Lectionary commentary: Corpus Christi Sunday
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy, 8:2-3. 14-16
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 148:12-15. 19-20. R/. v. 12
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 10:16-17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 6:51-58
The book named Deuteronomy in English takes its name from the Septuagint Bible. This is a translation from Hebrew into Greek of the Hebrew Bible. It was made in Alexandria in Egypt about 250 years before the time of Jesus. This translation was used by every single writer whose work made its way into our New Testament. The name Deuteronomy means “second law”. That name reflects the understanding that the book regards chapters 19-23 of the Book of Exodus as the definitive announcement of God’s Law delivered to the people by Moses and it re-issues that covenant. The book invites its readers and hearers to journey back to the past and place themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai and listen to the word of God.
The scene is set. The people who had been delivered from slavery in Egypt are assembled at Mount Sinai. Moses goes up to God and the Lord calls to him, saying,
Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel…
What Moses announced was the Torah, the defining and unchanging Law and Covenant with God. This is the proclamation of the unalterable faith of Israel. What is revealed to the people through Moses is the identity of the God who speaks:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Then the identity of that chosen people is revealed:
… Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Thus the basic terms of what was settled by God on Mount Sinai are laid down in the Book of Exodus. Some six hundred years later the Book of Deuteronomy emerged (probably in the days of King Josiah who reigned from 640 B.C. to 609 B.C.) as a restatement of Israel’s foundational faith. Hence the name “second law”.
But Deuteronomy is far from being a rehash of ancient theology. The book opens with “These are the words” and its name in the Hebrew Bible is “Devarim” (Words). The book opens with a solemn declaration: “These are the words that Moses spoke…”, not “These were the words…”. Devarim (Deuteronomy) is not an exercise in pious reminiscence.
Deuteronomy is an exercise in understanding how tradition becomes today’s actuality. It well knows that there is a tension between what history reveals and how that history percolates through time to be gospel for the present and beyond. Deuteronomy brings the past into the present. The word “remember” occurs 14 times in Deuteronomy and the command is not an encouragement to wallow in the old days:
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Although 600 years have elapsed since that day of freedom, the Deuteronomist can say “you were a slave” and you are the people delivered from slavery joyfully to inhabit a land flowing with milk and honey. But the gift comes with obligation:
Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today …
The Sabbath Day is a holy day of prayerful remembrance. Deuteronomy insists on active remembrance that translates the People of God to the Eternal God. The people are transformed by listening to the words. In listening they learn who God is. They learn of God’s concern for their welfare. They come to realise that they are invited and empowered to be holy as God is holy:
You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
This is not a commandment. It is an invitation to sit at God’s table, to share the very being of God, to be embraced as a people forever and a day.
The people of King Josiah’s day are carried by God to recognise that they are the people at the foot of Mount Sinai listening to all that Moses declared. Deuteronomy places the present into the past so that the past determines the present and future. The past reveals the God who acted and therefore the God who always acts and determines the present and the future. What Deuteronomy everywhere declares is that the Presence is never absent. Or, as we pray, God is the God who was, is now, and ever shall be.
It is no wonder that the command that creates and sustains faith is at the heart of all that is said in the Book of Deuteronomy:
This is what Jesus does in the Gospel according to John.
A reading from the book of Deuteronomy, 8:2-3. 14-16 You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Do not forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know.
The word of the Lord.
The Jewish books of Deuteronomy, of Isaiah, and of Psalms are by far and away the most quoted books in the Christian books of the New Testament. These holy books shape our understanding of God. Deuteronomy bids us in our time to stand at the crib and see ourselves there. It tells us to stand at the foot of the cross and know what is done there. It bids us come to the empty tomb and learn with the women we meet there that he is not there.
Deuteronomy’s understanding empowers us to listen to Isaiah as if he stood at our lectern. Isaiah reveals what God has made me for and opened my heart and mind to what I am:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted …
The Book of Psalms teaches me how to pray. Notice that the prayers of the past so easily emerge from almost three thousand years ago and slip so readily into our time, our pain, and our joy:
As the deer pants for flowing streams,
So pants MY soul for you, O God!
