Mark 14:12-16, 24-26
As a self-identifying Thomist, I love this Solemnity. Thomas Aquinas composed the liturgy for Corpus Christi, writing his famous Pange Lingua for this purpose. As a moral theologian, I especially love this feast for the way in which it connects so integrally the liturgy with the moral life. We see this especially in our reading from Hebrews, on which I will focus my own reflection.
Hebrews is a complicated book. It is anonymous in its authorship, and even the early church doubted it came from Paul. Whoever wrote it was clearly educated both in Greek philosophy and in the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. The book as a whole is a combination of doctrine and exhortation (paraenesis). However, the virtue urged by the author of Hebrews is more of a supernatural nature. The addressees are called to approach the heavenly sanctuary (10:19), alluded to in our passage today, that is, to stand before God. We see something similar in chapter 4 as believers are called to enter into God’s Sabbath. The idea throughout Hebrews is that Christ makes possible a new relationship between the believer and God. As such, moral exhortation for the author of Hebrews is integrally connected with “faithfulness.” Faith allows the believer to participate in Christ. Faith is both an intellectual virtue by which the believer assents to God, but faith is also linked with trust (11:1). The examples of faith in chapters 11 and culminating in the example of Jesus in chapter 12 show how faith leads to true and perfect obedience.
Our reading for today shows how the moral exhortation of Hebrews has a liturgical dimension.
For if the blood of goats and bulls and the sprinkling of a heifer’s ashes can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.
The author here, following a description of the Old Covenant and its weaknesses, explains how Christ is the mediator of a New Covenant. Christ is the minister of the heavenly tabernacle (v. 11), bringing not the blood of animals but his own blood in for purification (v. 12), which provides the cleansing of conscience (v. 14). Christ’s death has a moral effect of cleansing and purifying. This is the major difference between the Old and New Covenants for the author of Hebrews—only the New has an effect on “conscience.”
The word for conscience in Greek here (suneidesin) shows up only rarely in the Septuagint and only in Wisdom literature. Harold Attridge, author of the Hermeneia Hebrews commentary explains that this term is, however, common in the Greek world and means something like “consciousness” or “awareness.” In the moral sense, it connotes especially an awareness of sin, or the faculty for such an awareness. This is the word that Paul uses in Rom. 2:15 :”The Gentiles show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness.” Christ’s blood cleanses us from “dead works,” not to be confused with the works of the Law (which are good but ineffectual for true cleansing), but should rather be understood as “works of sin” that defile the conscience. What the blood of Christ accomplishes is the cleansing of the burden of guilt for anyone who approaches God, fulfilling the prophecy of Jeremiah that God will write His law on their hearts and remember their sin no more (Jer 31:31-34).
In the liturgy, Christ’s sacrifice is made present. The Catechism explains,
The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper “on the night when he was betrayed,” [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit (1366).
The result of this sacrifice of the Mass is that our consciences are cleaned of the works that defile and we are given the ability to “serve the living God.”
For many of us, there is a disconnect in our minds between worship and morality. One can be a good person, we say, without believing in God or serving him in a worshipping community. And to an extent, this is true. But for the Christian, the life of worship is inextricably bound up in the moral life and vice versa. The moral life is about the “good” life, and a life cannot be truly good apart from the One who is Himself goodness, and for this, grace is necessary, grace which is received especially through the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Mass, we participate in Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice which truly has a cleansing effect on our consciences so that we can go forth from the Mass doing the works of Christ. Thus the Mass concludes, “Ite, missa est.” Benedict the XVI has written how in this sense, the Mass is never finished (as the English translates the conclusion) but continues in the works of believers who carry forth the sacrifice of the Mass offering a “sacrifice of praise to God” in works of service and charity (Hebrews 13:15-16).
And that is why it is fitting that Thomas Aquinas was the one to write the liturgy for this feast we celebrate now. Aquinas writes in the prologue to his magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae:
So because . . . the fundamental aim of sacra doctrina is to make God known, not only as he is in himself, but as the beginning and end of all things and of reasoning creatures especially, we now intend to set forth this divine teaching by treating, first, of God, second of the journey to God of reasoning creatures (i.e. the moral life), third of Christ, who as man remains our road to God.
Aquinas knew that the moral life could not be separated from the redemptive actions of the Son through which the believers come to share in his life. The Solemnity of Corpus Christi is a reminder of how much we need the Mass for true goodness and true happiness. Thus, I think it fitting to end with a Thomistic hymn, “The Word from Heaven Now Proceeding:”
To them beneath a twofold guise
He flesh and blood distributed;
Thus in corporeal substances
The entire man he justly fed.
Being born, He became our friend.
At supper, He became our food.
Dying, He was our ransom’s price
And reigning, is our eternal good.
O Sacrifice for our salvation,
Heavenly Gates You open wide.
Our enemies press hard around us.
Give us strength; our help provide.