Editor’s note: The following was adopted from a homily preached on September 19, 2020, the liturgical memorial of St. Januarius, at the Church of the Holy Innocents, New York City.
Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Januarius (better known in these parts as San Gennaro). Contemporary sources on his life do not exist, however, we learn from later sources that he died during the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. Januarius was born into a Patrician family in Benevento, Italy. He became the priest of that parish at the age of 15 and bishop of Naples at 20 (talk about a meteoric rise!). When Diocletian began his maniacal persecution of the Church, Januarius hid Christians. On a pastoral visit to a condemned Christian, Januarius was identified and jailed immediately. He and his fellow-believers were sentenced to be thrown to wild bears in the Flavian Amphitheater at Pozzuoli, but the sentence was changed due to fear of public disturbances, so that they were instead beheaded. A different legend holds either that the wild beasts refused to eat them, or that he was thrown into a furnace but came out unscathed – and then was beheaded.
Januarius is the patron saint of Naples, where the faithful gather three times a year in their Cathedral to witness the eagerly hoped-for liquefaction of what is claimed to be a sample of his blood kept in a sealed glass ampoule – about which, more shortly.
The devotion to San Gennaro was brought to New York in 1926 by immigrants from Italy. His feast is a highlight of the year for Little Italy as the saint’s polychrome statue is carried through the middle of a street fair stretching for blocks. Several scenes in the Godfather trilogy and Mean Streets take place during the San Gennaro feastival. Needless to say, Covid has struck another one of its dastardly blows, so that the festa is cancelled this year, for the first time ever, I believe.
As I mentioned a minute ago, St. Januarius is famous for the miracle of the liquefaction of his blood which, according to legend, was saved by a woman called Eusebia just after the saint’s death. The first record we have of that event is from 1389. To this day, thousands gather to witness this event in Naples Cathedral: on September 19, commemorating his martyrdom; on December 16, celebrating his patronage of Naples and the Archdiocese; and on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, which recalls the reunification of his relics. The blood is also said to liquefy at certain other times, such as papal visits. We are told that it liquefied in the presence of Pope Pius IX in 1848, but not for John Paul II in 1979 or Benedict XVI in 2007. On March 21, 2015, Pope Francis venerated the dried blood during a visit to Naples Cathedral. Cardinal Sepe then declared: “The blood has half-liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our Pope and Naples.” Enough said!
Let’s leave aside Januarius and his blood to reflect for a bit on the Blood of Him who shed His Blood for Januarius – and for each one of us.
In the Old Testament, blood was deemed the very seat of life (at least when within the body); outside the body, though, it was viewed as a source of impurity. And so, we think of the blood of the dead or even the menstrual flow of women requiring ritual purification (the mikvah, still employed by observant Jews today). However, there were exceptions to that notion. Interestingly, the Hebrews were spared the wrath of the Angel of Death by sprinkling the blood of the paschal lamb on their doorposts, and ceremonies of covenant renewal were sealed by having the priests sprinkle the blood of the sacrifices on the assembled people.
In the New Testament, Jesus builds on and develops that concept as He declares, to the horror of his listeners, that eternal life is contingent on our eating His Body and drinking His Blood. So repulsive was this idea to the Jews of his day that, the Fourth Gospel tells us, many of His disciples left Him at that point. Not only does Our Lord not attempt to dissuade them by saying that either He miss-spoke or that they misunderstood Him; no, He actually invites His most intimate associates to leave Him as well, to which St. Peter offers the response which must be that of every Christian until the end of time: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
The theology behind the different approaches to blood seems to lie in the nature of the blood in question. When the blood is that of an innocent and sacrificial victim, it is not a source of contamination but of life. From the Cross, the dead Christ’s wounded side emits blood and water, traditionally seen as the fonts of the sacramental life of the Church, most especially Baptism (the water) and the Holy Eucharist (the blood). Indeed, St. Augustine insightfully comments on John 19:34 with these words:
Here was opened wide the gate of life, from which have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to life which is true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins. . . . This second Adam bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from what flowed from the sleeper’s side. O death, whereby the dead are raised anew to life! What can be purer than such blood? What more health-giving than such a wound?
Now, let’s clear up a common misconception: Jesus Christ did not have to shed His Blood to appease an angry Father. Christ’s death, portrayed powerfully in His broken Body and in His poured-out Blood, is a double sign: first, it points to the depths of human cruelty and depravity; second, it underscores the very heights of divine love. That two-fold sign calls us to conversion of life every time we participate in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, challenging us to turn from sin, which caused Christ’s death, and to take to heart the message of love embodied in the Lord’s self-immolation. Every celebration of Holy Mass is, in essence, a perpetual ceremony of covenant renewal, during which we are not sprinkled with the blood of a lamb but actually imbibe the Most Precious Blood of the sinless Lamb of God – His Blood mingling with ours. The very sign of His death brings us life – eternal life.
Now, permit me to make a few liturgical applications.
Most commonly, churches of the Latin or Roman Rite offer Holy Communion only under the form of bread. Many of the Protestant Reformers argued that unless Communion were distributed under both forms, bread and wine, one’s Eucharistic reception would not be valid. The Council of Trent condemned that heresy – and rightly so – for in the Holy Eucharist, we do not receive the dead Christ but the risen Christ. That Council did not condemn reception under both forms; it condemned those who would teach that both forms are necessary for the Communion of the faithful. Whenever we encounter a living person, his body and blood are together. The separation of body and blood proclaims death, which is why the priest consecrates the elements of bread and wine separately, for the Eucharist is, first and foremost, the re-presentation of the Lord’s saving death, as St. Paul teaches the Corinthians and as we chant in the memorial acclamation: “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your Death, O Lord, until you come again.”
