Feast of Corpus Christi
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
June 26, 2011
Feast of Corpus Christi
“The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” I Corinthians 10:16
In conversation recently with another bishop, we were reminiscing about our seminary days and the theology professors we had. One of these was an older Dominican scripture scholar named Father Conleith Kerns. He was a true biblical scholar, having written and lectured extensively and been associated in Rome and Jerusalem with the Biblicum and the Ecole Biblique.
He taught us the writings of St. Paul, and I was remembering a time when in class he had moved me deeply during his lecture. The bishop with whom I was visiting said, “Do you remember what Father Kerns said one day that touched us all very much?” Hoping to recall those exact words, I responded, “Please remind me.” He said, “‘Gentlemen, if we do not meet again here on earth, know that one day we will meet again at the heavenly banquet for which the Eucharist is the foretaste.’”
Father Kerns had been lecturing on the passage from which our second reading for this Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is taken. The words of St. Paul are a preface to his account of the Eucharistic Institution. He writes, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). With this statement as a point of departure, St. Paul tries to correct abuses that have arisen in the Eucharistic liturgies of the Corinthian Christians.
t is astounding—truly marvelous—that if it had not been for abuses in the liturgy, St. Paul might not have even mentioned the Institution of the Eucharist. The celebration of the Eucharist—the representation of what our Lord did the night before He died by taking bread and wine and repeating those transformative words over them, “This is my body,” “This is my blood”—was so much a part of the early Christian environment, so established in early Christian worship, that it took an abuse for St. Paul to say anything about it. For this reason, St. Paul begins his recounting of the Eucharistic Institution with these words: “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (I Corinthians 11:23). St. Paul wants to make clear that what he is describing comes from the Lord himself. It is not invented. It is from the Lord and is being passed faithfully to the Christians of Corinth.
St. Paul is keenly aware that what he is passing on to the Corinthians is exactly what they should do because Jesus did the same. Only in this way, devoid of abuse, additions, modifications, can the cup of blessing be “a participation in the blood of Christ” and “the bread we break… a participation in the body of Christ” (I Corinthians 10:16). St. Paul is speaking simply of the Eucharist, the heart and center of Christian worship.
What we have in the Eucharist is a sacramental reality. What do I mean? The Church means by this that the reality of the Eucharist is so profoundly other and yet so intimately now that it takes liturgical signs to convey that reality. In the sacraments we have an entirely new creation. God takes bread and wine and transforms them. They remain looking and tasting like bread and wine, but these external signs conceal and yet reveal the reality of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In this way, the cup of blessings is “a participation in the blood of Christ” and the host is “a participation in the body of Christ.”
To further convey this mystery of participation, union and intimacy, the Church has enveloped the essential rite that Jesus willed that we repeat with a liturgy of ceremony, gestures, and prayers that do not seek to hide but rather to reveal exactly what it is we do in the Eucharist. We adore, we praise, we thank—which is the origin of the word “Eucharist”—in such a way that we realize that the bread and wine before us are not just bread and wine. They are a special food—so special in fact that there is no precedent for them. They are a spiritual food, a sacrificial food, concealed under forms of bread and wine that convey to us a participation in the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. They are a participation that is made even more real because it is not merely a meal but an entering into the reality of Jesus’ sacrifice. As St. Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (I Corinthians 11:27). The Eucharist is a foretaste of a heavenly banquet that will not end, because it will have accomplished the union for which it was intended. It is God’s pledge to us of participation with Him now in hope of heaven.
For this reason, Father Kerns said what he said in that class long ago. The hope of every Christian Eucharist is that the union in which we participate now in the Eucharist will be fulfilled in a heavenly union where all will be one. It is a heavenly banquet, for when the Lord returns, we will be fed without end. We will be at home. Now we have a pledge as a promise. What we will have then is fulfillment.