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Homily for Corpus Christi, Year B

When I was a child, if you had asked me what an altar was, I might have

struggled a bit. I could explain a table, but I didn’t know really what the

difference was between an altar and a table. It’s not that an altar is made from

stone, because you can find altars that are made of wood instead. And it’s not

their shape either, or their construction. Our altar is more like a cube, but many

altars are rectangular, like tables. Some altars have legs, or at least pillars. So

what makes an altar and altar and not a table?


Design is part of it, so a dinner table wouldn’t normally look like an altar. But

the purpose and function is another. A table is used for serving food (or at least

a kitchen table is). So we do sometimes talk about the altar being the “table of

the Lord” from which we are served the Holy Eucharist in Holy Communion.

But let’s get back to the idea of an altar. What is an altar?


Quite simply, an altar is an object involved in sacrifice. On an altar, something,

or someone, is offered to God. In the days of the Old Testament, the Temple in

Jerusalem had a few altars, so they could offer to God animals, birds, wheat,

incense and so on. But as today’s second reading hints, we don’t need to offer

those sacrifices any more, because Jesus has offered Himself on the altar of the

Cross as the perfect sacrifice and done away with them. So why do we still

have an altar?


This was one of the big dividing lines at the Reformation. The Protestants

argued that because Christ’s sacrifice had done away with the Temple

sacrifices, the Eucharist was just about remembering what Jesus did, nothing

more, nothing less. So no altar, no priest, no Sacrifice of the Mass. Instead a

table, a minister and a service of Holy Communion.


What did the Catholic Church say instead? First, let’s get away from

misunderstandings. The Catholic Church did NOT say that during Mass we

were in any way saying that Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross was somehow

insufficient, lacking and in need of being added to or repeated. That is NOT

what was said. Instead, God, despite being God, wants human involvement

and participation. Despite He is the main actor, if you like, humanity still has a

role as well.


When Jesus came among us, He didn’t beam down from heaven. He involved

Our Lady – she gave her consent to the archangel Gabriel and nourished and

gave birth to Our Lord. Before His Crucifixion, Jesus didn’t just stay at home

and pray, and people magically converted. He went out and preached the word,

and involved the apostles and disciples in that task. After Jesus went up to

heaven, we were not then abandoned; the disciples did not then just forget

about all that had happened and go back to their usual routines and jobs for the

rest of their lives; no, instead, they were sent out after Pentecost across the

whole of the Roman Empire. So it’s the same with the work of Redemption,

with Christ putting things right between God and humanity. At the Last

Supper, He gave us the Eucharist, which is a unique way in sharing in the

power of the Sacrifice of the Cross. Just as baptism shares in the Cross in a

certain way, by the forgiveness of sins, and confession too, so also the Mass

unites us to the Cross and brings the power of the Cross into the present day.

You might have seen certain exorcist films where the priest holds a crucifix and

prays for the power of Christ to expel a demon. That is a smaller example of

applying the power of the Cross to the present day. St John’s Gospel, in fact,

sees the crucifixion as a grand exorcism of the world. Jesus says:


“Now sentence is being passed on this world;

now the prince of this world is to be overthrown.

And when I am lifted up from the earth,

I shall draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32).


When we celebrate the Mass, the power of the Crucifixion is being applied to

all those present in the church, and the wider world, driving out sin and

drawing us to holiness. So we have a real altar, a real priest, through whom

Christ acts, what is on the altar is really the crucified and risen Christ, and we

really are joined to Christ’s saving Death and Resurrection. It is not just

remembering Jesus, but we have the living and alive Jesus, working in power,

here, now, in 2024, at this time, in this place. We need our faith to help us see

what is really taking place in front of us, or as one of the translations of the

Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo says, “Sight is blind before God’s glory, faith

alone may see his face”.


Today as we celebrate Corpus Christi, we celebrate that the crucified and risen

Christ is really among us, and that at Mass we really do take part in His

sacrifice.

 

Curious about exploring things further?  If you would like to ask further questions about the topics raised in these homilies (or maybe think it wasn’t explained too well!), please feel free to e-mail Fr Michael at stjoseph.thame@rcaob.org.uk

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