As we proceed in the Liturgy, however, you should notice that at the Agnus Dei, the priest drops a particle of the Sacred Host into the chalice, praying: “May this mingling of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring eternal life to us who receive it.” This action, obviously, symbolizes the Lord’s Resurrection. Thus, it is the Risen Christ who is present in each reception of Holy Communion, whether one receive under one form or two. Therefore, receiving only the Sacred Host, one receives the whole Christ. Receiving only under the form of wine (for instance, a sick person unable to consume solid food or an infant in the Eastern Churches), one receives the whole Christ. The fuller sign is reception under both forms, which does not provide one with “more grace” or “more Jesus”; it does make more apparent, however, the fact that in Holy Communion we do receive both the Lord’s Sacred Body and Precious Blood.
When I celebrate Holy Mass in the Ordinary Form, I always distribute Holy Communion by a method known as intinction, whereby the priest dips the Sacred Host into the chalice and places It directly onto the tongue of the communicant. This procedure is always an option open to every priest at all times by the universal law of the Church and is likewise recommended by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Intinction offers many advantages: it provides the fuller sign I mentioned earlier; it does not involve the danger of spillage or recourse to extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, as would direct reception from the chalice; it unites us with the Churches of the East, both Catholic and Orthodox, which all distribute Holy Communion by intinction.
A second liturgical point concerns language. We must be very careful of the way in which we speak of the Holy Eucharist. Recently, a well-meaning and pious lady said to me: “Father, I really love it that you give us the bread and wine together!” To lead her to the right spot, I replied, “I never give out bread and wine.” Puzzled, she said, “But you just did!” I said, “No, you go to the bakery for bread and to a liquor store for wine. At Holy Mass, I distribute and you receive the Body and Blood of Christ.” Using imprecise language, you see, will eventually lead someone to misunderstand and fail to believe what the Church has taught from time immemorial, namely, that in Holy Communion, one receives the Body, Blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. This Sacrament is no mere symbol. The great southern writer Flannery O’Connor recounts that at a social event, one of her Protestant friends gently prodded her, “But Miss O’Connor, you would have to admit that Communion is just a symbol!” The ever-faithful, well-catechized and feisty O’Connor replied, “If it’s just a symbol, the hell with it!”
Finally, with the new and improved translation of the Mass that we have been using for some ten years now, some people initially expressed confusion about a change to the formula for the consecration of the wine. Previously – and erroneously – the earlier translation had the priest declare that the Lord’s Blood would be shed “for you and for all.” The revised text says, “for you and for many,” leading some to ask, “Did not Christ die for all?” The original Latin says this act was done “pro multis,” which literally means “for many” – not “for all.” This linguistic change teaches us an important distinction, which must be kept in mind at all times.
Jesus did indeed die for all, and His Paschal Mystery (that is, His saving Passion, Death and Resurrection) did indeed save the whole world – anyone who lived before it, during it or after it – all were saved potentially. But God does not force His life and grace on anyone. He invites, and we must accept the gracious invitation. We respond to that invitation by living holy lives. Life experience alone makes us see that not everyone responds to the divine invitation appropriately, so that in spite of God’s holy will that “all men be saved” (1 Tim 2:4), not all will be saved, not through God’s fault but through their own. Therefore, Christ’s Blood is shed “for you,” that is, those present at the Sacred Liturgy who are, we hope, properly disposed to receive Holy Communion; it is shed “for many” because – regrettably – all do not accept the invitation to the Banquet of Life in faith, conversion and joy. Simply put: The gift of salvation is offered, but never forced. Our God loves and respects us enough that He honors our free will, which can accept or reject the divine overtures of love, so powerfully communicated in the shedding of Christ’s Blood.
One of the most evocative artistic representations of Christ’s sacrificial love for us is the mother pelican, which pricks her own breast to feed her young with her blood. That is precisely what Jesus did for us on the Cross and what each celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice makes present to us. Rightly, then, does St. Thomas Aquinas in his tender Adoro te devote have us sing:
O loving Pelican! O Jesus, Lord!
Unclean I am, but cleanse me in thy Blood,
Of which a single drop for sinners spilt,
Is ransom for a world’s entire guilt.
The sacrificial love of Christ is not only a gift – in truth, an inestimable Gift – but also an example. If Jesus died for us, we must be willing to die for Him and for one another. It is the nourishment from the Eucharist which steels the resolve of martyrs (like Januarius and his companions) to be faithful to the Lord, usque ad effusionem sanguinis (even to the shedding of their blood), as new cardinals promise upon admittance to the Sacred College. We need to keep, front and center, the connection between the Lord’s redeeming Blood and the possibility that fidelity to Him will require the shedding of our own blood, praying that – should we be called upon to do just that – we would always count ourselves blessed to be among those who, in the words of the last book of the Bible, have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14).
I would like to end this meditation on the Most Precious Blood of Jesus with Cardinal Newman’s lovely translation of the Anima Christi, to which I strongly urge you to have regular recourse as you make your thanksgiving after Holy Communion:
Soul of Christ, be my sanctification;
Body of Christ, be my salvation;
Blood of Christ, fill all my veins;
Water of Christ’s side, wash out my stains;
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne’er to be parted from Thy side;
Guard me, should the foe assail me;
Call me when my life shall fail me;
Bid me come to Thee above,
With Thy saints to sing Thy love,
World without end.
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