Corpus Christi–June 12, 1977–CNR
The feast of Corpus Christi is an unusual feast. Most of our feasts look back to the mysteries of Christ’s redemptive work, from the Incarnation to Pentecost. This feast seems almost to be a celebration of our chief celebration, the Eucharist. Here at first sight we seem almost to be stopping our worship to look at our worship.
There is something to that first impression, I think. The feast was developed in the Middle Ages, and it reflects a certain shift in attention with regard to the Eucharist. The later Fathers of the Church and early medieval theologians gave a great deal of attention to what they called the “threefold body of Christ.” The New Testament, they wrote, speaks of the physical body of Christ, born of the Virgin, broken on the cross, and raised to reign gloriously at the right hand of God. It speaks also of what they at first called Christ’s “mystical body,” the same physical body made present in mystery under the forms of bread and wine. And it speaks also of the Body of Christ that is the Church, which, because it is the goal intended by the other two forms, they called the “real” or “true” body of Christ.
Behind that reflection was a profound sense of the Eucharist as a dramatic movement. In the Church’s celebration, the words and deeds of the historical Jesus were recalled in order to call us to faith again. In the great eucharistic prayer, the mystery of the death and resurrection was made present and its great fruit, the gift of Christ’s own life, was given in the bread and wine. And, when we all ate of the one bread and drank from the one cup, we were gathered in faith and love out of our separate selves, to form the Body of the whole Christ, having undergone ourselves, in the celebration, his death and resurrection.
The focus of attention, then, was on the Church. It was to gather a people that Jesus had lived and died and been raised from the dead. It was to bring that people of every generation into living contact with the founding and centering mystery that the Eucharist was celebrated. Jesus did not live and die for himself, but for us, and the Eucharist too was no end in itself–it was the great celebration in which the Church again and again was to become what it is.
If the feast of Corpus Christi to some degree stopped that movement almost in mid-stream, there is a sense in which the revised liturgy we celebrate permits us more easily to get back into the full movement. It does so because it makes again immediately accessible to us the symbolic power of this great mystery, which was never really lost from view. For each time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember our past and anticipate our hope and rejoice in the gift to us which brings us, even now, into the power of what Jesus Christ did for us and lifts us above our poor lives here into the life which Christ lives in full glory with his Father.
That may seem. terribly abstract and academic. But I think that something like that is what happens when our Eucharists “work,” if I may put it that way. Through word and sacrament, we are brought again into contact with the founding mystery. Receiving in faith what the Lord Jesus has done for us, we are confirmed in our hope in what he has promised to us. And between that faith and hope we are given not only to receive the love of Christ for us, but also to return that love to him and to discover the possibility and the fact of a genuine love for one another. Where that happens, the Body of Christ happens–the Corpus Christi that we are.
It is, of course, equally clear that none of this happens automatically. The Eucharist is the great sacrament of faith, celebrated in faith and creating faith, evoking hope, and realizing love. That at least is what can happen, and it sets us a test by which we all, minister and people, can judge the quality of our celebration and, beyond that, the quality of our Christian living. But when what can happen does happen, we know ourselves to be in possession of something grand and beautiful, or perhaps I should say, we know ourselves to be possessed by something grand and beautiful, a love we did not earn and a hope beyond our hope.
CORPUS CHRISTI – JUNE 22, 2003 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
In important respects this could be considered the patronal feast of this parish, of this community named in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Some of you may remember when this feast was celebrated with some solemnity on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, with a procession and Benediction. When I was in high school, I remember a woman in my home parish, an immigrant from Germany, weeping after our ceremony at the memory of Corpus Christi in her village in Bavaria, where it was a public event involving everyone in the town. Now the feast has been moved to Sunday, and it does not seem to have the same importance given to it.
The feast is an occasion for reflecting on what we do when we gather for the eucharist. There is an old adage that “the eucharist makes the Church, and the Church makes the eucharist.” The second part of that is most obvious: clearly the eucharist is something which the Church does. By Church here I mean, of course, this assembly and all the other assemblies within the great Catholic communion. We are performing this rite of thanksgiving, in Christ, of course, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The other part of the saying may sound less familiar: the eucharist makes the Church. Logical types may be tempted to ask: well, which is it? Does the Church make the eucharist? Or does the eucharist make the Church? If you need the Church to do the eucharist, how can it be that the eucharist makes the Church? Let’s see if we can’t puzzle this out.
