She saw the moon hanging in midair, in the sky. Although the moon was shining bright, there was a single black spot on it. This became a recurring vision that for years Juliana couldn’t figure out. One day the Lord told her that this vision of the moon was a symbol of the Church, so bright with all its feasts, but the black part of the moon meant that there was no feast to honor the Sacrament of the Altar in a special way. (At that time the celebration of this Mystery was only observed on Holy Thursday, but on that day it is mostly Christ’s sufferings and death that are thought about.) So the Lord told her that he desired another day be set apart to celebrate his real Presence in the Eucharist. In 1246, St. Juliana, an Augustinian nun, and prioress persuaded the bishop of Liège to initiate a special feast on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to honor the Blessed Sacrament. Fifteen years later, in 1261, Pope Urban IV, formerly Archdeacon of Liège, ordered the whole Church to observe this Feast of Corpus Christi. He also asked his personal friend, St. Thomas Aquinas, to compose the hymns and antiphons for its celebration. (St. Juliana spent her last years, and died, in a Cistercian abbey.)
I find that the particular significance of today’s Feast is communicated well by the three fundamental actions we carry out in celebrating it: first of all, we gather around the altar of the Lord to be together in his presence; secondly, we process with the Blessed Sacrament from the church, through the cloisters, and back into the church; and thirdly, we kneel before the Lord in adoration. (Of course, this adoration already begins in the Mass and accompanies the entire procession but culminates in the final moment of Benediction, when we all prostrate ourselves before the One who stooped down to us and gave his life for us.) I’d like to offer a brief reflection on each of these three specific actions of today’s liturgy through the “prism” of today’s Gospel.
First of all Corpus Christi reminds us that being Christian means coming together to be in the Presence of the one Lord, and to become one with him and in him. We gather together in order to celebrate the Eucharist, and the culmination of our gathering is communion.
In the Gospel, which is Eucharistic through and through in language and imagery, Jesus spoke to the crowds about the kingdom of God, and he healed those who needed to be cured, but as the day was drawing to a close he gathered them more intimately by having them sit down in groups of about 50 in order to feed them: he “took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it” to over 5,000. We come together every day to the Eucharist with our fragile identities, often enough constructed over against each other. However, the Body and Blood of Christ is not just received by us but transforms our gathering so that we now corporately share in the Lord’s own identity. The climax of the Eucharist, which we call “Holy Communion,” is nothing less than our homecoming to each other and to God. How is this so?
Looking back to the Last Supper, we know what it means for Jesus to give his body to us in the form of bread. It is a gift totally given and completely received. “Take this, all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.” Of course, we know that eating food is not primarily a matter of ingesting nutrients, any more than speaking is just a question of making noises. In every culture, except increasingly in our own, eating and drinking is about sharing life and being at home with one another.
Here is a simple but compelling illustration of this. The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss noticed that in simple restaurants in the south of France where the workers ate everyone sat at a common table. A bottle of wine was placed before each person, and each began by pouring wine into the glass of his neighbor. Claude Lévi-Strauss observed: “No one has any more wine than he did to begin with. But society (community) has appeared where there was none before.”
Infinitely more so, the Body and Blood of Christ is where we are at home with each other in Christ. It brings about the greatest embodiment of our “gathering” together: namely, communion with and in Christ. There is no bond of human communion comparable to that effected by the Eucharistic Body of Christ. It is called “the Sacrament of Unity.” BWhy? The Body of Christ is the bond which unites us to him: eat it, or we will have no part in him. And Jesus gives us his Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, poured out for us as his total self-gift: drink it, lest we despair of ourselves. Yes, his blood was shed because of the human thirst for violence. But it is also the blood of birth. For St. John, it was the moment when Jesus gives birth to a new community, the Church. His side is opened by the soldier’s spear, and out pour water and blood, the sacraments of the new community. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “It is from his side, therefore, that Christ formed his church, just as he formed Eve from the side of Adam….Have you seen how Christ united to himself his bride? Have you seen with what food he nurtures us all? Just as a woman nurtures her offspring with her own blood and milk, so also Christ continuously nurtures with his own blood those whom he has begotten.”y participating in the Eucharist, and by feeding on it, we are incorporated into a communion that does not admit divisions. This is because the Christ present in our midst, in the sacramental signs of bread and wine, requires that the power of love exceed every laceration and, at the same time, become communion with the poor, support for the weak, and fraternal attention to those who are struggling to carry the weight of everyday life—that refers to us all!
Secondly, the Feast of Corpus Christi is distinguished by a procession. The procession became the feast’s most prominent feature and experientially represents walking with the Lord. Remember that in the Gospel Jesus feeds the crowds precisely so that they will have strength for the journey home. He himself is “food for the journey”—food for the journey Home. “Viaticum.” We have our “First Holy Communion,” and we have our last, which is traditionally called “Holy Viaticum.” We all need this sacramental food to sustain us on the journey, and not only at the end of life. Many of us can hardly move, or can barely trudge along, but through the gift of himself in the Eucharist, the Lord sets us free from our spiritual “paralysis,” helps us up, and enables us to proceed (i.e. to take a step forward, and then another, and then another), and thus he gives us strength through the nourishment of the Bread of Life…..The Corpus Christi procession, traditionally in many places a full-blown pageant, teaches us that the Eucharist seeks to free us from every kind of despondency and discouragement so that we can once again set out on the journey with the strength God gives us through Jesus Christ. Who can face the pilgrimage of life without God-with-us? Our procession is literally walking with the Lord. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the God who does not leave us alone on the journey but stays at our side and shows us the way. Indeed, he made himself the “way” and came to walk together with us so that in our freedom we should also have the criterion we need to discern the right way and take it. Our Corpus Christi procession expresses in a solemn and public way the grace of the “ordinary, obscure and laborious” daily journey of our heart home to God.
And thirdly, our celebration of this Feast Day culminates in our kneeling before the Lord in adoration. Adoring the God of Jesus Christ, who out of love made himself bread, broken and given to us, is the most effective and radical remedy for whatever helplessness or separation from God we may experience along the way. Kneeling before the Eucharist is a profession of faith, of need, and of freedom: we prostrate ourselves before a God who first bent over us like the Good Samaritan to assist us and restore our life; like the Lord who first knelt before us to wash our dirty feet before giving himself to us as a covenantal food. Adoring the Body of Christ means believing that there, in that piece of Bread, Christ is really present and gives true sense to life: to the immense universe as well as to the smallest creature, to the whole of human history as well as to the briefest existence. Eucharistic Adoration is prayer in which we continue to be nourished by the Real Presence of Christ.
In conclusion, on this Feast of Corpus Christi our gathering, walking, and adoring together fills us with a special joy and grace. Even more, the Eucharist is an encounter of the heart when we recognize Presence through our own offered presence. In the Eucharist, we move beyond mere words or rational thought, and go to that place where we don’t talk about the Mystery anymore; we begin to chew on it. Jesus did not say, “Think about this,” or “Stare at this,” or even “Worship this.” Instead, he said, “Eat this!” We must keep eating and drinking the Mystery, until one day it dawns on us, in an undefended moment, “My God, I really am what I eat! I also become the Body of Christ.”
Photograph of the Abbey Corpus Christ procession by Father Emmanuel. Father Dominic's homily for the Solemnity.