My God, My god, why have you forsaken me?
The Lord is my shepherd
Yet if we listen to the Lord speaking to us who stand at the foot of the mountain, Isaiah tells us that we are “a city not forsaken” (Isaiah 62:12), even when there are enemies at the gates. For Devarim, “these words” of Deuteronomy, insist that the God who spoke to Moses spoke in our hearing. Yes, we endure the emptiness of the desert. Yes, we know hunger of body, mind and spirit. Yes, we need manna from heaven and water from the flinty rock. We need bread from heaven. It is for God to decide what our Bread from Heaven should be.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 147:12-15. 19-20. R/. v. 12
R/. Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem!
Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.
Praise your God, O Zion!
For he strengthens the bars of your gates;
he blesses your children within you. R/.
He makes peace in your borders;
he fills you with the finest of the wheat.
He sends out his command to the earth;
his word runs swiftly. R/.
He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rules to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation;
they do not know his rules. R/.
The last six psalms in the Book of Psalms are songs of praise. The collection of 150 psalms has prayers for all seasons and for all moods and tenses. Of all the Psalms, only Psalm 145 is identified as a Song of Praise. The Hebrew word for “praise” is tehilah and its plural form is tehilim. In time the whole collection of prayers came to be called Songs of Praise. The title suggests the belief that all psalms, no matter how painful the prayer, are at heart songs of praise.
Psalm 147 is a catalogue of praise. First there is praise that the Lord has rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem, thereby restoring his Presence to those who have returned from cruel exile.
The hungry are fed with wheat. But they are fed, too, with the Lord’s word, a word that comes to earth. The Lord’s decrees (God’s holy will), are made known to his people. Other nations are not recipients of God’s designs.
Perhaps we should note verse 18, omitted from the Lectionary’s abbreviation of the psalm. For this verse declares that the Lord causes his spirit, his ruah, the very breath of God, to run swiftly through the earth. There is, after all, hope for the flowers.
A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, 10:16-17
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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
The word of the Lord.
If nothing else survived from the writings of St. Paul, his two discussions of the Lord’s Supper would forever leave us in his debt. For in I Corinthians 10:16-17 and further on in 11:20-29 we have the earliest references in the whole of Christianity’s history to what Paul calls “the Lord’s Supper”. It is widely accepted that the great apostle’s letter to Corinthian house-churches was written in 54 A.D. It is astonishing to realise how deeply Paul understands the Eucharist and even more that he expects the Christians in Corinth to grasp what he is saying. For in both passages he is teaching the implications of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the communities he is addressing. Clearly he anticipates that they will grasp why the Eucharist is at the very heart of their faith. All this theology a little more than twenty years after the death of Jesus!
The very first line of today’s reading discloses a profound understanding of the Eucharist that was not well understood by our fathers and mothers in faith who walked the street of ancient Corinth. Nor is it understood by many in our parishes today. For what Paul is concerned with at this point in his letter is the matter of participation:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
I Corinthians 10:16
The Greek wordtranslated as “participation” in our reading today is κοινωνÍα (koinōnía) and it is a word used in one form or another in many writings in the New Testament. It is never used in our Gospels. The basic meaning concerns “sharing”. It denotes a participation in a common enterprise. For St. Paul being a Christ means being ‘in Christ”, being absorbed into the risen body of Christ. Paul uses the phrase or an equivalent again and again throughout his letters, over twenty times in I Corinthians itself. What he asserts in today’s reading is that our togetherness in the Eucharist is not simply a participation with Christ and in Christ. That participation in Christ, the bread we eat and the blood we drink, creates one body. That is, the oneness with Christ is a oneness with and in each other. God has called us to be one with Christ:
God is faithful, by whom you were called into participation (koinōnía) of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
I Corinthians 1:9
Those who receive are transformed, are utterly changed. We are brought into a covenant with God through oneness in Christ. The covenant God created on Mount Sinai as Moses was given the tablets of the Torah (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21) established a oneness with between God and the people. That is why for the rest of the Bible God is centre stage at all times and belonging there with God is God’s people. Even when they run off-stage they can never get out of the play.
