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Corpus Christi--The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ
June 3, 2018


 
   This wonderful feast of Corpus Christi comes to us from the high Middle Ages. Stories and legends abound regarding its exact origin.  One of them tells how, in the year 1209, a Belgian Augustinian nun by the name of Juliana of Liege, reported a vision she had had – a vision in which she saw the full moon in all its splendor, but there was a dark area on one side.  As she understood the dream, the moon was the Church, and one area was dark because there was no feast to honor the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

     Juliana must have been one persuasive woman because Corpus Christi quickly became a local feast and, fifty years later, it was being celebrated all over Europe!

     The reason the feast caught on so quickly is that at that moment in history, the Mass had become almost completely the preserve of the clergy: it was celebrated in Latin, a language the people no longer understood, and often, it was celebrated in the far recesses of those great, cavernous gothic cathedrals, surrounded with mystery and splendor, but far distant from the people who had become passive observers, not active participants.  The feast of Corpus Christi gave people an outlet for their love and devotion for this greatest of the sacraments as towns and villages all over Europe began to vie with each other in creating elaborate Corpus Christi celebrations.

     I have vivid memories of one such celebration I took part in more than 50 years ago in the small Italian hill town of Orvieto, fifty miles north of Rome. I was a seminarian at the time and had gone up there with some friends to take part in the what is likely the oldest and certainly the most famous Corpus Christi procession in Europe. I will never forget it.  The procession wound through the cobbled streets of the village following Mass in the cathedral.  Many people were dressed in the distinctive garb of the trades and guilds of the Middle Ages: merchants, millers, bakers, blacksmiths, coopers, tailors, silversmiths.  Then there were choirs of monks and nuns, rank upon rank of clergy, children strewing flowers, bright banners flying in the breeze, and dramatic long silver trumpets heralding the arrival of the Blessed Sacrament carried in the hands of the Bishop who walked under a brocaded canopy. It was a memorable spectacle: a moving testimonial to faith both simple and strong, a faith that intersected with life right where people lived it: in the colorful streets and back alleys of an Italian hill town.

     Now I doubt that many of the people in that town could have given a sophisticated theological explanation of how Christ is present in the Eucharist, but I have no doubt whatever that they believed he was truly present. It’s that way with us, too, I think. Even if we lack all the words to fully explain this great mystery, we know that we are never more the Church, never more the Body of Christ, than when we celebrate the Eucharist.  And we know, too, that without the Eucharist we would be deprived of life, because the Eucharist is a food unparalleled in its power to give life, altogether unique in the way it connects us with God, a food which, when we eat it becomes part of us as normal food does, yes, but we also become part of the One we receive - become part of Christ, part of his Body, the Church. And that changes everything – or at least it should.

     I remember reading about a priest who celebrated Mass for Mother Teresa and her nuns. He related how her face spoke of the absoluteness of her faith as she looked at the host and spoke her “Amen.”  “She clearly believed in the Real Presence,” he said.  But he went on to say, “there was another moment when Mother Teresa radiated a similar expression on her face – it was when she was receiving a starving child, a broken old man, a filthy beggar, a dying old woman. She saw Jesus in these people just as she saw him when she received Holy Communion.”

     The late twentieth century Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, Dom Helder Camara, prophetic apostle to the poor, embraced a similar theology of the Eucharist when he wrote:

      Am I mistaken, Lord, to go forth and proclaim
     The need and urgency of passing from the Blessed Sacrament
     To your other presence just as real
     In the Eucharist of the poor?
     Theologians will argue,
     A thousand distinctions will be advanced,
     But woe to the one who feeds on You
     And later has no eyes to see You
     Foraging for food among the garbage
     Living in sub-human conditions
     Under the sign of utter destitution.

     The traditional Corpus Christi procession we make this morning proclaims this reality in a powerful way.  We honor the Eucharistic Body of Christ with song and incense, flowers, bells, trumpets, and bagpipes.  But we make the procession outside on the street so that we will have a chance to open our eyes to a whole world that exists outside this cathedral – a whole world of people loved by God but divided by enormous inequities and injustices, a world that Jesus looks upon as his Body.

     Corpus Christi.  The Body of Christ.  If the truth be told, it is probably easier to believe in the Eucharistic Bread as the Body of Christ than to believe in God’s people as the Body of Christ.  But, my friends, we don’t get to make that choice.  We don’t get to make that choice!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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