Sunday, June 2, 2013

Homily for Corpus Christi

Homily for Solemnity of
Corpus Christi
June 2, 1983
Gen 14: 18-20
Christian Brothers, Iona College, N.R.

Laity in attendance at the brothers’ Saturday evening Mass almost always outnumber the brothers.

“In those days, Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of God Most High, he blessed Abram” (Gen 14: 18).

Abraham's Meeting with Melchizedek, by Dieric Bouts the Elder, 15th c.
One of the most mysterious persons in the whole Bible appears in our 1st reading this evening.  These 3 verses—that’s his story!  Based only on that, he comes up again in Ps 110, which was our responsory, in which the Messiah is called “a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (v. 4), and in the Letter to the Hebrews, where, again, Christ is identified as a priest like him, and the letter expands on that:  Christ, like Melchizedek, is designated a priest by God, and he’s without ancestry or descendants, eternal, without beginning or end (ch. 5 and 7).

In the context of Genesis, the focus of this little episode is on Abram—whom God will rename Abraham 3 chapters later.  In our liturgy of Corpus Christi, however, the focus is on Melchizedek for the obvious reasons of his presenting bread and wine and his being a priest who blesses God’s friend Abram.

The reading began, “In those days,” which isn’t part of the biblical text.  The 1st part of Gen 14 tells how a coalition of nomadic raiders struck several towns and carried off a lot of captives and booty, including Abram’s nephew Lot and his people and flocks. Abram got his own people together and chased after the raiders, defeated them, and returned with all the goods and captives.  The “kings” of the towns that had been attacked came out to welcome back the victorious sheik Abram—that’s “in those days.”

Commentators on Genesis suggest that the bread and wine that Melchizedek “brought out” was a triumph feast for Abram and his men.  Christian tradition, on the other hand, including our venerable Roman Canon (the 1st Eucharistic Prayer), has seen in Melchizedek’s action a priestly sacrifice, an offering of gratitude made to “God Most High” on behalf of those whose people and goods had been recovered (“redeemed” would be a valid biblical term in this context).

That Christian tradition thus sees in Melchizedek a “type” of Christ, a Christ figure.  He is both a king and a priest, and he offers bread and wine to God (at least in the Christian reading of the passage).  Moreover, as the Letter to the Hebrews comments, he’s “king of Salem, that is, king of peace,” for that’s what Salem means (cf. shalom), and “his name (malki-sedek) means righteous king” (Heb 7:2),.  Both peace and righteousness are properties that we associate with Christ, our king, who brings us peace by reconciling us with God and sharing with us his own righteousness or justice, his good standing, his right relationship before God—which he did “by the blood of his cross,” by offering his body for us (cf. 1 Cor 11:24).

Unlike almost any other character in the Old Testament, Melchizedek appears out of nowhere, without any reference to his ancestry.  Nor are we told that he had any offspring.  You know how so many genealogies there are in the OT and how many people are identified as “the son of so-and-so, the son of so-and-so.”  But for Melchizedek there’s just what we heard this evening:  no father, no son.  Nada.  Hence the references to his eternal priesthood:  “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.”  The self-offering of Christ, the son of God, is eternal, tho made but once on the altar of Calvary, because it’s offered to the eternal God by the eternal God on behalf of sinners everywhere and at all times.

"You are a priest forever": stained glass
in the provincial house chapel
(formerly in the Salesian novitiate chapel at Newton, N.J.)
Moreover, when like Melchizedek, Jesus brought out bread and wine “on the night he was handed over” (1 Cor 11:23) and told his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me” (v. 24), he instituted a perpetual memorial of that one sacrifice.  Each time we offer the bread, become his body, and the cup, become his blood, we offer that one eternal sacrifice of the God-man to the eternal God.  “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (11:26).  The bread and wine presented by Melchizedek the “eternal” priest of God Most High, foreshadow the bread and wine used by Jesus at the Last Supper, and still used by Jesus the eternal priest at every Eucharist.

And when we disciples “proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes,” when we announce day by day the sacrifice of his body and blood on our behalf, we announce that he has redeemed us, won us back from the evil prince who has held us captive in our sins, i.e., the Prince of Darkness.  This bread and wine are like the bread and wine brought out by Melchizedek to celebrate Abram’s victory—but much better because they have become the body and blood of our Victor King.  The Messiah, as Ps 110 says, “rules in the midst of his enemies” (v. 2).  Christ has conquered his enemies death and death’s Dark Lord and has obtained our release from our sins.  He has won that victory for us, and each Eucharist is a reminder, a memorial, of that, and a renewal of his pledge that thru “this wondrous Sacrament … we may pass over to the heavenly realities here foreshadowed” (Preface II of the Holy Eucharist).

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