If in communion we go up to God, then we go sideways to each other. The oneness created with the Lord Jesus creates a oneness with each other. There is no such thing as private communion just as there is no such thing as private prayer. In the Letter to Hebrew Christians the risen and exalted Jesus is our heavenly priest constantly speaking on our behalf. Our prayers are joined to his. Our prayers, no matter that we think they are feeble and distracted, have the strength of the prayer of our Lord Jesus:
… he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.
Paul insists that a community that partakes at the table of the Lord is one body that must not be sundered. To attempt to do so, says the great apostle, is to participate in covenant with demons. It is to turn koinōnía with God-in-Christ into demonic affiliation.
Paul founded these young churches in Corinth. He would have sat in their houses to open the word and share the bread. Following the pastoral perspectives of Deuteronomy of placing ourselves where God is speaking, we are, in his word, κοινωνοì (koinōnoi), a community of many who are one. We must not fracture the oneness of those gathered around the altar. We break the bread in remembrance that “the bread that we break is truly “a participation (κοινωνíα) in the body of Christ” (I Corinthians 10:16).
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 6:51-58
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
A prologue is necessary to help us come to grips with today’s Gospel. The incident of which our gospel reading is part comprises of the feeding of five thousand people followed by Jesus revealing what the sign means. The word “sign” occurs in all four Gospels. But in John’s Gospel it has a particular and single meaning: signs tells you who Jesus is. They are not done to impress. They are done to convert. This is how John’s Gospel ended (before someone added chapter 21):
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The word “sign(s) occurs six times in chapter 6, more times
than in any other section of the Gospel. The sign of the loaves and fishes reveals who Jesus is.It is Jesus who explains the meaning of the sign and part of that explanation is offered us in today’s Gospel reading.
People who know that Jesus fed a multitude of people with some loaves and a few fish will realise that this is the only miracles story that is told in all four Gospels.Each has little details not in the others and each has an individual theological bent. The “meaning” of the “sign” in John does not emerge in the other Gospel accounts.
A telling detail, not found in Mark, Matthew, or Luke, is John’s statement that Jesus “went up on the mountain and sat down with his disciples” (John 6:3). Notice, too, that the account of the feeding ends,
Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The “mountain” in Bible-speak indicates both the nearness of God and the authority of God, whether speaking to Moses, revealing divine presence to Elijah, or Matthew’s informing readers that Jesus “went up on the mountain” to preach what we know as The Sermon of the Mount (Matthew 5:1). Notice how often it is “the mountain”, seldom named for it is meant to indicate God’s mountain, God’s space, reminiscent of Mount Sinai (Horeb). It is the mountain of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The mountain is the place to assemble in order to meet with God and to hear what God has determined for the wellbeing of his people.
There were “about five thousand men” (John 6:10 - the text here specifies “men”) who sat down, there being “much grass in the place”. But notice that it is Jesus, not the disciples as in the other Gospels, who distributes the loaves and fishes when he has given thanks. Notice, too, that there is little emphasis on the fish. It is the barley loaves that receive emphasis for it is the bread that will be discussed as the story proceeds:
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.
The reaction of the people to is to search for meaning:
This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!
There is a reference to a new prophet-like-Moses in Deuteronomy where Moses announces that God will raise up a prophet like himself at some future time who will speak with the authority of Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). This may be a reference to the prophet Elijah who appears alongside Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration.
