Priesthood, Sacrifice, and the Eucharist
June 13, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier The Feast of Corpus Christi
Reading I (Genesis 14:18-20) Reading II (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
Gospel (St. Luke 9:11b-17)
Today as we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, we look at the context in which the Church gives us this feast. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the feast of the Holy Spirit, the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the apostles and filled them with the grace to be able to understand all the things that the Lord had taught, and to give them the courage and strength to go forth and not only to believe it but to preach it and to live it. Last week, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Trinity where we professed our faith in one God Who is three Persons. Today, we celebrate in a particular way the Second Person of the Trinity Who became man for us. These three mysteries three weeks in a row regard the very being of God Himself. It is the very essence of who we are then as Catholics that we are celebrating in these days, to look first and foremost at what it is that unites us together with all other Christians. The belief in the three Persons of the Trinity, the belief that the Holy Spirit has been poured forth into our hearts so we will be able to live according to the ways of God, and today we celebrate what separates us from most of the other Christian people.
Other than the Orthodox, we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, under the forms of bread and wine. We share that same belief with the Orthodox Christians, but with none other. The Anglicans actually would make the same claim, but they have certain problems with their priesthood. Therefore, there is a real dubium with regard to the way it would be understood. And so the ones that we would have union with truly in this regard are only the Orthodox.
We have to ask ourselves just exactly what it is that we believe and why. How is this possible, that something which looks like a piece of bread and looks like a cup of wine can really and truly be the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ? When you stop to think about what that means, it literally means that the Eucharist is God. That is exactly what it is. Saint Justin Martyr, way back in the early centuries of the Church, was put to death not only because he refused to bow down to the gods of the Romans, but they taunted him and said, “So, you eat your god?” And he said, “Yes.” That is exactly what we do; we receive God into our own selves. Once again, how is this done? How is it possible that this could happen?
First of all, understand that it is only possible because God loves you. That is the only reason it is possible. As we have spoken over the last couple of weeks, once again, we look at the same truth. How is it possible that you could be one with someone else? How is it possible that you can give yourself completely to another person, to be totally united with that individual? Only in love is such a thing possible. When you love someone so completely and so perfectly that you want nothing more than to be one with that person, that is the driving force. Well, God is love, and therefore what God wants more than anything is for us to know how much we are loved. What a tragedy that we just continue to refuse to believe it. We believe in the teachings of the Church with regard to the Trinity, with regard to what Scripture tells us about God, that He is love itself, yet we somehow continue to refuse to believe that God really loves us. Imagine, once again, if you loved someone so much that you wanted to become one with that person and the other person just kept looking at you, saying, “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you really love me. I can’t accept that you love me that much. This can’t be real. It can’t happen. No, no, no, it’s not possible.” That is what we keep doing to God!
Interestingly, at the same time that we keep telling God “no”, we keep coming to the communion rail and celebrating the union that we have with Him, while we keep going back to our pew and saying, “No, no, this can’t happen.” Well, it did. It just happened – it is happening! Yet we refuse to accept the truth, not the objective truth – we know that Jesus is there; we know that He loves us; we know that He gives Himself to us – but the truth we refuse to accept is the one that is in our own selves; it is the subjective element of it. That is what we really need to work at, to open our hearts and to really believe the truth. God loves you. If you want to do it the other way around, just say, “God loves me, and He loves me so much that He gives Himself to me because He wants to be united with me.” We look at ourselves and say, “But I’m unlovable, so how can God love me?” But that is the lie. That is Satan, pure and simple, speaking in your heart and telling you that you are not lovable, that you are not acceptable, that God does not love you. Therefore, even though He wants to give Himself to you, you cannot accept it because you are not lovable in the first place. What more would the devil want than for us to go through life believing his lies? What more does Jesus need to do to prove how much He loves us? It was not enough for Him to die because we would not even accept that. So He continues to give Himself to us and tragically we do not even accept that.
