Today, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Also known as ‘Corpus Christi’, this feast dates back to the 13th century. In some countries, it is marked by colourful processions. It is a way for Catholics to publicly display our faith and our reverence for the Blessed Sacrament. Priests and the faithful process slowly through the streets with the Blessed Sacrament, praying and singing hymns as they follow a path that has been decorated with flowers and wreaths. In Canada, it is always celebrated on the Sunday after Holy Trinity Sunday.1
The teaching that Jesus is truly present in the Sacrament of the Eucharist is one of the central beliefs of our Catholic faith. It is also one of the most challenging beliefs, for it asks us to believe by faith something that we cannot experience through our senses. This teaching was as difficult for the followers of Jesus as it is for us today. In John 6:60, we read, “Many of [Jesus’] disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Because Jesus insisted that His flesh really is food, and His blood really is drink, some of them were so scandalized that they refused to follow Him any longer. (cf. Jn 6:53-57, 66)
Despite the scepticism of unbelievers, the Church continues to cling steadfastly to the Word of our Lord. She teaches – just as Jesus did – that the Body and Blood of Christ, together with His Soul and Divinity, is “truly, really, and substantially contained” in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.2 The Council of Trent (1551) defined this truth, saying: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”3
The Feast of Corpus Christi exists in order to help us remember that Christ is truly here, that He is actually present among us. For those who struggle with this truth of our faith, St. Cyril of Alexandria leaves us with these encouraging words: “Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.”4
– Sharon van der Sloot
1 The institution of the celebration of Corpus Christi came about after 40 years of work on the part of Juliana of Liège, a religious woman. In 1208, she had a vision of Christ, who asked her to plead for the institution of such a feast day. The vision was repeated for the next 20 years, however she kept it a secret. When she finally told her confessor, he told the Bishop. In 1246, Bishop Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liège, convened a synod and ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi be held each year within his diocese. The celebration became widespread, and in 1264, Pope Urban IV declared Corpus Christi an official celebration in the Catholic rite.
2 Cf. CCC, 1374. (Council of Trent (1551); DS 1651.)
3 Council of Trent (1551): DS 1642; cf. Mt 26:26 ff.; Mk 14:22 ff.; Lk 22:19 ff.; 1 Cor 11:24 ff. Quoted in CCC 1376.
4 St. Cyril of Alexandria, In Luc. 22, 19: PG 72, 912; cf. Paul VI, MF 18. Quoted in CCC, 1381.
As we reflect on the significance of the celebration of Corpus Christi, it is good to ponder what truly happens when we receive ‘communion’, that is, the Body and Blood of Christ. The following reflection was written by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household.
The Two Bodies of Christ
Gospel Commentary for Corpus Christi, May 23, 2008
by Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.
In the second reading St. Paul presents the Eucharist as a mystery of communion: “Brothers and sisters: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
Communion means exchange, sharing. Now, this is the fundamental rule of sharing: that which is mine is yours and what is yours is mine. Let’s try to apply this rule to Eucharistic communion. In doing so we will see its greatness.
What do I have that is truly “mine”? Misery, sin: This alone belongs to me exclusively. What does Jesus have that is “his” if not holiness, the perfection of all the virtues? So, communion consists in the fact that I give Jesus my sin and my poverty, and he gives me holiness. In this the “admirabile commercium,” or “wonderful exchange,” as the liturgy defines it, is realized.
We know about different kinds of communion. One very intimate type of communion is that between us and the food we eat — it becomes flesh of our flesh and bone of my bone. I have heard mothers say to their children as they hugged and kissed them: “I love you so much I could gobble you up!”
It is true that food is not a living and intelligent person with whom we can share thoughts and affection, but let’s suppose for a moment that food is itself living and intelligent: Would we not have perfect communion in that case? But this is precisely what happens in the communion of the Eucharist. Jesus says in the Gospel: “I am the living bread come down from heaven. […] My flesh is true food. […] Whoever eats my flesh will have eternal life.” Here food is not a simple thing, but a living person. This is the most intimate of communions, even if the most mysterious.
Look at what happens in the natural world in regard to nourishment. The stronger vital principle assimilates the weaker one. The vegetable assimilates the mineral; the animal assimilates the vegetable. Even in the relationship between Christ and man this law is at work. It is Christ who assimilates us to himself; we are transformed into him, he is not transformed into us. A famous atheist materialist said: “Man is what he eats.” Without knowing it, he gave a perfect definition of the Eucharist. Thanks to the Eucharist, man truly becomes what he eats: the body of Christ!
Let us read the rest of the text from St. Paul: “Because there is one bread, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It is clear that in this second case the word “body” no longer refers to the body of Christ born of Mary but refers to “all of us,” it refers to that greater body of Christ that is the Church. This means that Eucharistic communion is always communion among us. Eating the one bread we become one body.
What follows from this? We cannot be in communion with Christ if we are divided among ourselves, if we hate each other, if we are not ready to be reconciled. If you have offended your brother, St. Augustine said, if you have committed an injustice against him, and go and receive communion as if nothing had happened, perhaps full of fervor before Christ, then you are like a person who sees a friend coming toward him whom he has not seen for some time. He runs to meet him, he throws his arms around his neck and goes to kiss him. But in doing this he does not see that he is kicking him with spikes. Our brothers, especially the poor ones and the derelicts, are members of Christ, they are his feet that are still on earth. In offering us the host the priest says, “The Body of Christ.” We answer, “Amen!” We now know to whom we are saying “Amen,” “Yes.” It is not only to Jesus, the Son of God, but to our neighbor.
On the feast of Corpus Christi I cannot hide a certain sadness. There are certain forms of mental illness that prevent people from being able to recognize persons who are close to them. They continue to call out for hours: “Where is my son? Where is my wife? Why don’t they come?” And maybe the son and wife are there holding their hand and saying: “I’m here. Don’t you see me? I’m with you!” This also happens with God. Our contemporaries look for God in the cosmos or in the atom; they debate over whether there is a God who created the world. They continue to ask: “Where is God?” They do not realize that he is with us and in fact that he became food and drink to be united to us even more intimately. Sadly, John the Baptist had to repeat: “There is one among you whom you do not know.” The feast of Corpus Christi was born precisely to help Christians be aware of this presence of Christ among us, to keep alive what John Paul II called “Eucharistic wonder.”1
1 Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap., “The Two Bodies of Christ,” trans. Joseph G. Trabbic (online news service]; Zenit; available from http://www.zenit.org/en/articles/the-two-bodies-of-christ; Internet; accessed 28 May 2013.