Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB Catechesis on Corpus Christi
Brothers and Sisters,
I would like to offer some catechesis on the feast we are keeping this coming Sunday.
It was instituted for the whole Roman rite in 1264, by Pope Urban IV (incidentally, the same Pope who, in another document, took the new monastic community at Pluscarden under papal protection). Its proper day is Thursday – because of the echo of Maundy Thursday. And many countries keep it then. Many also, though, have moved it to the following Sunday, as in Scotland. This is done to bring more people together.
Feasts have a setting in the liturgical year; they have a history; they have a character, a feel; and they have their own language. Let’s look at each in turn.
As mentioned in a previous catechesis, the setting of this feast is as part of a post-Pentecostal trio: Holy Trinity, Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart. These feasts each look back on the Church’s year so far, Advent to Pentecost, and try to burrow deep into it and bring out hidden treasure. The feast of Corpus Christi looks back at the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, and so to speak holds it up for our contemplation. Tantum ergo Sacramentum. The Eucharist sums up, recapitulates, the whole “economy” of Christ. The poet George Mackay Brown puts it well in a short story; a priest is speaking: “This Bread that I will raise above your kneeling, It is entire Christ – Annunciation, Nativity, Transfiguration, Passion, Death, Resurrection, Ascension, Majesty, gathered up into one perfect offering.” It’s the whole Christ-Event, as the theologians say. Including the Parousia, the coming at the end of time. The Eucharist brings it all into our here and now, and makes it sacramentally live. It’s not a picture on the mantelpiece. It’s not something in the archives. Given this, and that Maundy Thursday falls in Holy Week, in a crowded time, it seemed good to allow the Eucharist a second space in the liturgical year and so allow us to feel its full force, and linger over it.
Another connection is to Pentecost. It’s after Pentecost that the apostles began doing the Eucharist, breaking the Bread. The Eucharist belongs to the “time of the Church.” It’s a sign of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church through time, even on a rainy evening in Fochabers or a windy day on Fairisle. The Holy Spirit draws believers together, empowers priests to consecrate, transforms bread and wine into the Lord’s Body and Blood and makes us “one body and one spirit” in him.
The feast of the Trinity is echoed too: the Father gives the Son in the Eucharist by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s Sacred blood-giving Heart is also revealed. So many connections here. Interestingly, a bishop is supposed to be in his cathedral on this day – as at Christmas, the Easter Triduum and Pentecost. It’s a feast the Church holds high.
That’s the setting.
Liturgy has a history too. And this feast very much so. Its origins are in the Low Countries of the 13th c. The leading and organising of the liturgy can seem an exclusively male business, but there have been feminine influences too. The procession with candles of Candlemas was the initiative many centuries ago of a Palestinian abbess. The 2nd Sunday of Easter is called Divine Mercy – it’s owed, as we know, to St Faustina Kowalska. St Margaret Mary Alacoque is linked to the feast of the Sacred Heart. For its part, Corpus Christi is owed to a 13th c. Béguine – not an enclosed nun, but a woman dedicated to a religious life. Her name was Juliana. She hailed from Liège in Belgium. In her prayer or a dream, she saw a full moon, lacking one part, with one dark spot. The moon was a symbol of the Church, its roundness of the liturgical year, and the dark in it the lack of a feast of the Eucharist. The Lord wanted the gap filled. The Dominicans, still in their early years, took this up. Then, by the strange workings of providence, a sympathetic diocesan priest of Liège became Pope, Urban IV, instituted the feast and charged the Dominican Thomas Aquinas to compose the liturgy for it – which is still essentially what we have today. Later, a procession would become part of the celebration.
