day, a bus driver who often shopped here came into the shop. You look so depressed, the old man said. I’m afraid for my little daughter, she fell out of the window yesterday, from the second floor. How old, the baker asked, the man answered four. Then the old man took a piece of bread from the counter, broke off two bites and gave the one piece to the bus driver. Eat with me, said the old baker, I want to think of you and your child. A short time later, an old woman came in. Before she could say what she wanted, the old baker put a small piece of white bread in her hand and said: ‘Come, eat with us; the gentleman’s daughter is seriously injured in hospital. She is four years old. The father should know that we will not leave him alone. And the woman took the bread and ate with them.

Another time the story happened with Gaston. One morning a young lad came rushing into the shop, covered in sweat. He hastily closed the door behind him and pushed the bolt forward. He was running from someone. What are you doing, the old man asked. I was open for the customers! The next moment the door was clanged by the fists of a man who was banging wildly against the glass outside, an iron bar in his other hand. He wants to beat me to death, the boy said. My father, he is senseless with rage at me. The old baker knew the man. He went to the door, pushed the bolt away. What is it, Gaston? What’s the matter so early in the day? Come in, but behave yourself! No one gets beaten in my shop. The man didn’t look at the son or the baker, he closed his eyes and struggled for breath. Then he heard the old man say: ‘Come on, Gaston, eat a piece of bread, it will calm you down. And eat it together with your boy. I’ll eat a piece too and help you reconcile. Gaston took the bite, and so did the son. When they had eaten the bread, Gaston said, ‘Come, boy, we must get down to work.

Secular Eucharists that could not be more spiritual As wondrous and as human as the Sunday Eucharist - only that we hardly notice the human aspect of it any more and therefore no longer understand its wondrousness. And the old baker could remind us of one more thing: the spiritual meal together is not something that a few do and keep for themselves. The mystery of reconciliation that appears in it wants to reach out to others and involve them in peace with each other and with God. That is why it is not by chance that the Third Prayer says: “Merciful God, we beseech thee: May this sacrifice of our reconciliation bring peace and salvation to the whole world.” And this is also what Corpus Christi makes visible: Christians carry the epitome of the centre of their faith, the sensual epitome of being reconciled from the small community out into the world, so that it may be seized by the miracle of reconciliation. And what else does the world need more than precisely this? Whoever trusts faith with even a spark of reality cannot help but confess with Corpus Christi today his hope in the powerless might of reconciliation. But this power can only become real and strong when it begins in small ways. Like with the old baker. Like in Corinth or with the Galatians. And hopefully so with us.

Source: Martin Müller SJ Image: Christ feeding the multitude (Coptic icon)