June 23; Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ; Year C

corpus christiO Saving Sacrifice

As visitors enter our Church for the first time, they would most likely be captivated or dazzled by the size and prominence given to the two geometric shapes that form the backdrop of the sanctuary - the chalice where the Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ is contained, and the host-like medallion perched above it, a symbol of the Blessed Sacrament, the Precious Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ. But now with the recent renovations to our sanctuary, that very same medallion now boasts of a beautiful and colourful mosaic. Most people can discern that this is a figure of a lamb sitting on some sort of dais. Well, it isn’t a dias. It’s actually the Book (or scroll) with seven seals mentioned in Chapter 5 of the Book of the Apocalypse.

St John’s vision in the Book of the Apocalypse introduces us to this scene of the scroll with seven seals. Everyone in the court of God is extremely concerned to the point of despair, in knowing that no one is worthy to break those seals. But then finally One emerges, the only one who can open the seals and read the scroll. It is not a powerful, ravening predator with dripping claws and fangs but a weak, vulnerable prey animal that has been mortally wounded – a Lamb. Who is the Lamb? I believe you already know the answer. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Lion of Judah, the King of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, and the firstborn is that unblemished lamb, who offers a perpetual, timeless, everlasting sacrifice of praise of Himself to the Father. Christ’s sacrifice has ended all ineffective, repetitive, bloody animal sacrifice that never did any good anyway. He is the perfect holocaust or victim. In fact, the word “host” which we use to refer to the communion bread, is derived from “hostia” which means “victim” or “sacrifice.”

But there is more to the Lamb who takes on the role of a “saving sacrifice” (O Salutaris Hostia). Placed here in the Book of the Apocalypse, He acts as Judge of both the living and the dead. Thus the opening of the seals releases God’s judgment and wrath, in order to clean the earth of evil in preparation for the Messianic Age. But this vision in the Book of the Apocalypse is not meant to be a pronouncement of what “must” come about – a future written in stone. Rather, it is meant to be a warning – a warning of what “might” come about, if we fail to heed the stern warnings of the vision. That is why every time we approach the Eucharist, we must remember that we are coming before the glory of the Lamb that was slain for our redemption, the King of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, the Judge of both the living and the dead. At every mass, we are rehearsing that Final Day of Judgment.

How then is the Eucharist connected to judgment? In the second reading taken from Chapter 11 of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, we are introduced to the words of institution, the words of consecration which the priests, for centuries thereafter until the present time, use at every mass. Omitted in the text are the following words by St Paul: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” (vv. 27-32)

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Now that language is actually like civil judicial language. Somebody who's practically guilty of murder or causing physical harm to some person’s body or desecrating a corpse is guilty of the body and blood. For St. Paul, the Eucharist being Christ and thus God himself, communion is not only an opportunity to eat and drink salvation, but also an opportunity to eat and drink judgment on oneself.

And for St Paul these dangers are not just theoretical, just as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not merely symbolic. To receive the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin is playing with fire of the worst sort. That is why St. Paul teaches that examining oneself is a prerequisite for worthy reception of the Eucharist. If that is violated, Holy Communion has the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than bringing the blessing of union with our Lord, it brings condemnation. Rather than offering an antidote to death and an elixir of immortality, the Eucharist can prove to be fatally poisonous to a person whose spiritual immunity has been compromised by the infestation of sin. Therefore, we are required to abstain from Holy Communion when there is mortal sin and should only come forward to receive Holy Communion after we’ve made a sacramental confession.

The Didache, written sometime between 90 and 110 A.D, provides us with an early understanding that the Eucharist was not merely a table fellowship with sinners but rather a sacral meal that presupposed grace and communion with the Church. “If anyone is holy, let him approach; if anyone is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen. … But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptised into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 10, 9). In this text, we see a tradition that is scriptural, ancient, and clear: the Eucharist is a sacred meal that requires of us something more than just “showing up.”

It is here that we discover the Scriptural roots of the theology and practice of fencing the altar, of excommunication, of withholding communion, of refraining from partaking in Holy Communion when one is not in a state of grace. And that theology and practice is in turn rooted in the thoroughly biblical idea that there are different sorts of sins, some minor, some major, some venial, some mortal. Neither Paul nor the Church after him is being legalistic or unmerciful or mean in exercising Eucharistic discipline. Ultimately, if encountering God directly in the Eucharist is dangerous, even deadly, withholding it should be seen as an act of charity, an act of love. It is not an act of love to give someone something that may kill them.

In our present day where notions of inclusivity and unity seem paramount, love has been reduced to simply giving people what they want. To a large degree, such unity is a contrived unity, one that overlooks the truth necessary for honest, real, substantive unity. Such a notion of communion is shallow at best, and a lie at worst. For St Paul, truth requires conversion and repentance. Communion is a matter of doctrine (faith and morals) and not just hospitality; it is a matter of life and death. But no one is forever barred from this life-giving food. Reconciliation and conversion opens the door to Holy Communion. A worthy reception of the Sacrament of Confession cleanses, purifies, enlightens and sanctifies the soul to receive the Eucharist with a better and more fervent disposition. As Pope Emeritus Benedict so wisely puts it: “The Eucharist is not itself the sacrament of reconciliation, but in fact it presupposes that sacrament. It is the sacrament of the reconciled, to which the Lord invites all those who have become one with him; who certainly still remain weak sinners, but yet have given their hand to him and have become part of his family.” The Lamb of the Book of the Apocalypse stands as a sign, a warning to those who are in need of repentance and a sign of hope to those who are committed to the path of repentance and conversion. For the latter, the Lamb will no longer be seen as a stern judge, but He will be their “lighted torch”, illuminating the heavenly city that would no longer “need the sun or the moon for light” (Rev 11:22).