Corpus Christi Procession, St. Mary’s Church, New Haven, CT, USA.
Then taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing over them, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Luke, 9:16.
Today’s feast, the third and last following Pentecost (ordinary time resumes next Sunday), culminates in the reality of Jesus’ promise to be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). The traditional name for today’s celebration is Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Indeed, as we can see from the picture above, Jesus, present in the consecrated bread in the monstrance the priest holds underneath the canopy, is present in the neighborhood around the church! Corpus Christi street processions are apparently coming back into favor as demonstrations of Catholic belief and devotion. They were almost universal in days gone by. The basic idea is that Jesus is actually present under the guise of consecrated bread and, at the Mass, wine. In other words, Catholics and Orthodox Christians take Jesus’ words at the Last Supper literally. When he took a piece of bread and said “This is my body”, Catholics and Orthodox, perhaps for the only time, become fundamentalist, and accept the literal words and what they mean. Similarly when Jesus said “This is my blood” while holding a cup of wine. Weirdly, most fundamentalist Christians make an exception of their literal interpretation of Scripture over this; they prefer to believe that Jesus’ intention was to make the bread and wine a sort of symbolic presence of him. Except Jesus said this is my body. Even Martin Luther himself defended this interpretation in a crucial meeting with Ulrich Zwingli, the Swiss reformer, who absolutely denied the literal meaning of the words. Luther even wrote the words Hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”) on the table top across from Zwingli!
Now in the Mass, at the consecration, the priest takes the chalice and says: This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant….” That seems to suggest that there was an old and finite covenant. Well for Jews there was and still is but one major covenant, that one made at Mount Sinai where God declared them to be his children, the Chosen People. The covenant, or alliance, between them was an agreement; they would obey God’s law, the 10 Commandments, and God would become their God. Then a ceremony was enacted (Exodus 24:1-8), where the blood of sacrificed animals was splashed against an altar representing God, and then and rest of the blood splashed upon the people. Blood, being a sign of life, symbolically linked the life of God with the people, and the covenant was complete. At the Last Supper, Jesus proclaimed the bread and wine to be his body and blood, which we are invited to consume, hence in a literal way we link our lives with the life of Christ, in an infinitely more intimate way than the Sinai covenant. So holy communion is the way our souls are fed, refreshed, kept holy, in a way which parallels the way we keep our bodies alive and well.
Pope Francis celebrates the Eucharist in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, traditionally the location of the Last Supper, Da Mihi Animas.
So today the Church celebrates a basic, fundamental belief in life and health. Just as our bodies have to be treated with care and respect, as they are God’s gifts, animated by the Holy Spirit, so our souls, our very Christian life, must be fed, nourished, kept healthy by the holy food instituted by Jesus himself. The belief that the consecrated bread and wine are, indeed, Christ’s very body and blood, has to be the highest possible trust Jesus places in us, the highest respect, and ultimately, the highest, truest love. Christ’s life to enter into us, literally, is the supreme Christian act. For every priest, bishop, even the Pope himself, celebrating the Mass is the ultimate privilege and honor; for all of us, receiving Christ in this way is our ultimate privilege. What we do with the spiritual food and the strength it provides marks us out as children of God, and what we do with that will be how we are judged when our time comes. Jesus has done all that for us. It is our turn to do all for him.