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The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Year C

The Body and Blood of Christ 


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A second great solemnity in Ordinary Time is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, commonly called Corpus Christi or The Body of Christ Sunday. On this day the Church commemorates the great gift of the Eucharist; the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ that was given to us for the first time at the Last Supper, and then is given to us every time the mass is celebrated throughout the world.

So today’s gospel is going to be taken from the Gospel of Luke because it is Year C, however, somewhat surprisingly, you might think, “oh, well, Corpus Christi, we should look at the Last Supper”. The Church doesn’t do that; it actually goes back to the public ministry of Jesus, and we look at the feeding of the five thousand, at Luke’s account of that. So let’s walk through that passage together, we’ll unpack it and then we’ll go back to the Old Testament, see how they relate to one another, and how all of this ties to the Eucharist, which Vatican II called the source and the summit of the Christian life. So, Luke 9:11-17 says this:

When the crowds learned it, they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away; and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away, to go into the villages and country round about, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a lonely place.” But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in companies, about fifty each.”  And they did so, and made them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And all ate and were satisfied. And they took up what was left over, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

Okay, so a few things first. The feeding of the five thousand; you’ve heard this one before because it’s the one miracle of Jesus that’s recorded in all four gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all testify to this magnificent miracle that Jesus performs of feeding five thousand people from five loaves and two fish. In one of my other lectures on this video I actually walk through how this is indeed a miracle (it’s not a miracle of sharing), it’s a miracle of multiplication, especially in John’s account which makes very clear that the food that the people eat is derived from the five loaves and the two fish. The twelve baskets that are filled up after (this is in John) come from those original elements. So I’m not going to go into that today, just suffice it to say here that no matter how tiny you break the pieces up into, you can’t get enough bread and fish to feed five thousand people from five loaves and two fish unless there is a miracle of multiplication. So that’s what’s taking place here.

Another aspect you might notice as you’re reading through it is that in Luke’s account — it’s very similar to the other accounts — you have the five thousand people, you have the five loaves and two fish, but there are some distinctive elements that are worth highlighting here. Number 1, first, Luke emphasizes that it takes place in a lonely place. Now that’s the Revised Standard Version’s translation. The Greek word there is actually erēmos, which can also be translated as “a deserted place”, or it’s actually just the word for a desert, meaning the wilderness. So, for example, when Jesus goes out into the desert to be tempted by the devil for forty days and forty nights, the Greek word there is the same word, erēmos. If you’re a 1st Century Jew and you’re reading this account, or you’re hearing about Jesus doing this miracle in the erēmos, in the desert or in the wilderness, it’s going to echo or call to mind for you the wilderness wandering in the desert at the time of the exodus from Egypt. So the setting of the feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness is itself already your first clue that this miracle is pointing back to the exodus from Egypt, and it doesn’t take a biblical scholar to know that in the exodus from Egypt, one of the great miracles was the miraculous feeding of the twelve tribes of Israel through the gift of the manna from heaven, this miraculous bread from heaven.

So what we have here in the feeding of the five thousand, just the very setting itself, in a lonely place (or in a desert), is an echo of the miracle of the manna. Which is, by the way, another reason for showing that this isn’t a miracle of sharing, because the miracle of the manna in the Old Testament didn’t have anything to do with sharing, it had to do with God miraculously and supernaturally supplying his people with food while they were in the wilderness so that they could journey to the Promised Land. So if the feeding of the five thousand is a recapitulation of the manna, if Jesus is like a new Moses in a new wilderness feeding the new Israel, then it wouldn’t make any sense for the first one to be miraculous, but this new and greater feeding to be a simple, natural act of sharing. It’s a preposterous suggestion, there’s no biblical foundation for it in the text, and it just (basically) is groundless. It has no basis in the text, or (and frankly) in the tradition too, it was made up about 150 years ago by a German rationalist who didn’t believe in miracles. So he tried to come up with some other way to explain the text. Here, what we see is, an echo of the exodus from Egypt.