Now one of the things that people will ask is – “How it is possible?” Not, “How is it possible that God would love me so much that He would want to do this?” but, “How is it possible that bread and wine would become the Body and Blood of Jesus? How is it possible that what happens every single day at the altar can really be real?” We go back and look at the first reading today, and we hear about a mysterious figure by the name of Melchizedek. The name Melchizedek means “the king of righteousness”. He is the king of Salem, which would later be called “Jerusalem”. The word salem which is the same as the Hebrew salom means “peace”. So he is the king of righteousness; he is the king of peace. Melchizedek is called “The Priest of God Most High”. If you scour the Book of Genesis, you will find no one else in the early days of the world who had such a title. He served the Lord and he was the sole priest of the Most High God.
Abraham had defeated the five kings who had gathered against him, and, after the defeat of those kings, he came to Melchizedek and he offered one-tenth of everything that he had to Melchizedek (to God through Melchizedek, technically). Melchizedek offered sacrifice and he blessed Abraham. And the sacrifice that Melchizedek offered was bread and wine. It was not bulls and goats, the way that the Jewish people would later offer sacrifice to God, but it was bread and wine. Now the interesting thing about this figure of Melchizedek is that Genesis 14 is the only time we hear about him. Suddenly, there he is on the scene offering sacrifice to God on behalf of Abraham, and then we never hear of him again.
Many years later, King David, when writing the psalms, would bring Melchizedek up. Psalm 110, which we heard today, is a Messianic psalm looking forward to the coming of Christ and proclaiming that the Messiah is going to be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek. This is of critical importance because when you go back to the Book of Genesis again and you look at Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, he had twelve sons and when it came time to bless his twelve sons right as he was dying, Jacob gave the blessing not to his firstborn son, nor to his second or third, but to the fourth. The fourthborn son was named Judah, and from Judah was to come forth the Messiah. This is important because when the people at the time of the Exodus were disobedient, the Judaites did not stand up for God; only the Levites stood up for God. Therefore, the priesthood was taken away from all the other eleven tribes of Israel and given to Levi alone. To Aaron and his sons was given the gift of the priesthood, but to none of the other Jewish people. So according to the lines of the Jewish peoples, no one from the tribe of Judah could be a priest. But we have the promise and the blessing that the Messiah would rise from the tribe of Judah; we have the prophecy of David in Psalm 110 that the Messiah is going to be a priest, but a priest not according to the order of Aaron (because he cannot be), but a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.
If you look at Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, in chapters 5, 6, and 7 primarily, he talks specifically about this, that there is a new covenant, and if there is a new covenant that there has to be a new sacrifice, and if there is a new sacrifice that requires a new priesthood, and if there is a new priesthood it cannot be a priesthood according to the order of Aaron, so therefore it has to be something entirely different. It is prophesied that the priesthood would be according to the order of Melchizedek, and therefore the sacrifice that would be offered would be the sacrifice which Melchizedek offered. It would have to be bread and wine. If you look at Saint John’s Gospel in Chapter 6, Jesus tells us explicitly: The bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world. Saint Paul reiterates the Last Supper in his Letter to the Corinthians (so we see that it is clearly the teaching of the early Church) and says: I pass on to you what was first handed on to me, that on the night He was betrayed, Jesus took bread and gave thanks. He broke the bread and said, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is My body.” In the same way, when supper was ended, He took the cup and after He had given thanks He said, “Take this, all of you, and drink of it. This is the cup of My blood.” And we see that in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke at the Last Supper.
We see very clearly, then, the sacrifice of Christ. We can ask, “How is it possible that this is continuing on? Maybe it happened at the Last Supper – Jesus was there, He said the words – but what does that have to do with us?” Just as in the Gospel reading today we see how Jesus started with five loaves and two fish, He fed five thousand people, and there was more left over than when they began, so too, for centuries now, Our Lord begins with an ordinary piece of bread and an ordinary chalice filled with wine and He Himself changes that into His own Body and Blood. He changes that through the priesthood, but the priesthood is the priesthood of Jesus Christ.
What is different about the priesthood of today as opposed to the priesthood of the Old Testament is not merely the matter that it is of a different line, but it is an entirely different kind. The priesthood according to the order of Aaron was a priesthood by descent. One was born into it and each priest was his own priest. That is no longer the case. I am not my own priest. Even the Holy Father does not have his own priesthood. There is only one priesthood in the New Testament, and that is the priesthood of Jesus Christ. There is only one priest and there is only one victim and there is only one sacrifice. In the Old Testament, there are many priests, there are many victims, and there are many sacrifices. That is not true in the New Testament. Each and every priest, on the day that he is ordained, goes through what the Church calls an “ontological change” – that means a change in his very being – and he becomes Jesus Christ. The priest stands in the very person of Jesus Christ, which is why at the altar you do not hear the priest say, “This is the Body of Jesus, which was given up for you,” but he says, “This is My Body, which will be given up for you. This is the cup of My Blood …” because it is Jesus Christ Himself Who is speaking those words.
If you ask, “How can this be?” it is exactly the same mystery as what happened 2,000 years ago. Jesus, Who is God from all eternity, took a human nature to Himself so that He could be able to offer His whole Person (because He had a human nature) in sacrifice. And because He had a human body with human vocal cords, He could speak the words of the consecration. His divinity was working through His humanity to be able to change the bread and wine into His own Body and Blood. Now His divinity works through the humanity of the priest so that the exact same mystery can continue. What started out as one loaf of bread at the Last Supper has been multiplied for countless billions of people, day after day, week after week, and year after year, for two thousand years so that the same mystery could continue to happen, not only the same objective mystery on the altar, but the same subjective mystery in your heart and in your soul so that you would be able to receive Jesus Christ, so that you receive the fullness of God Himself.
Remember, outside of the immanent Trinity, wherever one Person is, all three are there. The Eucharist is outside of the immanent Trinity; therefore all three Persons are present. You receive the fullness of God. You receive the full Person of Jesus. You do not receive a “piece” of Jesus; each particle of the Eucharist contains the fullness of God Himself, the full Person of Jesus Christ, His whole Person – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He unites Himself with you. He gives His entire being to you as a gift because He loves you, and He will continue to offer this same sacrifice every single day until the end of the world in fulfillment of His promise.
There is nothing at all that is lacking on the part of Christ; therefore, what we need to look at is in our own selves and ask ourselves, “What is lacking within me? Is my heart open to receive Him? Am I giving myself to Him in love as He gives Himself to me in love? Am I really wanting to be united with Him? Am I receiving Him with the proper disposition? Am I in the state of grace? Is my heart filled with love, with desire for union with Jesus Christ? Do I really want to be transformed as God takes ordinary elements of earth, bread and wine, and transforms them into God Himself, something completely supernatural? Am I willing to allow Him to take these ordinary elements of earth – that is, my own self – and transform them into Jesus Himself, into something divine?” That is the disposition we have to have as we come forward to the communion rail, to have our hearts completely open so that there is a total exchange of persons. He gives Himself entirely to us and we receive His gift. We too should be giving ourselves entirely to Him so that He will be able to receive the fullness of our gift. In that, the two become one, and we are transformed so that we are no longer merely members of the Mystical Body of Christ, but we become transformed to become the very being, the very Person of Jesus Himself. That is the love of God for you as an individual.
Do we really believe that? Do we accept it? That is why the Church sets aside this day to celebrate in a special way the reality that we celebrate every day, so that we could really stop and take heed, to think clearly and deeply about this mystery; not merely the objective mystery that happens on the altar, but the subjective mystery that happens in our hearts and in our souls, so that the love of God, which is poured forth into us will be able to be received and returned, like united to like, two persons perfectly united in love.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.