In Luke’s Acts St. Peter, in one of his homilies, identifies Jesus as this expected prophet-like-Moses sent to the people of Israel to turn everyone from wickedness (Acts 17-26). Peter, however, identifies the prophet as the Messiah. There is some slight and rather obscure evidence that the expected Messiah would be a king. However, the declaration by the people in our reading is clearly meant to be erroneous for it leads to an attempt to seize Jesus and make him king.We must wait for Jesus to reveal the meaning of the sign. The explanation begins with walking on water.
Walking on water
The revelation of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand begins here. It is evening. It is dark. The disciples are on the Sea of Galilee where the feeding story began. They are in their boat heading for Capernaum. Significantly, Jesus is not with them. Well into the rough crossing they see Jesus walking on the sea and coming near them. They are frightened. But he says to them,
Do not be afraid.
Many translations offer readers “It is I” as a translation of the words of Jesus. But that is to miss what is happening throughout John’s Gospel and what is happening on the lake. John is forever leading us back to Moses. When Moses was interviewed by God for the job of bringing the people out of Egypt, he turned down the offer:
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
But God had an answer:
I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.
But Moses had another reason to decline the job offer:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name? ’ what shall I say to them?”
Then comes the divine reply that forever demands prayer and contemplation:
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, I am has sent me to you.
In the intensely acrimonious dispute with his antagonists in chapters 7 and 8 Jesus makes such an outrageous claim that they picked up stones to throw at him:
Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν,
πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαιἐγὼ εἰμί.
Amen, Amen, I say to you,
before Abraham was, I AM.
This is his identity. This is what Jesus reveals to the frightened men in the boat. What happened next has forever given faith and hope and love to Church and chapel, indeed, to all who have come to know the truth at the heart of John’s Gospel, no matter how bad the Greek is:
Then they were glad to take him into the boat …
I am the bread of life
And so to Capernaum. The crowd who have “eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (John 6:23) find him again. Jesus has a word to say to them:
Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.
The crowd appeal to Moses, the one they believe gave them manna, bread from heaven, and that is surely better than anything the Son of man has to offer. It is here that Jesus begins to turn their understanding on its head. It is here, too, that we are brought to the table of the Eucharist:
Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always”.
When the crowd beg to receive this bread always, Jesus proclaims the truth of the matter:
Jesus said to them,
I am the bread of life,
whoever comes to me shall not hunger,
and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
The bread of life is not manna (“a fine, flake- like thing, fine as frost on the ground”, as Exodus 16:14 describes it). The Bread of Life is a person. Jesus is the bread that comes down from heaven. He is the living bread given from heaven, given by the Father for the life of the world. He is food and drink that is eternal. He is the food from heaven and to heaven. What that means is that the reality of the Presence of Jesus before the Father is shared with humanity.
If we meditate on what Jesus brings to earth, then we will begin to understand what communion with him accomplishes. We can begin to grasp the intensity of the Presence of love and what the love offers—compassion, mercy, forgiveness, strength, faith, hope, deliverance, peace, and the salvation of all that needs saving.
Communion that is Holy
It may be unfashionable these days to speak of Holy Communion as if Word can be separated from Sacrament. But if we listen to the words we will be enriched. To speak of Holy Communion is to speak of communion, of a oneness, of a κοινωνíα with the holiness of God (Leviticus 11:44).
is an embrace of holiness
“bringing holiness to completion” (II Corinthians 7:1).
is becoming holy with the holiness of God
as the holiness of Jesus takes up residence.
gives home to the Son, a guest who brings to birth peacemakers,
sons and daughters of God.
utterly transforms the bread and wine born in the earth of this world
to ensure that the bread of earth be transformed into the bread of heaven.
Is where the presence of Christ lodges in order
to create a heart listening to the pain of the world.
Is a temporary residence working to create
an eternal home.
Is love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness
finding an inn of many welcoming rooms.
is an enabling Presence that touches a bleeding woman
and cleanses a leper into synagogue.
Is a Real Presence,
not a Real Absence.
turns scorpions of the mind into calm.
spurs potential into action.
turns strangers into Church.
resurrects disciples into the body of Christ.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.