Words on the Word

Corpus Christi

Deuteronomy 8.2-3,14-16: He humbled you, he made you feel hunger.
1 Corinthians 10.6-7: The bread we break is a communion with the body of Christ.
John 6.51-58: He who eats my bread and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.

Catholic devotion to the Blessed Sacrament resounds with echoes of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. When we acclaim the consecrated Host as ‘Bread from heaven’ or ‘Bread of angels’ we cite a Psalm that celebrates the manna in the desert. When, in our churches, the Sacrament is kept in a ‘tabernacle’, it recalls the Tent of Meeting. When Holy Communion is brought to a person who is dying, we call it viaticum, meaning, ‘food for the journey’. Thereby we signify a basic truth: that this world, which feels like home, is in fact an exile. One day we must leave it, like the Israelites left Egypt, to go where we belong, to our Father’s house. It’s a solemn departure. The third Eucharistic Prayer calls the Church a ‘people pilgrimaging on the earth’. In so many ways, then, we are asked to see ourselves as travellers on an exodus journey. To sustain us, God provides manna now as he did then. In the light of these parallels, let us attend to the discourse put before us in our first reading. Here, at the end of the forty-year journey, the promised land in sight, Moses expounds the sense of both exodus and manna. In the logic of faith, through the oneness of divine revelation, we hear these words as addressed, not just to ancient Israel, but to us.

Any journey is defined by a starting point and a destination. That is not to say that the journey lacks intrinsic value. It may be that only travel will make us fit to arrive; that the journey brings crucial experiences and insights without which we wouldn’t cope on arrival. That is the case with the exodus. As Israel is about to cross over to the promised land, Moses tells them: ‘the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.’ It was no accident that the journey from Egypt lasted as long as it did. Israel had lessons to learn. The Lord set about to both ‘humble’ and ‘test’ them: to make them face the truth about themselves while, at the same time, proving their mettle. So often, when what we considered a thoroughfare turns out to be a cul-de-sac, we raise our arms to heaven and cry out, ‘Why, Lord, why?’ We’re indignant and hurt, proceeding, as we are, from the assumption that our journey ought to be uncomplicated, that the Lord, like some tour guide, should make the path straight before us. But the Lord may not see things like that at all. He may not be in a rush to convey us from A to B. His intention may be, now as then, to see what’s in our hearts, to ascertain: when faced with a degree of hardship, will we be faithful, or not? It matters to bear this perspective in mind and, when the going gets tough, at least to ask, ’Lord, what would you teach me in this desert place, what truth would you have me see?’

This is the austere message put before us on this feast. It’s accompanied, though, by a message of consolation. God does not abandon us pilgrims as we make our way forward laboriously. True, he does not provide creature comforts, but he does walk with us—and makes sure we don’t starve. If he makes us feel hunger, it is so that we will know what true nourishment is like. ‘The Lord fed you’, Moses says, ‘with manna, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone.’ The sustenance given by God is both bread and more than bread. It surpasses any other food by nurturing, not only our bodies, but our souls, gifting us with confidence, peace and a strange, quiet joy even when our itinerary, like that of the Israelites, takes us through a ‘great and terrible wilderness, with fiery serpents and scorpions’.

If only we learn to walk in the power of him who is our Saviour and Father, we shall find that the flintiest rock, even that of our hearts, will gush forth with streams of living water, while the manna, which our fathers did not know, instils the hope and courage we need. On Corpus Christi we celebrate the abiding presence of this gracious provision. The offering up of Christ’s flesh for the life of the world is no mere memorial for us; it is present reality. May we never take it for granted! May we hunger for it, and may our hunger spur us on to keep walking. For the Eucharist, too, let’s remember, is food for pilgrims. It is not a snack for sedentary holiday makers; it is manna for those who’ve a distance to cover each day, who strain forward to be worthy, at last, to enter the Father’s house, and to feel at home there, taught by the journey through exile what homecoming means. The Eucharist gives both a pledge and a challenge. One of today’s liturgical texts puts it thus: ‘The bread of life will incorporate us into itself if we are transformed into his likeness through a pure mind, firm faith, and perfect charity.’ That if is our roadmap. In the strength of the bread from heaven, we continue on our journey of transformation with zest, great love, and gratitude.