Sunday Night Journal &mdash June 18, 2006

Blood and Sapphire

It will come as no surprise to any non-Catholic reading this that we Catholics believe some pretty strange things. Catholics, on the other hand, are in some danger of losing sight, by force of habit, of this strangeness. I thought of it as I listened to today's readings for the feast of Corpus Christi.

First there was the Old Testament reading, Exodus 24:3-8, which describes the sacrifices performed by the Israelites at the behest of Moses after his return from his encounter with God on Sinai. What a scene that must have been—slaughter and butchering, burning flesh, blood collected in vessels and thrown about on the altar and upon the people. And sacrifices like these continued for centuries, especially in the great Temple of Jerusalem, constituting the core of the faith in which Jesus was raised and in the context of which he announced that he himself was to be the ultimate sacrifice, and that once his action was complete there would be no further need to slay any living thing as a sacrifice.

Leap forward a few thousand years, and see what happens in almost every Catholic church almost every day. There is an altar patterned after those in the Temple. Somewhere around it hangs a more or less realistic representation of a man cruelly put to death. Followers of this same Jesus believe that their priest, standing over this altar, re-creates the one sacrifice by speaking certain words over wine and unleavened bread. And when he has done this they become in some invisible supernatural way the literal presence of the man Jesus, who by the way was also God.

One who does not believe this can surely be forgiven for muttering "yeah, right" when told that this bread and wine are actually the flesh and blood of God. And if he thinks much about it at all he may even be repulsed by the fact that the priest and people will now eat this purported flesh and blood. He may think that they are doing something either insane, if their faith is not true, or repulsive, if it is. The whole thing, going all the way back to Moses and his basins of blood, looks like nonsense piled upon delusion.

But if he looks much further into Catholic doctrine he'll find it full of sound good sense, teaching reason, humility, honesty, peace, love, and forgiveness. Of course if he's a man very much of our times he'll also find a lot of things there—mostly those pertaining to sex—with which he will disagree and maybe even consider harmful, depending on how "liberated" he is. But if he reads the theologians and the popes, especially our two most recent popes, he'll at least have to admit that the teachings are logical and coherent. And in the case of the popes he'll hear a very down-to-earth reason, very much alert to and conversant with the world. In fact, if our man is very much a child of his time, he will begin to complain that it's all too logical. (Or at least this sort of reaction used to be possible—nowadays I'm afraid there are many in whom the natural light is so clouded that they can't even see the virtue of, for instance, the Christian concept of marriage.)

How can this be? It's as if one discovered streams of pure fresh water flowing out of an oil well. Sometimes it seems like the emergence from this faith of primitive sacrifice of so clear and reasonable a mind as that of St. Thomas is a miracle in itself. We can find part of the answer by reading the two verses from Exodus that follow the Sunday readings:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.

You may recall that the initial encounter on Sinai involved darkness, fire, thunder, earthquake, and a sound like trumpets. Moses had to brave these alone in order to see the Lord. Yet now all is tranquility and clarity, and the seventy don't seem to be afraid.

Catholic teaching may seem as clear and bright as that sapphire pavement, but it has to be preceded by an acceptance of darkness and mystery. If we are going to understand anything at all, we must first accept that we cannot understand everything.

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