A second element here has to do with something that is common to Luke and the other gospels, namely, the five loaves and the two fish. So there’s a dramatic difference between the amount of food they have and the number of people that need to be fed. I mean, if you’ve ever given a party for fifty people at your house, you know how much food fifty people can eat. So, this is five thousand people, and all they have is five loaves and two fish. So it’s going to take a miracle to feed them. Now, a third element of Luke’s account that really is striking is the fact that Jesus makes them sit down in companies of about fifty each. That’s something I know for me, I blew right past year after year of reading the text. I never really noticed that. But if you pause and think about it for a second in real time, when the Apostles asked Jesus what are we going to do, and Jesus says you give them something to eat, and the Apostles say, “are we going to go buy food for them? That’s not possible.” What does Jesus command them do? He tells the twelve, “make them all sit down in companies of fifty each”. Now, how long would that take? How long would that take the twelve disciples to get five thousand people to sit down in companies of fifty each? I mean, as a professor, it’s hard sometimes to get thirty-five people to sit down and be quiet so we can start the class. So you know it can be difficult to bring a group to order and to make them all calm down and sit down, much less to arrange them in groups of fifty each.

So why does Jesus do that? It’s a little weird. Why doesn’t he just multiply the loaves and the fish like in the movies? He always does that in the movies. In the movies, they never show the Apostles going around “Ok, now, fifty of you here, and fifty here” — what’s going on? Well I’ll never forget, one day I was reading the Dead Sea Scrolls and there’s a famous Dead Sea Scroll called the Damascus Document. The Dead Sea Scrolls were these ancient Hebrew writings from the time of Jesus that describe the beliefs of a Jewish group, probably, most likely, identified as the Essenes. And one of the things the Damascus Document does is it’s looking forward to the time of the Messiah as like a new exodus — “When a prophet will arise like Moses…”, and there will be events that parallel the exodus from Egypt. In that document (in chapter 12) it describes how in the time of the Messiah, the new Israel, the people of Israel, are going to sit down in companies of fifty and a hundred, and things like that. And I thought, “oh wow”, it reminded me of the feeding of the five thousand, which brought me back to the book of Exodus, because in the book of Exodus 18, there’s an image of “the twelve tribes being arranged into specific groups of fifty.” It is actually a biblical image. So why does Jesus make the Apostles do this thing that would have taken time and effort? Well it’s because he is arranging the people at the feeding of the five thousand according to the same kind of groupings that you’d find in the first exodus from Egypt. Listen to the words of Exodus 18:25-26, it says this:

Moses chose able men out of all Israel…

That means all twelve tribes

…and made them heads over the people, rulers of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and tens. And those men, they judged the people at all times

That’s Exodus 18:25-26. So what Moses is describing here is not an exact parallel with Jesus but it’s significant. It’s Moses basically choosing what were called phylarchs, these men who (kind of) rule over the different tribes and judge them. And they are divided up into thousands, hundreds, and fifties, and tens. Now that division of the people of the twelve tribes of Israel underneath these twelve judges, these twelve phylarchs, it’s picked up, and in Jewish tradition, by the time you get to the 1st Century, the idea of twelve judges organizing the people of Israel into different groups (the one that gets highlighted in the Dead Sea Scrolls is groups of fifty), becomes a kind of image associated with the (so-to-speak) the hierarchy (or the organizational structure) of the Exodus from Egypt. So when Jesus does something similar with his Apostles, he takes twelve men and appoints them to arrange the people (the five thousand men) into groups of fifty each…One scholar pointed this out that it’s kind of a military exercise as well. Setting people up into divisions, so to speak, according to numerical units. What’s he doing? He’s implicitly revealing his identity as the new Moses. The twelve Apostles are like the new twelve judges, and then the people (the five thousand people) are like a new Israel, because this is the new Exodus. He’s revealing through this sign that the new exodus is at hand...

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