The Solemnity Of The Most Holy Body And Blood Of Christ
The original solemnity in honor of the Eucharist is Holy Thursday, a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The joy which would naturally accompany this celebration of the Eucharist is dampened by the overshadowing sorrow of betrayal and death which follow the Last Supper in the gospels. Although every Mass remembers the Last Supper and the tragic death of Jesus, the liturgy for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus is one of unrestrained joy. Not only the words of the Mass and the Divine Office with its instructive hymns soar to heavenly heights of joy, but the Gregorian melodies that accompany the Latin words of this liturgy rise beyond human exuberance. The composition of the liturgy of this feast is attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas, (1225-1274 ).
How did the institution of this feast and its extension to the universal Church come about? According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Second Edition, and other sources, here is the history of this feast. The thirteenth century witnessed debates about the Real Presence. At that time there was a considerable development of devotion to the Eucharist. At the request of Julianna of Cornillon, died 1258, the bishop of the diocese of Liege (Belgium), established this feast in 1246. Julianna reported a vision of a full moon with a dark spot on it. She understood this dark spot to mean that the Church’s liturgy still lacked a feast centered on Jesus’ sacramental presence on the altar. Her vision launched a campaign by religious women for a feast centered on Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Some clergy resisted, while others promoted such a feast. After Julianna’s death, her confessors kept the feast alive in Liege. From there it passed on to the University of Paris. An important clergyman of Liege, Jacques Pantaleon, became Pope Urban IV (1261). He promoted the feast in Rome but died before he could stir up enthusiasm in Rome. The feast was extended to the universal Church by Pope Clement V, (1305-1314).
The first reading for the feast is taken from the end of Israel’s Sinai experience depicted in Exodus 19 through 24. As in every treaty, pact, or covenant, so also in the Covenant of Sinai, there were stipulations, the Decalogue, other laws and regulations, observances of feast days. God dictated the stipulations of the covenant to the people through Moses. After Moses relayed the details to the people, they consented to this treaty with God in these words, “We will observe all the commands that the Lord has decreed.” Moses then proceeds to put everything into written form before the sealing of the Sinai Covenant. The sealing or ratification of the covenant required a sacrifice. God rejection human sacrifice long ago. See the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father in Genesis 22. The sacrifice of something precious to the Israelites, their animals, was an acceptable substitute.
After the blood of the sacrificial animals was drained, their flesh was burned on an altar erected for the purpose. The blood was put into basins. Half of it was dashed against the altar. Then Moses read aloud the stipulations of the Covenant of Sinai. The people again assented, “We will do all that the Lord has decreed. We will obey!” Then Moses took the blood of the covenant, sprinkled it on the people, and said these remarkable words, which found an echo in the Words of Institution at the Lord Jesus’ Last Supper, “This is the blood of the Covenant that the Lord has made with you, containing all these rules.” It is obvious why this reading was chosen to accompany today’s gospel – Jesus’ celebration of Passover with his disciples – the Last Supper.
The theme of the Responsorial Psalm (116) is an expression of our gratitude, “for all the good the Lord has done for me.” How will I respond? “I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” The second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, recalls the Old Testament use of the blood of animals to sanctify those who needed to be cleansed from sin and ritual uncleanness. This had to be done repeatedly not only for the people but for the priests themselves. Even the high priest took the blood of animals into the Holy of Holies once a year to make atonement for his sins and the sins of the people. How different and absolutely powerful is the sacrificial blood of Jesus! His blood was offered by himself and only once and for all time bringing about eternal redemption, “cleansing our conscience from dead works (to make us acceptable) to worship God.” This offering of his sacrificial blood, says Hebrews, makes Jesus the mediator of a new covenant perfecting the Covenant of Sinai.
The gospel for this feast begins with Jesus directing his disciples to acquire and prepare what was needed to celebrate the Passover. Jesus’ more than human knowledge is displayed in the finding of a room for this purpose, “a large upper room furnished and ready.” The rest of the gospel reading consists of the Words of Institution. Old Testament foundations are on display especially in the words over the cup of wine, “This is the blood of the covenant which will be poured out for many.” The word “many” seems to be based on the last of four Songs of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 53:11, “…by his knowledge shall the righteous one make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” Christians interpreted these four poems or songs as predictive of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Something should be added to the Sequence of this liturgy. Attributed also to Aquinas, it may be the most concise expression ever composed about the history, the meaning, and the purpose of the Eucharist. The soaring melodies of Gregorian Chant, which accompany the words of the Sequence, are intended to and do lift singers and hearers to a spiritual high.