Come to the feast: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 14:12–16, 22–26:

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.” The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Today is the feast of Corpus Christi, but it is also the feast day of St. Norbert, which seems like a propitious coincidence. I just happened to be in the Green Bay area visiting some dear friends last weekend, and one of the places we visited was the National Shrine of St. Joseph at St. Norbert College. The Norbertines are celebrating 900 years of service this year as a monastic community, and the campus had banners all around proclaiming it.

The story of St. Norbert gives some interesting texture to today’s readings and the feast of Corpus Christi. Until last weekend, I hadn’t known much about this saint, who became a bishop in the 12th century after founding his community. Norbert had been born into German nobility and had apparently led a life of soft hedonism for most of his first thirty years. After Norbert’s horse threw him and knocked him unconscious, Norbert awoke to a Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus experience, and utterly renounced all of his previous worldliness.

It took Norbert several years to live down his reputation with the local clergy and canons, but he succeeded in convincing them by surrendering all worldly goods and embracing utter poverty. He spread the Gospel on foot, barefoot in the worst conditions, after receiving a papal blessing for this mission. Those efforts eventually led to a bishop granting Norbert some land for a monastic community, but this one differed from those which preceded it. Norbert’s was apparently the first community that lay people could also join, creating a path for non-ordained Christians to participate in the sacrificial monastic life.

This sacrificial model brings us to the feast of Corpus Christi. Today’s readings bring focus to the central sacrifice by which we are all saved — the body and blood of Christ. The use of blood as a sacrifice dates back to prehistory, as do the sacrifices of animals and other food goods. We hear about the need to sacrifice to the Lord all the way back to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4, along with its key question: do we sacrifice for His sake or for our own? Or do we do both, and in what measure between them?

In our first reading from Exodus, Moses ceremonializes this sacrifice as a gesture of respect to the Lord. The Israelites signify their acceptance of the Lord’s covenant through blood and “young bulls,” a measure of their wealth given to show their faith. Some of the blood sacrificed then gets returned to them as a blessing as Moses sprinkles it on the Israelites to complete the ceremony, a way to show the Lord’s commitment to His people in that covenant.

Of course, we know that the Israelites repeatedly fell short of this ideal. The Old Testament is filled with those failures, along with attempts to repent and come back into the Lord’s favor. In all of those episodes, we get the sense that the Lord’s people accepted the ceremonial aspects of sacrifice without much intent to sacrifice their own desires and ambitions in the process.

St. Norbert, along with all of our other known saints, exemplifies the ideal. Norbert sacrificed that which he had desired most — his standing, his pleasures, his political connections — to serve the Lord when called. His self-sacrifice was radical enough to change not just Norbert but the world around him, especially in narrowing the gap between the laity and those called to formal service.

This is what Christ does for us in today’s Gospel, only in perfection. Reflecting the complete caritas of the Trinity, Jesus utterly sacrifices Himself for the sake of all. That singular sacrifice comes to us as the body and blood of Christ, a sacrifice which returns to us like the sprinkling of the blood in our passage from Exodus. By receiving the Eucharist, we become strengthened in our Amen to salvation. In this act, we all become one — laity and ordained, bishops and paupers, regardless of rank or region. We affirm that in our participation and embrace all at the feast as brothers and sisters, as we all become children of God.

Of course, being just as human as our Old Testament forebears, we do this imperfectly and recalcitrantly at times. Our own desires, hurts, and passions interfere in our sacrifice as we move away from the Trinitarian self-sacrificing model to one in which we only sacrifice those things least important to us. We move further from the Lord when doing so, and fall into the trap of making ourselves our own God rather than trusting Christ in love.

When we find ourselves on that path away from caritas, perhaps it’s good to remember St. Norbert. His love for the Lord transformed him through self-sacrifice, and that transformation changed his community, his region, and the world. Nine hundred years later, Norbert’s self-sacrificial service remains an example and an inspiration, and perhaps still leads a few souls to love the Lord even more worthily.

The front-page image is a detail from “Norbert von Xanten,” by Jan de Hoey, from the early 17th century. Currently on display at the Xanten Chapter Museum in Xanten, Germany. Via Wikimedia Commons

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.