Dt 8:2-3,14b-16a • 1 Cor 10:16-17 • Jn 6:51-58
Giant sequoias are among the oldest living organisms on earth. “The President” in the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park in California, is thought to be the oldest. Its verified age in 2013 was 3,200 years of age. It is amazing to stand next to a living thing that not only was alive when Jesus was living, but was also alive during the age of King David and the prophets. To touch this ancient, living thing is to be awestruck by history. To stand next to it is to feel very, very small.
At 247 feet tall, The President is considered the third largest tree in the world. We might assume that its tremendous height would mean that its root system must be equally deep in order to keep the tree upright. Surprisingly the roots of giant sequoias are extremely shallow, only a foot or so deep, but they spread over more than acre of land and are secured by over 90,000 cubic feet of soil. And each giant tree’s roots intertwine with those of surrounding trees. With the roots being locked together, the forces of nature cannot topple them.
Today, as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, we might ask what helps us to stand in the face of the forces of culture or of sin that can easily knock us down. Today we celebrate the Holy Eucharist. Once called simply Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), this feast also celebrates what the Eucharist makes us become: the Church itself is called the Body of Christ.
This solemnity was created in the Middle Ages. Plagues and unrest were rampant. Starvation was a fact of life. Life was harsh and short. People did not see God as loving. Instead, they saw God as judge and punisher. Michelangelo’s fresco “The Last Judgment” captured the age.
People were so afraid of Christ that the Church had to tell people that they must receive communion at least during the Easter season. This does not mean that people avoided Church or Mass. To the contrary, kneeling in supplication before the Blessed Sacrament was important enough that it led to our practices of Exposition, Adoration and Benediction. This was when the elevation of the Body and Blood after the consecration was added to the Mass. Although fearful of God, people still wanted to see what they worshiped.
Over time, fear of Christ the Judge slipped away to once again worshiping Him by receiving holy Communion in the Mass. Even more recently, leading up to the Second Vatican Council and since, we have come to understand the effects of participation in the Mass and receiving the Eucharist. The Eucharist shapes us into the Body of Christ, the Church.
When Jesus speaks of His body and blood, He is not referring to merely the physical parts of the human body. The idea of the “body and blood” is that they contain the very being of the person, the person’s essence. When John’s Gospel says that we should “eat His body” and “drink His blood,” it is not referring to something symbolic. John intentionally changes the verb “eat” from something socially acceptable to a verb that means the crunching sound made by diners when they eat their food.
John’s Gospel refers to the manna in the desert and compares Jesus’ giving His body and blood as food and drink to God’s giving the gift of manna to the Israelites. The Israelites began referring to eating the manna as a way of saying “eating the Law” (the Torah). To eat was to take on the essence or the life of God that the Law offers. Jesus is saying clearly that He is giving us himself and doing so in a very real way: “My body is real food and my blood real drink.”
We might jump ahead to Luke’s story of the Road to Emmaus where he takes great pains to structure his story around “the Meal.” Christ was not recognized until the disciples ate with Him. This propelled the two disciples to rejoin the community of faith, the place where the meal was regularly eaten. It was this very special meal that held the community together and gave them their identity. It was inconceivable for a follower of Christ to miss the meal. To miss the meal was to miss Christ!
The giant sequoias stand because their broad root systems are entangled with those of the other trees in their “community,” the forest. The meal that Jesus told us to celebrate faithfully entangles each of us with a community of faith. It is this community, the Church, which enables us to stand. Alone, we will topple, but as long as we are entangled within the Body of Christ, no force of culture or sin can knock us down.
FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C..