What do we do when we gather for a celebration like this? We first of all listen to the Word of God in the scriptures and in the homily: Scripture is actualized as it is read and interpreted so that it is not simply the recital of ancient texts but, a word to us, whether of comfort, or of rebuke, or of challenge. The invitation it holds out to us is met by the Amen of the Creed which we recite immediately after the homily: we who have just heard yet again the word of what God has done in Christ renew our faith, declare yet again that we are Christ’s disciples. We reconstitute ourselves as the assembly of those who believe that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. This assembly becomes the Church again in virtue of the word of Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
Then we enter upon the second part of what we do here: the liturgy of the eucharist, the rite of thanksgiving. We commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ in which our salvation consists, and our offering is transformed into his Body and Blood. And receiving together the one bread that is Christ’s Body, we ourselves become the Body of Christ, members of him, members of one another in a communion of life in Christ. We become what we eat, St. Augustine said. The mystery of the eucharist finds its completion in the reincorporating of our assembly as the Body of Christ.
The Church, then, is never more fully, more visibly, the Church than when we gather for eucharist, and this rite, which we perform as the Church, is the mystery by which we are reconstituted as the Church. Eucharist and Church mediate one another. What we do makes us who we are: the assembly of believers and the Body of Christ.
The key here, of course, is to understand that the Church has to be reborn everyday. That’s an image that was used by the Venerable Bede: “Everyday the Church gives birth to the Church.” Another one of those paradoxes? Contradictions? But, despite all its massive institutional bulk, its ancient history, its complex code of law, the Church is something very fragile. It is as fragile as faith, because faith is what makes the Church the Church, and if the day ever came when there was no one left who believed in what God has done in Christ, then the Church would have ceased to be. But faith is always a free act to which we are invited each time we gather for eucharist. And if we respond with the word of faith, then the Church is born again. What we do here each Sunday, then, should not be something done simply by rote, half-unconsciously, but with an awareness that the heart of our personal Christianity is at stake when we say our Credo, that the existence and vigor of the Church are at stake when we sing our great Amen in thanksgiving–eucharist–for God’s great blessing to us in Christ.
Feast of Corpus Christi – May 25, 2008 – Blessed Sacrament
This feast was established in the thirteenth century, and the beautiful hymns of the Divine Office and the Mass were written by St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the few proofs that a very exacting theologian can also be a great poet. It quickly became a very popular feast, celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, with a public procession marking the day. I remember as a boy seeing a German woman crying as she came out of church on this feast day in my home parish in Nanuet, NY. I asked her what was wrong and she replied that she had just been remembering how Corpus Christi was celebrated in her home town in Bavaria, where it was a national holiday and celebrated with great beauty and devotion. The procession today will be an effort to revive that practice.
Medieval theologians and poets liked to reflect on what they called the corpus Christi triforme, the threefold Body of Christ, the three meanings of the phrase “Body of Christ” that can be gathered from the New Testament. There is, first, the physical Body of Christ that was born of the Virgin, walked this earth, knew our experiences of hunger and thirst and weariness, was nailed to a cross, was raised from the dead, and now sits in glory at God’s right hand. Second, there is the same Body of Christ that becomes present in mystery in the eucharist. Originally, this was called the “mystical” Body of Christ because brought upon the altar in the sacramental mystery. Finally, there is the Body of Christ that is the Church, that we are, that we become because, as St. Paul says in today’s second reading, “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.”
The three meanings were related dynamically. The body of Christ that endured the passion and won our redemption becomes present as we commemorate his death and resurrection, and as we receive this Body under the form of bread, as St. Augustine famously put it, “we become what we eat”: we become the very Body of Christ that we receive. The eucharist pointed beyond itself, moved beyond itself, to the unity of the Church, the final purpose, goal, of this eucharistic dynamism.
We have perhaps lost this sense of the unity of Church and eucharist. We have sometimes focused on the eucharist in itself, or as a gift to us as individuals, to the neglect of its power to integrate all our differences in a social body that is not just any social unit but is the very Body of Christ, so that we are members of Christ, members of one another, so that when one member suffers all suffer, when one member rejoices all rejoice. In turn, we have sometimes focused on institutional dimensions of the Church, seeing it as simply an organization with structures of authority and lots of rules and regulations, to the neglect of the vital, that is, living unity brought about by our common share in the bread and in the cup. But the two go together: as the adage has it: “The Church makes the eucharist, and the eucharist makes the Church.”
This is not just a theory for theologians to ponder. It should be the reality of our common worship. Any one of us can be in immediate relationship with God in prayer; we do not have to come together for that. But Christians have always come together on the Lord’s day to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, to break bread together, since the very first days of their history. In fact, the Greek word we translate as “Church” means “assembly,” “gathering,” an actual gathering, actual assembly, like this one, here and now. Christians have always sensed that they have to gather if they are to be a Church; they have to be Christians together, brought beyond their individuality into a common life as the Body of Christ. We are engaged in something together: we are not just 200 individuals here, each doing his or her own thing, only accidentally related to the person next to us. We come together to hear the same Word of God; we profess our faith together; we remember our common origin in the death and resurrection of Christ; and we, many as we are, receive the same bread and drink from the same cup and so become what we receive: Christ’s own Body.
