For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice,
you shall proclaim the death of the Lord, until he come.
External Solemnity of Corpus Christi
6 June 2010
Epistle: 1 Cor. 11:23-29
Gospel: Jn. 6:56-59
Were ours a Catholic society, we would have celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi last Thursday with all the solemnity and splendor that we now accord this beautiful feast. I mention this fact that we may all be reminded of the connection we should draw between the Feast of Corpus Christi and Maundy Thursday. For both days would have us return to the Upper Room to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist. And yet, the approach we take today is somewhat different from that of Maundy Thursday. On Maundy Thursday, we went to the Upper Room to accompany Christ and His Disciples through the Passion and Death of Our Lord. For that reason, the joy expressed on Maundy Thursday is mixed with somberness and sorrow. The Gloria is sung, but afterwards the organ falls silent, the bells are replaced by clappers, and the altar is stripped of its festive adornments and usual appointments. The sobriety and somberness of the Passion fill our hearts, leaving little room for joy. Today, however, having passed through the sorrows of Our Lord’s Passion, as well as the joys of His Resurrection, we now revisit the Upper Room. Our purpose is twofold: First, to ponder devoutly the Holy Eucharist, that wondrous gift of Himself that Christ imparted and entrusted to His Bride, the Church; second, to give free rein to our joy and gratitude for this gift of the Holy Eucharist, going so far as to give public veneration to Our Lord contained in the Blessed Sacrament.
Let us, then, return to the Upper Room. And today, I propose to do so by way of a special place in Milan, Italy that received the attentions of an exceedingly brilliant man, one of the greatest painters of all time. The place to which I refer is the Dominican Convent of Our Lady of Grace. And the genius who left his mark there was none other than Leonardo Da Vinci.
Between the years 1495 and 1497, during a particularly fruitful period of construction, Leonardo managed to transform the north wall of the refectory of this convent from an ordinary wall into an extension of space through which the Dominican friars could gaze into the Upper Room and contemplate the scene of the Last Supper as they enjoyed their meals in the twilight of the day. Notwithstanding the fanciful attempts of certain contemporary persons to discover in Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Supper some cryptic message of scandalous import, the symbolism contained in this magnificent work of art serves only to give expression to the Catholic theology of the Mass. And so, with our mind’s eye, let us place ourselves in this famous refectory. And, in imitation of those Dominican monks who could enjoy it in all of its original splendor, let us likewise gaze upon Da Vinci’s exquisite Last Supper adorning the north wall.
As we take in the 15 × 29-foot mural as a whole, we would do well to ask ourselves the following question: What is the precise moment that Leonardo has captured with his brush? Is it the moment of consecration? No, it is not. It is the moment immediately following our Lord’s disturbing prophecy regarding his imminent betrayal. “Amen, Amen, I say to you; one of you shall betray me.” Leonardo has depicted the disciples’ reactions to Our Lord’s frightening prophecy, subtly capturing their distinct personalities. As for Judas Iscariot, he appears stunned: his secret scheming has not escaped the notice of the all-knowing Word of God.
Now, at first glance, it should seem very odd to us that Da Vinci has chosen this dramatic moment of Our Lord’s revelation of His own betrayal and not the far more important moment of the consecration, when Christ instituted the sacraments of both the Holy Eucharist and of Order. Leonardo’s choice, however, simply follows the lead of the Catholic liturgy itself. For on Maundy Thursday, an addition is made to that part of the Canon known as the Communicantes so as to make special reference to that Thursday. And that addition is this: Communi-cantes, et diem sacratissimum celebrantes, quo Dominus noster Jesus Christus pro nobis est traditus, etc. Which means: “In communion with, and with them celebrating the most sacred day on which Our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed for us”. That a Catholic liturgy would do this makes sense, for it is Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of Our Lord that triggers that inexorable series of historical events that brings Christ from the Upper Room to Golgotha, thus linking (at least historically) the Last Supper to the Cross.
As we observe the details of the Last Supper scene a little longer, their significance begins to dawn on us. We begin to realize that, through a variety of means, Leonardo has taken this implicit link which the betrayal of Judas establishes and rendered it explicit in a way that would have been difficult, if not impossible, for the Evangelists themselves to accomplish. Take, for example, the feet of Christ. They are pressed close against one another and are situated just above one of the vertical bands of wood running down the length of the floor. Under normal circumstances, no artist would have had any reason to depict the feet of a seated male figure in this manner. But Leonardo’s purpose is to express the Catholic theology of the Mass. Accordingly, guided by his Catholic faith, Leonardo has so disposed the feet of Christ as to evoke in the mind of the perceptive observer the wood of the Cross to which Our Lord’s feet would soon be fastened, and even suggest the willingness with which the divine Victim was prepared to undergo His Passion and Death, and offer Himself up as the ultimate and perfect Sacrifice for the redemption of the world.
Consider also the disposition of Christ’s hands and arms: they are outstretched, not into the air but towards the elements of the Holy Eucharist. They address those homely species of bread and wine which He, the High Priest of the New Covenant in the order of Melchizedek, will soon consecrate. For Leonardo the Catholic well knew that the Last Supper was also the First Mass.
Finally, by happy coincidence, an extra feature of the refectory helps Leonardo achieve his theological purpose. On the wall opposite the Last Supper one finds a fresco depicting the Crucifixion. And so, if Our Lord were to look up, he would see an image of that Sacrifice, a sacramental representation of which He is about to impart to His Disciples and to His Church.
