Today’s celebration of the Body and Blood of the Lord originated in the Diocese of Liege in 1246 as the feast of Corpus Christi. In the reforms of Vatican II, the feast was joined with the feast of the Precious Blood (July 1) to become the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Today we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our life together as the Church. Yet as Catholics we are so comfortable with the Eucharist that sometimes we struggle to put words around what it means for us! This was the experience of the Canadian Oblate theologian Fr Ron Rolheiser who explains it this way.
There’s a story told of a young Jewish boy named Mortakai who refused to go to school. When he was six years old, his mother took him to school, but he cried and protested all the way and, immediately after she left, ran back home. She brought him back to school and this scenario played itself out for several days. He refused to stay in school. His parents tried to reason with him, arguing that he, like all children, must now go to school. To no avail. His parents then tried the age-old trick of applying an appropriate combination of bribes and threats. This too had no effect.
Finally, in desperation they went to their Rabbi and explained the situation to him. For his part, the Rabbi simply said: “If the boy won’t listen to words, bring him to me.” They brought him into the Rabbi’s study. The Rabbi said not a word. He simply picked up the boy and held him to his heart for a long time. Then, still without a word, he set him down. What words couldn’t accomplish, a silent embrace did. Mortakai not only began willingly to go to school, he went on to become a great scholar and a Rabbi.
For Fr Rolheiser, that parable wonderfully expresses how the Eucharist works. In it, God physically embraces us. Indeed that is what all sacraments are, God’s physical embrace. Words, as we know, have a limited power. In critical situations they can often fail us. When this happens, we have still another language, the language of ritual. The most ancient and primal ritual of all is the ritual of physical embrace. It can say and do what words cannot. Jesus instinctively knew this!
Remember, for most of his ministry, Jesus used words. Through words, he tried to proclaim God’s love and forgiveness and wrapped it up in his message of the Good News. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions.
But at a time, powerful though they were, his words too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart. For Fr Ron Rolheiser the Eucharist is God’s physical embrace – and that is what we celebrate today on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi.