Homily for Corpus Christi
Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
6 June 2021
Winter is upon us. We’re still in lockdown here in Melbourne. The US bishops are tearing each other apart fighting about how they might or might not stop their Catholic President Joe Biden presenting himself for communion. Cardinal Marx, one of Pope Francis’s most trusted advisers has presented his resignation as Archbishop of Munich. Marx has been leading the push in the German Church for a more synodal approach, inviting everyone to the table seeking solutions in the wake of the child sexual abuse crisis. His opponents see no need for root and branch reform. He has told Pope Francis: “It is not right to simply link these problems largely on past times and former Church officials thereby “burying” what happened. I feel that through remaining silent, neglecting to act and over-focussing on the reputation of the Church I have made myself personally guilty and responsible.”
Meanwhile in the United States, Biden is only the second Catholic to occupy the White House. Unlike John F Kennedy, Biden is a Catholic who goes to mass most Sundays, and it’s not for show, nor is it for the votes. His political agenda as a Democrat President includes policies which make abortion more readily available to women whatever their financial or social circumstances. Cardinal Ladaria, the prefect of the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) has been warning the US bishops that it is “misleading” to suggest that abortion and euthanasia are “the only grave matters of Catholic moral and social teaching that demand the fullest level of accountability on the part of Catholics”. Meanwhile, Archbishop Joseph Naumann who chairs the US Catholic Bishops Pro-Life Committee has bluntly stated that Biden “has created a problem for himself and for the Church. It’s a matter of integrity. He shouldn’t present himself for communion.”
So here we are on the feast of Corpus Christi. This Sunday, Cardinal Ladaria, Cardinal Marx, Archbishop Naumann, President Joe Biden, you and me will all present ourselves at the altar declaring, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Who are any of us to start throwing stones or blocking the doors? We are all sinners. The Church is a group of sinners at prayer seeking direction and food for the journey. During COVID, we’ve all had cause to revise our thinking about Sunday obligations and liturgical routine. But many of us have missed the food for the journey which is so more than a slim white wafer. I’ve been privileged to experience people’s hunger for the Eucharist when doing the occasional hospital rounds during times of lockdown. Particularly in end of life situations, the priest is not there to judge, determining who can and who cannot be granted access. You can sense the real presence.
In today’s gospel, we contemplate Mark’s account of the last supper “on the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lamb was sacrificed”. The Roman authorities who put together the lectionary have omitted a few key verses – those that foretell the treachery of Judas. Let’s not forget Judas is there at table. Jesus knows what Judas is up to. And yet Jesus does not turn him out. Jesus treats all twelve at the table the same. He takes bread, breaks it, gives it to each of them, including Judas, saying, “This is my body.” They then share the cup after he declares: “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many.”
The scripture scholar Jose Chiu reminds us that the institution of the eucharist in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) traces the contours of the Jewish Passover Seder feast. After the lighting of the candles and the blessing, the first cup of wine, the cup of sanctification is drunk. After the telling of the Exodus story in response to the questions from the youngest person in the room, the second cup of wine, the cup of salvation, is drunk. After the main meal, the Passover lamb, the third cup of wine, the cup of blessing, is drunk. This is the cup that Mark describes in today’s gospel. And note there is no mention of the eating of the Passover lamb. There is now a new eternal Passover lamb, Jesus. After the meal, those present recite the psalms of praise before drinking the fourth cup of wine, the cup of praise and restoration. This is the cup which Jesus leaves untouched in today’s gospel, telling the disciples, including Judas: “I shall not drink any more wine until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God.” Like all who attend the Passover feast, Jesus and his disciples leave untouched the fifth cup of wine which is reserved for Elijah – the one who is to come again.
In today’s first reading from Exodus we hear the story of Moses offering the sacrifice including his splashing of the blood from the immolated bullocks on the altar and on the congregation. Professor Chiu points out that Moses” sacrifice is an exterior sacrifice with the blood sprinkled on the people, “But with the sacrifice of Jesus, his body and blood are interiorised and incorporated within the recipient. Furthermore, the communion in the Old Testament is sought between God and the people. But in the sacrifice of Christ, the communion is between him and his disciples.”
During his time as an Anglican priest at Oxford, John Henry Newman, the patron of our college, led a true revolution in Anglicanism espousing weekly communion for parishioners. In those days even committed Anglicans would have presented for communion only two or three times a year. Newman preached in favour of regular communion for everyone. It’s not as if he was unaware of the complete unworthiness of everyone, himself included.
You and I, Cardinals Ladaria and Marx, Archbishop Naumann and President Biden can pray this day the same prayer that John Henry Newman prayed:
“When I say, Domine, non sum dignus—”Lord, I am not worthy”—Thou whom I am addressing, alone understandest in their fulness the words which I use. Thou seest how unworthy so great a sinner is to receive the One Holy God, whom the Seraphim adore with trembling. Thou seest, not only the stains and scars of past sins, but the mutilations, the deep cavities, the chronic disorders which they have left in my soul. Thou seest the innumerable living sins, though they be not mortal, living in their power and presence, their guilt, and their penalties, which clothe me. Thou seest all my bad habits, all my mean principles, all wayward lawless thoughts, my multitude of infirmities and miseries, yet Thou comest. Thou seest most perfectly how little I really feel what I am now saying, yet Thou comest. O my God, left to myself should I not perish under the awful splendour and the consuming fire of Thy Majesty. Enable me to bear Thee, lest I have to say with Peter, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’“
With joy, delight, grace and some trepidation, we can respond to the invitation, approaching the altar on this feast of Corpus Christi receiving and becoming the Body of Christ. And those of us still in lockdown look forward to the quenching of our spiritual hunger.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Letter of Reinhard Cardinal Marx to Pope Francis, 21 May 2021, available at https://www.erzbistum-muenchen.de/cms-media/media-55270420.PDF
 See Washington Post, 26 May 2021 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2021/05/25/catholic-bishops-biden-communion-abortion-francis/
 Jose Enrique Aguilar Chiu, “Mark”, The Paulist Biblical Commentary, Paulist Press, New York, 2018, p.972 at p. 1019
 John Henry Newman, Meditations and Devotions, Rev. W. P. Neville (ed.), Longmans, 1907, p. 409, available at https://www.newmanreader.org/works/meditations/meditations11.html#communion3