On Corpus Christi: The Comforting Bread and Dizzying Wine of Our Faith

bread and wineCambridge, MA. I don’t ordinarily drink alone, but tonight – on Sunday, June 3, the feast of Corpus Christi – before dinner I ate a good slice of bread and drank a glass of red wine. I did so largely because I had only half-jokingly recommended this to the people at Mass this morning: “Corpus Christi” — today’s feast – is not just a feast of the “body of Christ, the bread broken among us; it also a feast of the blood, “calix sanguinis,” the cup shared by those who dare to walk with Christ. Try this out, I told them: this evening, eat some bread, and drink some wine, and feel the effect: the mystery of the sacrament is evident in both.

My bread and wine this evening prove the point: the bread I ate seems, even an hour later, more or less digested, but the wine’s lingering effect makes me slightly woozy as I write this reflection. (Even one glass of wine undoes me, these days.) And this proves the point I tried to make in my homily at my two morning Masses, on the certainties and risks of our faith: the sacrament we reverence this day nourishes us calmly and uneventfully, as will a good loaf of bread broken and shared, but also bring us to life, relax us, stretch us a bit, as will a good glass of wine. Too much bread stuffs us, makes us doze off; too much wine unsettles our minds, clouds the boundaries, opens and risks what is new. Both are signs for us.

As I said at Mass, every Eucharist is a feast of tradition, of community, and of presence.

It is a feast that marks our very long tradition, the thousands of years of Christian communities sharing the meal the Lord has given: the Last Supper, Jesus’ meal with his apostles; the Passover meal of God’s chosen people led out of Egypt into freedom; and even Melchizedek’s offerings of bread and wine, as he prayed to God and blessed Abram. Marked by the sign of bread, ours is a wonderful continuity, enduring and calm through the ages. But it is also, we cannot but notice, a bit more uncertain, even dangerous. One reading of tradition, we learn in church, tempts us to believe that what matters now erases all that went before. As Aquinas’ Latin hymn Lauda Sion, meant for this feast, puts it (in the missal’s translation): “Here the new law’s new oblation, By the new king’s revelation, Ends the form of ancient rite: Now the new the old effaces, Truth away the shadow chases, Light dispels the gloom of night.” As if to say: the ancient rites of Israel are ended, the shadows of the Jewish faith, its gloom, dispelled. But this cannot be so in 2018. We cannot let our thankfulness for the gift of the Eucharist abolish the faith of those around us: we have the bread of simple continuity; we also have a wine that makes the continuity uncertain, a bit confused. How do we give thanks — in eucharistic prayer — without shutting out the rest of God’s children?

It is a feast of community: at the very essence of our Eucharistic faith is the belief that as the bread is broken and shared, we – a broken and scattered people — become one: one bread, broken and shared, that makes of us a community, a communion. This is the comfort of the bread, reminiscent of all the meals we have shared with family and friends, bread broken, the hungry welcomed and given seats at our tables. But still, there is also the less certain side of this meal, marked as it were by the volatility of wine: who gets to sit at the table? who is left out? can’t we decide this, finally? We end up uncertain, and rightly so — bread balanced by wine. Recently I wrote in this space about Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church, and the great debate over welcome – or lack thereof – for divorced and remarried Catholics at the Lord’s table, even after 20 or 30 or 50 years, as if in respect for the Eucharist. We share the bread of unity, but we suffer uncertainties too, not sure who gets to sit at the table. Community is as certain as the bread, as provisional and yet-to-be-seen as the wine.

And finally, it is a feast of presence: the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist — not just during Mass, but even when the remaining hosts are placed in the tabernacle and left there for a week or a month or a year. This is why we can still, even in 2018, “pay a visit” when passing a Catholic church, He awaits us. But again – and without blaming wine for our troubles — we run a risk: if Christ is so surely and consolingly present in the host in the tabernacle, might this not become a bit too sure, missing the point of His sacramental presence — as if to say to imagine that He is only here, only in our space — and therefore not present in a Protestant church, not present in the synagogue down the block, missing at Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks? The bread, the Body, assures us that He is here; the wine, His Bloody, unsettles us, makes us dizzy at the prospect that He is also there too. As sure as bread, He is here; as volatile as wine, He is there and there and there too.

Bread and wine; body and blood; continuity, community, and presence — and complex other presences, unexpected guests at table, Christ everywhere too. The bread of our faith reassures us; faith's wine is there to confuse us in a holy way.

Now when you read this on a Monday morning or another day, stone sober, it may seem merely a Sunday's fancy: after all, we cannot seriously label the bread everything certain, the wine every open question, the bread our comfort, the wine the messiness of life. A proper meal, at home or in church, has both. But on this venerable Catholic feast, we find here the double sign at the heart of a whole Church — what we are sure about, comforted by, and what makes us see double, uncertainly. Christ in the bread, but Christ in the wine too.