This feast, then, can be an occasion not only to celebrate the mystery after which this parish is named, but also to gain a fuller awareness and a deeper appreciation of the mystery we celebrate every time we come together.
Corpus Christi – June 14, 2009 – Blessed Sacrament
This feast is the patronal feast of this Shrine dedicated to the Most Blessed Sacrament, and so it is appropriate that we spend a few moments reflecting on this central element of our Catholic faith and life. For that purpose, I would like to make use of a traditional Latin eucharistic hymn, written in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas as part of the liturgy for today’s feast. It is a wonderfully concise and poetic evocation of the theology of the Holy Eucharist that St. Thomas developed in his great work, the Summa theologica. Here is how it goes: O sacrum convivium in quo Christus sumitur, recolitur memoria passionis ejus, mens impletur gratia, et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. “Oh sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
This is, first of all, a sacred banquet, a convivium, the Latin word from which our English word “conviviality” comes. The Eucharist is something we do with others; it is a social event, an event within our life together. We are not alone–I don’t suppose we would use the word “banquet” to describe a meal that someone eats alone. We should think of an occasion when people come together for a banquet in honor of someone or to celebrate an anniversary, or, perhaps most appropriately, of a wedding reception. This is, of course, one of the biblical images of the Kingdom employed by Christ; it is the event in which he himself took part at Cana; and we cannot forget the meals that he took with his disciples, for which he was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners, nor, of course, the last meal he took with his disciples before he went to his death.. St. Augustine said that every eucharist is a celebration of the marriage between Christ and his Church, that is, between Christ and us. In any case, the Mass is not something that anyone of us is doing alone. We are here with others, enjoying what they enjoy, with the joy greater, not lesser, for being shared with others, receiving what they received. Listen to the prayers of the Mass and note that all the major ones are in the first-person plural.
Three dimensions of what we are doing and what we are receiving here are then set out in the hymn. The first is that “the memory of Christ’s passion is renewed.” “Passion” here does not mean only Christ’s suffering, but the whole saving event of his “passing” to the Father, his death and resurrection, and indeed his entire life and deeds. This memory is renewed through the readings of the Scriptures, the center of the first part of the Mass. In them Christ becomes present through our remembering him and his words and his deeds, so that through the Scriptures he continues to enlighten and instruct us, to challenge and correct us, to comfort and confirm us. And especially in each Eucharist we obey Christ’s injunction at the Last Supper when he commanded his disciples to “Do this in memory of me”–Do this so that he will be remembered, remembered because encountered once again in the Scriptures and in the Eucharist.
If in that way what we do here looks back to the past, it also looks forward: the hymn says: “A pledge of future glory is given to us.” Here once again we recall the parables of the Kingdom as a great wedding feast that a King holds for his son. A Eucharist anticipates the banquet that will gather all God’s people together for an endless feast of life, light, and love. That is why everyone is welcome at a Eucharist, because to that eternal feast shall come people from every tribe and nation, and we cannot truly anticipate that final banquet if our own gathering is not also catholic already.
And between the past to which we look back in memory and the future to which we look forward in hope, there is the present moment when our minds, our souls, our hearts, are filled with grace. We live between memory and hope, between past and future, which assure us a different present, defined by all for which we are grateful and by all to which we aspire. Through the faith and through this sacrament of faith we are now in communion with Christ and in him in communion with each other and indeed with all the holy ones who are already with him and whose presence we acknowledge at each Eucharist when we take up ourselves the “Holy! Holy! Holy!” which they endlessly sing in praise of God and of his Christ.
In all these ways, the Eucharist is indeed the “sacred banquet in which Christ is received.” He is received in his Word; he is received in memory and in hope; he is received in the Body that was broken for us and in the Blood that was poured out for us; he is received in the love that this all evokes in us.
All this is lovely, and lofty, theology, but we should not think of it as true in some ideal world. No, it states the truth about what actually happens when we gather for the Eucharist, or at least the truth about what may happen, or ought to happen, when we gather. For none of it happens automatically or magically. It happens to the degree that we all bring our faith, our hope, and our love to these eucharistic celebrations. If we are inattentive, or merely passive, then none of this happens, but if we are alert, if we can respond in the Creed with a genuine “I believe” to the evocation of the memory of Christ and with a genuine “Amen” to the great prayer of thanksgiving, if we receive the Body and the Blood in faith and in love, then all this does happen, and the great and sacred banquet is realized among us, “in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”