Even though over 500 years lie between us and Leonardo Da Vinci, we share the same Catholic faith that comes to us from Christ and the Apostles. As Catholics, we should recognize Leonardo Da Vinci’s association of the Last Supper with the Crucifixion and with the Mass as being nothing other than an artistic expression of what the Church has always taught in her magisterial pronouncements, and what she has celebrated in her liturgies. To be sure, this association was at one time more dramatically expressed than it is now. For instance, prior to the reform of Holy Week in the 1950s, the Passions of Matthew, Mark, and Luke began, not with the Agony in the Garden, but with the Last Supper. And when, on Good Friday, the Blessed Sacrament was retrieved from the Altar of Repose, it was not just the deacon and a couple of acolytes who went to retrieve It, but the celebrant himself, together with all the ministers, acolytes, and servers. In this way, Holy Thursday’s procession to the Altar of Repose was recalled, and with it, the Last Supper. And during this Good Friday procession, in order to associate the Holy Eucharist with the Cross that much more powerfully, the choir would sing the Vexilla Regis, the Hymn for Vespers during Passiontide, a veritable panegyric to the noble wood of the Cross.
Even though, in my opinion, the Roman rite we celebrate today, in either of its two forms, fails for the most part to integrate the sacred Triduum as well as it had prior to the 1950s, it nevertheless remains true that the way we worship today continues to reflect what we have always believed; namely, that in the divine Sacrifice carried out during the Mass, the very same Christ who made a bloody sacrifice of Himself once for all upon the Cross is likewise contained and immolated in an unbloody or sacramental manner. And we believe this for two reasons. First, because “Christ our redeemer said that it was truly his own body that He was offering under the form of bread,” and truly his own blood that He was offering under the form of wine: “This is my body; this is my blood”; “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” For this reason, “there has always been complete conviction in the Church of God that by the force of the words of consecration pronounced over the bread and over the wine, there takes place that wondrous and unique change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood,” while only the appearance of bread and wine remains. Ever since the Fourth Lateran Council, “the holy Catholic Church has most fittingly and properly called this change transubstantiation.”
The second reason we believe is that, in the Last Supper or First Mass, the pattern found in the Book of Exodus is repeated, though in a far superior way. Before God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, He provided them with a way both to anticipate their delivery through the celebration of the first Passover meal and for subsequent generations to commemorate and re-present that same delivery. Similarly, at the Last Supper, “after celebrating the old Passover which the whole people of the children of Israel offered in memory of their departure from Egypt”, Christ, the true Lamb of God (of which the Paschal Lamb of the Old Covenant was but an imperfect figure), “instituted a new Passover, namely the offering of Himself”. This same offering Christ commanded His Church likewise to “do in remembrance” of Him “through her priests under the visible signs of bread and wine, in memory of His own Exodus from this world to the Father, when He redeemed us by the shedding of His blood, rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us to His kingdom (see Col. 1:3).” For this reason, we Catholics rightly maintain the true faith of the Apostles when we assert, together with St. Paul, that at every Mass, when the Body and Blood of the Lord is made present and becomes our spiritual food, we “proclaim the death of the Lord, until he come.” This same true faith was expressed in the third century by St. Cyprian of Carthage, who declares that the “Passion of Our Lord is the Sacrifice that we offer.” In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem handed on this same deposit of faith in his Catechetical Lectures. Commenting on the benefits of the Mass as a propitiation for the sins of both the living and the dead, he writes that “we … offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves.” In the early fifth century, St. Augustine bore witness to this same faith in his work Against Faustus the Manichean, where he writes: “In the Psalms these words are sung: ‘A sacrifice of praise will glorify Me, and the path is there, where I will show him My salvation’. Before the coming of Christ, the Flesh and Blood of this sacrifice is promised by victims offered as likenesses thereto; in the Passion of Christ it is rendered in very truth; after Christ’s Ascension it is celebrated by sacramental memorial.” Towards the end of the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great taught the same faith when in his Dialogues he wrote: “This sacrifice alone has the power of saving the soul from eternal death, for it presents to us mystically the death of the only-begotten Son. Though he is now risen from the dead and dies no more, and death has no power over him, yet living in Himself immortal and incorruptible He is again immolated for us in the mystery of the holy Sacrifice.” And in the 13th century, we cannot fail to mention those immortal words of St. Thomas Aquinas: O sacrum convivium, in quo Christus sumitur; recolitur memoriam passionis eius; mens impletur gratia; et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. “O sacred banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the memory of his passion recalled, the mind filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.” This is the faith that has been handed down through the centuries, reaffirmed at the Council of Trent, and bequeathed to us. This is the Mystery of Faith that we joyfully affirm today.
On this day, then, having revisited the Upper Room and pondered the significance of what took place there, let us thank Our Lord that, unlike the unbelieving Judas, we do believe. Let us also pray that, unlike Judas, we may never betray Our Lord by receiving Holy Communion unworthily, or by rejecting our faith and falling into the sin of apostasy. Let us also pray that those who lack the gift of the true faith may receive it and persevere in it unto eternal life. And after receiving Our Lord today in Holy Communion, let us express our joy and gratitude towards Him by giving public expression to our faith in and devotion towards our Eucharistic Lord.
O Sacrament most Holy, O Sacrament Divine,
all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine!