On June 8, 1985, five brothers of mine and I knelt of a marble step in St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco. Archbishop John Quinn imposed his hands on our heads, and called the Holy Spirit down upon us. Then more than a hundred of our Jesuit fathers filed past, each one pressing his hands on our heads.
Freshly minted, newly coined priests, we were then outfitted for the work to come. At our diaconate ordinations half a year earlier, we already literally had the book thrown at us, when the bishop handed us the Gospels and spoke what may be the most beautiful words of any of the ordination rites: “Receive the Gospel of Christ, whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.”
“Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” Those are some marching orders.
At our priestly ordinations our hands were anointed with sweet-smelling chrism; we were outfitted, literally fitted-out, in priestly vestments, and then, one last time we knelt before the Archbishop. He handed us a gold plate, a paten filled with the hosts we would consecrate together, and an ancient chalice filled with wine. He said: “Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross.”
Today we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Corpus Christi. It is a day steeped in folklore and popular tradition. In many parishes around the world, including our Cathedral, the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession in the streets and through the fields, a living reminder of the Lord’s presence in the world in the sacrament of the altar. St. Thomas Aquinas himself wrote touching hymns to accompany the processions.
The feast itself has its origins in doubts, in controversies over the meaning of the mystery we celebrate. In the middle ages, as in the early church and as now, there was and is discussion, confusion, and even dispute about the meaning of what we do here, and about what happens when we receive from the people of God the gifts to be offered to God.
Put as plainly as possible, we do our best to believe what we don’t see. That’s not me being clever; those are words of Jesus to another doubting Thomas, the Apostle. We believe what we don’t see. We see and taste bread and wine from our table, but we take Jesus at his word: “This is my body; this is my blood.”
That we should not lose hope when he returned to the Father, that we should not die of hunger for Him in this world, we believe that Jesus took the most common elements of our lives, bread that makes us strong, wine that makes us glad, and transformed them into his body and blood. “Take and eat: this is my body; take and drink: this is the blood of the new covenant poured out for you that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” Metaphysics becomes a simple meal.
Tradition tells us this feast has its origins in a miracle said to have happened in 1236 in a town north of Rome called Bolsena. A priest on pilgrimage on his way to Rome was in doubt about the meaning of the mass he was celebrating; how can this be, this transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary, bread and wine becoming the body and blood of the Son of the living God. “This,” he thought, “is just an act, a symbol, a ritual, nothing more.” The legend tells us that when he broke the host before communion, drops of blood fell from it. He saw and believed. And so did many others.
I want to let you in on a little trade secret. Priests are just like everyone else. We have a job to do. We do it as well as we can, given our limitations. Some do it with disticntion, like our beloved Father Paul. He may be retiring, but he sure isn’t shy.
Still, we get distracted just like you do, even at Mass, even in the most sacred moments; a baby cries, somebody’s phone goes off and reminds me of a call I have to make, or my pocket starts vibrating, my stomach growls, and sometimes, especially halfway through the third mass of the day, I find I’ve slid into autopilot.
But once in a while, once in a great while, we see the miracle of what we do here with fresh eyes. At mass, I stand in a privileged position. I call, you respond. I proclaim, you listen; I preach, you try to stay awake. Most privileged of all, as I stand at the altar, I see in one glance these sacred signs, this bread and wine become the body and blood of the Lord, and in that very same glance, I see all of you. I see all of you who are the body and blood of the Lord.
Then, I don’t need to see drops of blood fall from the host to believe, because I see you, because you have become what you have received, and will receive: the body of Christ. One reality. I have seen his blood fall from your wounds. I have seen you break the bread of your lives and share it generously with one another; I have shared from the cup of your blessings and sorrows, and tasted the blood of the Lord. One reality. Then, clearly and without a doubt, I know what I am doing.
“Accept from the holy people of God the gifts to be offered to him.” Here you are upon the table; here you are in the cup.
“Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross.”
Here I see.
Here I believe.
Fr. Tom Lucas, S.J.