This feast which some may remember as ‘Corpus Christi’ has been renamed since the congregation now is offered the Wine as well as the Bread of the Eucharist. The readings bring in different aspects of the ‘real presence’ of Jesus and what it means for our lives.
This short selection tells us all we know about Melchizedek as a historical person. It takes place in the early life of Abram – later renamed ‘Abraham’, the form we most often use. He had separated from his nephew Lot as they both have such a large number of flocks, servants and herdsmen that travelling together in their nomadic life had become a problem. Lot was caught up in a war between rival groups of kings, and was carried off by the victors of that battle. When Abram was told of this, he led out his ‘trained men … 318 of them,’ to pursue Lot’s captors. They rout the kings, rescue Lot and all his goods and people.
After this impressive victory, which seems very much against the odds, Abram is approached by a priest, Melchizedek, which is where our selection begins. He comes from Salem, an early name for Jerusalem and is related to the Hebrew for ‘peace’. His name means ‘righteous king’ or ‘king of righteousness’ but he would hardly have been a follower of the Hebrew God worshipped by Abraham. ‘God Most High’ – in Hebrew El Elyon – was the pagan ‘top god’ but the title fit the Hebrew belief of their sole God and is sometimes used in the Old Testament in that way.
Melchizedek acknowledges Abram with a priestly blessing, and in turn Abram acknowledges his priest-king double role and gives him a tenth of the valuables he had captured. It is the sacrificial offer of bread and wine by Melchizedek that makes this suitable for today’s feast.
This is one of the royal psalms especially associated with David, but may have been spoken to one of his successors. It is cast as an ‘oracle’ (‘revelation’ in our translation) and was likely delivered by a priest or prophet at a coronation or regal anniversary.
‘The Lord’: in the Hebrew Bible this was written as the personal name ‘Yahweh’ which was never pronounced and ‘the Lord’ spoken instead. The Greek translation picked up this sense of reverence and uses ‘the Lord’ for the holy name. In this psalm, the Hebrew could be translated two ways, my lord or my Master. our selection thus has the second as ‘Master’. ‘The Lord said to my Lord’ follows the Greek version of the psalm, and Jesus quoted this form to suggest his own role as one greater than David. (Luke 20:41ff, parallels in Mark and Matthew).
The image of foes under the feet of a king was used in Mid Eastern art as a symbol of conquest. There is also ‘adoption’ language in the image of the king begotten by God, compare the oracle spoken to the king in Psalm 2: ‘You are my son, this day I have begotten you.’ The naming of Melchizedek indicates that the Davidic ruler of this oracle took on priestly duties as well as royal, like the mysterious figure in Abram’s story. All these images became part of the Christian understanding of Jesus seen as fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament. There is a long comparison of Jesus as a priest ‘in the order of Melchizedek’ in the Letter to the Hebrews, chapters 5 and 7.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
There are accounts of Jesus words at the Last Supper in the first three gospels, but today we hear what Paul wrote to the Corinthian community to remind them of the meaning of the Eucharist. They had not been celebrating as reverently as they should; their abuses are listed in verses before and after this selection. There are subtle differences in the same basic words among the four accounts of the Eucharist, and in the form we use at mass. These may indicate a particular memory or emphasis either in the writer or in the communities where the Eucharist was celebrated. It is essentially the same core: Jesus speaks the words of transformation, the body and blood of Christ given as a sacrifice for us is to be remembered in sharing bread and wine.
The Gospel acclamation and post communion prayer is from John’s Gospel, chapter 6 which from verse 25 on is a reflection on the reality of Jesus present in the Eucharist, and what that means in our lives.
There are two aspects to the Eucharist: as a sacrifice and as sustenance – ‘real food’ served in a shared meal. The first is accented in the first reading, and the second in the Gospel. There are also various Old Testament stories that have been seen as background of times of God miraculously provisioning His people in need, so Jesus’ action in this reading can be seen as another ‘fulfilment’ of Messianic expectations.
The feeding of thousands in the desert is the only miracle story told in all four gospels and each has variations in emphasis. Christians have often related it to the Eucharist, which is why it is the choice for today’s reading. In terms of the gospels accounts as history, I do not see that the Eucharist was the original intent of the first three gospels – partly because it concerns loaves and fishes with no mention of wine. But it does help us understand that if natural bread can be miraculously increased by Jesus, Jesus can also change bread into his body.
The background: Jesus had sent out the apostles on their first ‘missionary journey’ from which they return triumphant, but no doubt tired. He takes them privately away for rest, but the crowds find a way to follow them. Jesus has compassion on the crowd and preaches to them.
When perhaps they themselves are hungry, the disciples feel it is time to eat. They are in a location where there are no resources, and so they want him to dismiss the large number of people to go find their own food. Jesus, who has been giving the disciples more training and new responsibilities, responds by telling them to feed the people themselves. Not surprisingly, they can’t imagine how they could do that. Jesus then takes over, and has the people arranged in groups rather like a big picnic. He takes what is at hand, the meagre two fish and five loaves. His action (which is the same as at the Last Supper) is standard Jewish custom before a meal, especially a Sabbath one. He prays by raising his eyes upward as a gesture toward heaven, and says a blessing. Our translation adds ‘over them’ – as meaning either the people or the food, but the Greek text is simply ‘he blessed’.
A Jewish prayer still said today, ‘blesses’ God rather than the food, in words of praise that are adopted at the offering in our masses: ‘Blessed are you, Lord God, King forever, for this bread…. this wine.’ In the desert, Jesus breaks the bread into pieces, as he speaks. We are never told he ‘multiplied’ them – the words usually used when describing the account, just that there was enough for everybody as the disciples handed the food around. More than that, there was far more left than the 5 and 2 they started with. I prefer the translation of the Revised Standard Version, ‘they were satisfied’ to ‘as much as they wanted’, as it seems to fit better with the Eucharistic bread. What God gives us may not be all we think we ‘want’ but what will truly ‘satisfy’ our deepest needs.
The gospels use the Greek word for ‘men’ rather the more inclusive word for ‘people’ when telling of the 5,000, but Matthew adds, ‘besides women and children.’ Luke usually has more about women, but it is hard to tell now whether they were included here. Some commentators think the number of 5,000 is not to be taken literally but may be symbolic, as numbers often do have non-literal meanings in the Bible. Here the point we can take is that no matter how many there are, Jesus cares for all and responds to all their needs.