Every feast has its setting; every feast has its history. Every feast also has its own feel, character, atmosphere. And Corpus Christi very much so, especially when linked with the first Holy Communions of children and outdoor processions. Summer in the northern hemisphere, a chance to take the faith outdoors, white garments, singing, flowers, a festal feel. Many strands come together here. Surely, a sense of the Eucharist as a great gift, the Giver completely given in the gift: “this is my body, this is my blood”, a real and self-giving presence of the Bridegroom to his Bride the Church. If there is a procession, we sense Christ walking with us through history. The spirituality, the piety which generated this feast was passionate for a real, felt, savoured, outer and inner connection with Christ, affecting our bodies and souls: “take and eat”. That’s there too. Also conveyed is a sense of the Eucharist as a culmination of God’s history with us, the climax to a story of drawing close. Many of the Old Testament types and figures, as we call them, are mentioned: the mysterious pagan priest Melchizedek with his offering of bread and wine, the paschal lamb, the covenant made in bulls’ blood at Mt Sinai, the manna in the desert; there are phrases about the Lord feeding his people from the Psalms and we hear of the figure of Wisdom putting on a banquet for humanity. Jesus speaks of the real food he has to offer, multiplies bread for the crowds, makes himself known in the breaking of bread. In the letter by which he established the feast – really the first papal encyclical on the Eucharist, Transiturus – Pope Urban IV goes all the way back to Genesis and first, flawed eating of forbidden fruit. He sees the Eucharist undoing the story of sin, changing the human trajectory. “It was through food man fell and through food he’s lifted up again. Man fell by means of the food of the death-giving tree; man is raised up by the food of the life-giving tree. On the former hung the food of death; on the latter the nourishment of life. Eating of the former earned a wound; the taste of this latter restores health. Eating wounded us, and eating heals us…About that [first] eating, it was said, ‘On whatever day you eat it you shall die’; about this eating, he said, ‘Whoever eats this bread shall live for ever’” (Transiturus). Here the Eucharist reverses the dynamics, the direction of travel which selfishness promotes. The choice is between my self and Christ’s Self, between taking to oneself and giving from oneself, between hoarding and sharing. The Eucharist is the centre of gravity for the Church and through her for everything; a place of convergence, not of divergence. It’s true that not every person, not every believer, can at a given moment receive the Holy Eucharist – there are conditions of approach – but everyone is called in this direction. We walk a road of faith, conversion, belonging. The Eucharist is the place of reconciliation beyond our differences, an anticipation of the final communion at the marriage feast of the Lamb. The Eucharist is “unity and peace” (Prayer over the Gifts). The Eucharist says every life matters, all life matters. This feast has a very generous feel to it. It’s a cry to the whole world. It’s the Gospel in bread and wine.
Every feast, too, has its own language, its own rhetoric. Here, unsurprisingly, it’s of food and nourishment – but not any food. So, we hear of banquet, finest wheat, honey from the rock, hidden manna, bread from heaven, bread of angels, sweetness, savour, delight, joy. “The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent empty away.” “The poor will eat and be satisfied”. All this conveys a sense of fullness. This is the food, food that satisfies the emptiness of human hearts, the food of eternal life. A food for the poor in spirit and for all those life’s usual satisfactions have bypassed. Edible beatitudes.
And this feast made a poet of St Thomas Aquinas, the theologian. The Mass Sequence is owed to him, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, and the three hymns of the Divine Office, which include the Tantum ergo and the O salutaris Hostia.
So, as with the feast of the Trinity if with a different focus, this is a feast to profess faith. Faith, first of all, in the reality of Jesus’ presence under the appearance of bread and wine, the fruit of what the Germans expressively call die Wandlung, the divine act of transubstantiation. Faith that this bread is now his Body, the wine now his Blood. This is our thanksgiving, offered in his memory to the Father for the living and the dead, and given to us as “real food”, “real drink”. We profess our Catholic faith with relish and gratitude, and distance ourselves from any reductions, any diminishments. And it’s a feast to express that faith in adoration. It’s festal and quiet all at once.
Now, we may say here, that’s fine. But currently I am deprived of the Eucharist. Currently, the most I can do is keep this feast virtually.
It’s worth pausing over this. We have been living a Eucharistic fast, and it would be strange if that didn’t hurt, if we didn’t feel a lack. For many, it’s a wound to the heart of their Christian life. As a priest I have continued to celebrate Mass privately, thank God, but I have felt the lack of a full, visible congregation, bodily present. For most lay people and many religious, it’s the same in reverse, compounded by a still greater lack: no ‘Body of Christ’ to say ‘Amen’ to.
I’d like to address this and offer some alternative perspectives. I want to suggest that this time in a sacramental wilderness has been a time of grace.
So, let’s try thinking differently. Let’s think of ourselves not as deprived of the Eucharist, but as waiting for it. Waiting to return to it, waiting for It to return to us. Let’s think of ourselves in a kind of Eucharistic Advent waiting for the Messiah to come in the flesh. Let’s think of Christ waiting to return to us, think of Mary with Jesus in her womb, waiting to see him and touch him and hold him.
The Church in Portugal, just over a century ago, before the appearances of Mary at Fatima, went through a time of persecution. Churches were closed and the Mass proscribed. This sparked a thoughtful poem from Alice Meynell, a Catholic. It is called, In Portugal, 1912. It’s a fine example of how good poetry can stand us on our heads and help us see things quite differently. It imagines the Eucharistic Christ in waiting:
“And will they cast the altars down,
Scatter the chalice, crush the bread?
In field, in village, and in town
He hides an unregarded head;
Waits in the corn-lands far and near,
Bright in His sun, dark in His frost,
Sweet in the vine, ripe in the ear–
Lonely unconsecrated Host.
