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Corpus Christi

Note of the Day – June 19

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This past Sunday (the first after Trinity Sunday), in Roman Catholic tradition, represents the feast (celebration) of Corpus Christi—that is, the body of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist). Protestants generally do not recognize this feast day in the Church Year, since it is tied to a belief in the “real presence” of Christ (i.e. his body present miraculously, but materially in the consecrated bread and wine) and the concept of transubstantiation (the substance/essence of the bread and wine is transformed into his body/blood). Ever since the Renaissance and Reformation period, Western Christians—Protestants in particular—have struggled to preserve something of the ancient mystic-symbolic sense of the sacred ritual in light of the more scientific-materialistic age in which they live. The crux of the disputes in the Reformation period was the declaration by Jesus in the Last Supper scene of the Synoptic Gospels—”this is my body / this is my blood” (Mark 14:22, 24 par)—and how precisely it should be understood. However, perhaps even more interesting, from my viewpoint, is the question of exactly how early believers may have applied eucharistic language and symbolism to their communal meals. In this regard, the crucial, seminal passage is found in the book of Acts, in the narrative summary of Acts 2:42-47:

42And they were strong/steadfast toward (each other) in the teaching of the apostles and in the communion, in the breaking of bread and the speaking out toward (God) [i.e. prayers]…
44and all the ones trusting/believing were (together) upon the same (place) [e)pi\ to\ au)to/] and had all things in common…
46and according to (the) day [i.e. daily], being strong/steadfast toward (each other) with one impulse in the sacred place [i.e. Temple], and breaking bread according to (the) house, they took food with (one another) in joy and smoothness/simplicity [lit. without stone/pebble] of heart…
47…and the Lord set toward [i.e. added to] the ones being saved according to (the) day [i.e. daily] e)pi\ to/ au)to/.

Here I would focus on the expression kla/si$ tou= a&rtou (klásis tou ártou), “breaking of bread” in verse 42, which is mentioned again in verse 46 in slightly different form: “breaking bread according to house”. The modifying expression “according to house” (kat’ oi@kon) means that the “breaking of bread” took place in one house, then another—presumably an indication that the larger group/community met in the houses of different believers in turn. But what of this “breaking of bread”?—does it represent: (a) ordinary meals, or (b) a celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist)? On the surface, it would seem that ‘ordinary’ communal meals are meant, as in v. 46 where it says that the believers “took food/nourishment with (one another) [metala/mbanon trofh=$]”. However, most scholars today would, I think, hold that some form of the Lord’s Supper is meant, and in this they are probably correct. One could, perhaps, distinguish between the terminology of the earliest believers (c. 35 A.D.) with that of the author of Acts (c. 70-80) [cf. also references in Acts 20:7, 11; 27:35]; but for the author of Luke-Acts, at least, it is extremely likely that “breaking (of) bread” served as a kind of shorthand reference and image for the Eucharist. This would seem to be confirmed by the narrative of Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), where Jesus comes to be known/recognized in the breaking of the bread (cf. verse 35, the only other occurrence of the noun kla/si$ [klásis, “breaking, fracture”] in the New Testament). For more on this passage, see below.

The symbolism, of course, originates with that used by Jesus in the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper:

Mark 14:22: “And in their eating, taking [labw\n] bread (and) blessing [eu)logh/sa$] he broke [e&klasen] (it) and gave [e&dwken] (it) to them and said, ‘Take (it)—this is my body'”

The version in Matthew 26:26 differs very little, the majority text of Luke 22:19 somewhat more so, with the addition in 19b (missing in some key ‘Western’ manuscripts) of: “…th(at is) given over you; do this in my memory/remembrance”. From a period presumably in between that of the earliest believers and the author of Luke-Acts, we have Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, which includes a citation of Jesus words of institution (vv. 24-26) fairly close to the formula in Luke. While the exact context and circumstances are not entirely clear, Paul’s is describing a situation where the significant (or “sacred”, i.e. eucharistic) aspects of the communal meal are effectively being ignored or disregarded in practice. This indicates (clearly enough to me) that the eucharistic elements simply serve as a ritual, symbolic aspect of what is otherwise an (ordinary) communal meal. Paul warns strongly against those who eat and drink without “judging/discerning throroughly” (diakri/nwn) the body (of Christ) (v. 30, and note the warning against eating and drinking unworthily in v. 27). Some commentators have interpreted verse 30 in light of later disputes regarding the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, but this almost certainly reads too much into the text. I believe Paul’s point in this passage is two-fold:

  1. Those who participate in the meal in an unworthy manner are, whether consciously or not, disregarding the sacred/symbolic aspect of the meal—it is not possible to reconstruct the ancient ritual element with certainty, but originally it probably centered upon a specific act of “breaking bread”, in imitation of Jesus’ own act.
  2. The nature of the problems at Corinth involved a lack of unity among believers, and this was reflected in the way they came together to celebrate the eucharistic meal (see v. 17-19ff). Here divisions in the body of Christ (the congregation) are juxtaposed against the body of Christ (bread and wine) broken/divided in ritual (but serving to promote unity and spiritual life).

Previously, I mentioned the Emmaus scene in Luke 24, where Jesus joins the two disciples for a meal (in their house or a lodging on the way). All throughout the scene (vv. 15-29), the disciples had failed to recognize the resurrected person of Jesus; that is, until the moment of the common meal:

30And it came to be, in his bending down [i.e. reclining] with them, taking [labw/n] the bread he blessed [eu)lo/ghsen] and, breaking [kla/sa$] (it), he gave [e)pedi/dou] (it) to them…

The same set of four verbs, in sequence, appears in Jesus’ words at the Lord’s Supper (see above)—the eucharistic connection could not be clearer! Note, too, that upon the breaking of the bread, “their eyes were thoroughly opened and they recognized [lit. knew upon] him”, an aspect of the scene important enough to be repeated in verse 35, where it is mentioned, in conclusion, “how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread”. This, I believe, is not unrelated conceptually to Paul’s statement regarding the importance of “discerning” (diakri/nw) the body of Christ during the meal. The importance of the breaking of the bread, which, as I pointed out, was probably a single ritual act of breaking (accompanied by simple liturgical wording) is emphasized in the so-called Didache (or “Teaching” of the Twelve Apostles), which likely dates from the early-mid second-century; in the Eucharistic passage in chap. 9-10, the bread is specifically referred to as “broken (piece[s])” (kla/sma) (9:3-4). In the Didache, the associated prayers have already developed considerably beyond anything likely to have been used by the earliest believers (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26); but note the powerful image of Christian unity expressed in verse 4:

“As this broken (bread) was scattered throughout up above (on) the mountains and was brought together (and) became one, thus may your called-out (people) [i.e. church/ekklesia] be brought together from the ends/limits of the earth into your Kingdom…”

This draws upon the other major passage in the New Testament which specifically refers to the breaking of bread—namely, the miraculous feeding of the multitude—which I will discuss in the next few daily notes.

The feast of Corpus Christi was officially established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 A.D., associated with the so-called miracle of Bolsena in which the eucharistic wafer (host) was said to have bled and imprinted bloody images of the host upon the surplice of the officiating priest—therefore removing any doubts the priest (or others) may have had about the doctrine of transubstantiation and the Real Presence! The scene was commemorated most famously by Raphael in the Stanza (reception room) d’Elidoro in the Vatican palace.