Corpus Christi Sunday June 18, 2006
Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
“THIS IS THE BLOOD OF THE COVENANT THAT THE LORD HAS MADE WITH YOU IN ACCORDANCE WITH ALL THESE WORDS OF HIS” (Exod 24:8)
After Moses had received the law from God on Mount Sinai he called all the Jewish people together and “related all the words and ordinances of the Lord” (Exod 24:3). All the people said in one voice, “we will do everything that the Lord has told us” (Exod 24:3). Then Moses spent the day writing “down all the words of the Lord” (Ex 24:4) and the next day “he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel” (Exod 24:4). Then Moses had young bulls slaughtered “as peace offerings to the Lord” (Exod 24:5). Moses called all the people to the site of the altar and he put half the bulls’ blood in bowls on the altar and half he splashed on the altar. Then he read what he had written “the book of the covenant” aloud to the people and they answered, “All that the Lord has said we will heed and do” (Exod 24:7).
Then Moses sealed the deal by taking the blood in the bowls on the altar and sprinkling it on the people. This is the way contracts were signed between two parties in the ancient world. The blood symbolized what was at stake. The parties of the contract pledged their lives to keep the contract. If either side failed to keep their side of the contract, they forfeited their lives.
“WHERE DO YOU WANT US TO GO AND PREPARE FOR YOU TO EAT THE PASSOVER?” (Mark 14:12)
This week’s gospel from Mark takes us back to the last night of Jesus’ life. The week before Jesus’ death, he and his disciples spent their days in the Temple confronting and debating the Temple establishment. Their nights were spent outside Jerusalem for fear of the authorities. On the day the Passover meal was to be eaten Jesus’ disciples asked him where he wanted to eat the Passover meal. The surprise here is that they had to ask Jesus where the meal would take place; they did not know.
FOLLOW THE MAN CARRYING A JUG OF WATER?
Jesus tells two of his disciples to go into Jerusalem where they will meet a man “carrying a jar of water” (Mk 14:13). Jesus tells them to follow that man to a house. They are then to say to the master of that house, “The teacher says ‘where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” Jesus tells his disciples the master will show them an upper room where everything they need will be provided. The two disciples went into the city and found everything as Jesus instructed.
The city of Jerusalem is no small town and there were thousands of extra people in the city for the Passover celebration. Even if the two disciples were given a specific street corner to meet the mysterious water carrier, how would they know which water carrier to follow? Carrying water jars in Jerusalem was as common as carrying a bag of groceries in NYC except this was a man carrying the jar of water and water carrying was women’s work. A man carrying a jar of water would have been easy to pick out of a crowd.
MARK 14:17-21 – THE MISSING VERSES
More importantly, the clandestine nature in which Jesus must act within his own circle of disciples is most revealing and is explained in this week’s missing verses from our Gospel. Mark 14:17-21 reports how Jesus exposed the betraying disciple Judas at the Last Supper.
In Mark 14:17 we are told Jesus shows up for the Passover meal with his select twelve disciples. The significance of the twelve disciples is that they, like the 12 pillars that Moses erected before the altar in this week’s first reading from Exodus, represent the twelve tribes of Israel in Jesus’ new covenant. Even though we are told that the select twelve disciples accompanied Jesus to this last Passover meal it does not exclude the probability of others being in attendance also.
THIS IS MY BLOOD OF THE COVENANT WHICH WILL BE SHED FOR MANY (Mark 14:24)
In the midst of eating the Passover meal Jesus initiates a whole new blood covenant that he will seal on the cross and complete Easter morning. First, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). Then he took a cup of wine, gave thanks, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my blood of the covenant which will be shed for many.”
This years Corpus Christi lectionary readings highlight the blood aspect of the New Covenant made with Jesus’ death on the cross and our participation in the Eucharist. Jesus’ New Covenant of love was sealed on his part with his blood shed on the cross. Like all blood contracts, there are two parties. Jesus lived up to his side of the blood contract. Each time we partake of the Eucharist and drink from the cup, we are pledging our life’s blood to follow the kingdom ways that Jesus lived and taught in the Gospels.
THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI
The feast of Corpus Christi was established to help bring the Eucharist into the everyday lives of regular Catholics. At the end of the 19th century the lay Catholic rarely received Holy Communion at mass. The eucharistic theology in practice emphasized the sacred and divine at the expense of the common and communal. In practice the people were separated and distanced from what was happening at the altar. An altar rail served as a physical barrier between the priest and the people. The mass was celebrated in Latin, a language few understood. The priest’s back was to the people and the worshipping congregation was treated more as spectators than active participants. Those who received communion regularly were few.
I remember my grandfather Frank Sposeto, my mother’s father. He was an immigrant from Italy, a father of ten and a truck farmer. He farmed with horses all the way to the 1960’s before he died. He went to mass every Sunday but only received communion once a year fulfilling his Easter obligation. The Easter obligation was something the church did to make sure Catholics received the sacraments of reconciliation and Holy Communion at least once a year during the Easter season. (Of course the sacrament of reconciliation used to be called confession then.)
My father George belonged to the Holy Name Society, a men’s group at our parish that met once a month on Sunday morning. They started their meetings by attending 8 a.m. mass and receiving Holy Communion as a group. Then they had an eggs, sausage and pancake breakfast in the church basement and a speaker afterwards. The breakfasts are what I liked most about the Hoy Name Society because every once in awhile the men were allowed to bring their sons with them for mass and breakfast. The Holy Name Society was a Catholic Men’s group meant to get men to receive Holy Communion at least once a month.
The feast of Corpus Christi was a big deal in my home parish of St. Anthony’s when I was a kid. The big event was the Corpus Christi procession in which hundreds of people participated. Every group and organization in the Church was part of the procession with floats and bands. The priest and the Blessed Host were always at the end of the procession which always ended back in the church with a special devotion. The idea behind the procession was to show how our worship at Mass was supposed to flow out of the church building into our neighborhoods and be a part of our every day lives.
With Vatican II lots of changes took place in the Catholic Church most of them for the better. The changes that touched the lives of all Catholics were in the liturgy and how we celebrated mass. Our Eucharistic theology shifted from a holy, other worldly emphasis to a community, people based emphasis. The altar rail was eliminated and the priest turned around and celebrated Mass facing the people. The Mass was celebrated in the language of the people. In the United States that meant English. The lay people were no longer spectators of a distant other worldly ritual but active and necessary participants in a communal worship. Perhaps the most important change was how we rediscovered the importance of scripture in the celebration of the Eucharist, seeing the “liturgy of the word” as equally important as the “liturgy of Eucharist prayer.” After Vatican II lay Catholics were encouraged to receive the Eucharist weekly and if possible every day through weekday masses. People were encouraged to receive the blessed host in the hands instead of the tongue and partake in the blessed cup.
All of these efforts — the feast of Corpus Christi, the Easter obligation, the Holy Name Societies and the Liturgical Reforms of Vatican II — seemed to have accomplished what the Church set out to do 100 years ago, which was to bring the celebration of the Eucharist into the every day lives of ordinary Catholics. We now have a practicing Eucharistic faith community. It’s one of the greatest gifts and assets the Catholic Church has today. It’s kind of a shame we seem to be putting the last 100 years of Eucharistic development at risk by our continued insistence on an exclusive all male celibate priesthood, don’t you think?