In ambush at the merry board
The Victim lurks unsacrificed;
The mill conceals the harvest’s Lord,
The wine-press holds the unbidden Christ.”
We are not being persecuted, but this poem offers us light. “Fruit of the earth and work of human hands”, we say at the Offertory. The poet sees Christ waiting in the cornfields and the vines. Waiting in the mill that is grinding the corn and the wine-press which is crushing the grapes. Lying in ambush in the bread and wine on our tables. In our parishes, children are waiting to make a delayed first Holy Communion. We tell them to use the extra time to prepare, for catechesis and prayer and so on. Perhaps we can do the same ourselves. Perhaps we can use the time to re-appreciate what this Sacrament is, Who it contains. St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, was concerned by the Corinthians’ flippancy regarding the Eucharist. So he said, “Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup” (1 Cor 11:28). Perhaps this fast has happened precisely for us to do this. We might think of our coming return to Communion – maybe by way of Confession – as a new first Communion, a new beginning. And think of Christ wanting to return to us, eager for us.
Here’s another thought that might help. We are not the only ones who have had to wait. There were our forebears in the penal times who, because of persecution and scarcity of priests, would only rarely have received the Sacrament. There are many places in the world today where sacramental life is hindered. There are many people in Asia, Africa, South America to whom the Sacraments are only rarely available. In our waiting we are in solidarity with them. Perhaps we have forgotten how spoiled we are. Perhaps we have been taking too much for granted.
And now to the nub of it. What is the Eucharist? Three things. A mystery to be believed. A mystery to be celebrated. A mystery to be lived. (Cf. the structure of Pope Benedict XVI’s Sacramentum Caritatis, 2007). It’s a mystery to be believed; the Church has a teaching here. A mystery to be celebrated, in the Mass. Most of all, a mystery to be lived. In the natural order, we eat and drink so as to live. In the supernatural order, likewise. Jesus says, “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (Jn 6:57).
Throughout our fasting Advent, we have still believed in the Eucharist. The Eucharist has still been celebrated, broadcast indeed, even if we have not been able to participate in it or only virtually. But the celebration of the Eucharist, even in a prison cell, quite alone, is an action of Christ and the Church. It keeps the gates of the world open to grace, and St Thomas Aquinas teaches that spiritual communion can be as grace-giving as sacramental communion. Most of all, though, we have lived the Eucharist. This has been happening, thank God, even when we haven’t consciously ‘clocked’ it. And this is what counts: not how many times I have been to Mass or Communion, but how the Eucharist has changed my life, how we have been formed and shaped by it and, in St Augustine’s phrase, become what we have received.
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1). So says St Paul. Eucharistic living.
“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Eucharistic living.
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people he claims for his own, to declare his wonderful deeds” (1 Pt 2:9). Eucharistic living.
“Be of a single mind, one in love, one in heart and one in mind. Nothing is to be done out of jealousy or vanity; instead, out of humility of mind, everyone should give preference to others, everyone pursuing not selfish interests but those of others. Make your own the mind of Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:2-5). Eucharistic living.
Faith, hope and charity: that is the Christian life. That is what we will be judged on. Not for a second, over these last three months, has it been impossible to believe or hope or love.
A common life in the body of Christ, which is the Church. Nothing need take that from us. We are always members of each other. “Someone who lives in Rome”, says St John Chrysostom, “knows that he is one body with believers in India”. The extra effort that has been put in to keeping in touch with each other, weaving the coat of Christ; it’s Eucharistic living.
I have been touched by people saying to me things like, “faith seems to me stronger now”; “I have never felt the closeness of God as I have during these weeks”. I have heard this kind of thing from people living alone, people in families. “It has brought our family closer together.” Eucharistic living.
“Christ plays in ten thousand places”, said Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Our last Holy Communion, someone has said, does not have an expiry date. Christ lives in our hearts. Apart from ourselves and our own sins, can anyone or anything take him away from there?
With thoughts like these, we can comfort one another and wait together for the return to our full sacramental life.
Corpus Christi, it is the marriage feast of the Lamb. It looks forward to the final, unveiled, heavenly version. And this marriage goes on everywhere, and there is no end of it. I am echoing the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown here. And it’s brought home to us at every altar. The Bread that’s lifted up is the entire Christ and Love itself, the “Pelican of legend, Jesus, risen Lord” And, “not just we, but “all creation rejoices in the marriage of Christ and His Church, animals, fish, plants, yes, the water, the wind, the earth, the fire, stars, the very smallest grains of dust that blow about” our streets (A Treading of Grapes).
“Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”