The Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharistic host. One of the events that inspired the institution of the feast was a vision granted Fr. Peter of Prague in 1263. He had doubted the presence of Christ in the sacrament until he had a vision of blood dripping from the host as he consecrated it. This vision, along with earlier visions of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon, led Pope Urban IV to order the institution of this feast. Of other Eucharistic visions I’ve heard of, it is better to be silent rather than ruin today’s celebration.
I happen to have a high devotion to the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and the two great hymns that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote for the feast are edifying. But the problem with focusing on the presence of Christ in the Sacrament is that it circumscribes the consecrated host and seems to imprison Christ in it. This is to take the Eucharistic mystery out of context. After all, the phrase Corpus Christi is used in the New Testament to refer to the Church and not the sacrament by itself. Benediction has the danger of re-creating this isolation and its origins aren’t reassuring. It derives from a devotion to see the elevation of the Host at Mass, which is fine, except that this viewing was in place of receiving the Host or even of worshiping in community. There are stories of people who would rove from Mass to Mass to see as many elevations as possible! My theology professor in seminary, Arthur Vogel, railed against Benediction because it treated the sacrament as an object rather than an integral part of a dynamic celebration.
Corpus Christi processions have the same danger, but they do bring a communal aspect to the feast. Just a few years ago I found the custom alive and well in Innsbruck. I attended Mass at the cathedral where it was standing room only. After the Mass, there was a procession throughout the town with devotions read by the mayor and other dignitaries and the Landwehr fired off salutes with their rifles.
In John 6 Jesus speaks of his presence in the bread from Heaven in a dynamic way where those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him as he abides in us. In isolation, these verses suggest a relationship with individual believers but the broader context is the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, which was a communal event if there ever was one. Jesus, then, does not abide in us on an individual basis but abides in all of us as a sharing community. If we eat the Body of Christ, we are eating the very generosity and self-giving of Jesus. If we don’t give of ourselves, we have missed abiding in the community that abides in Jesus.
St. Paul’s recounting of the Last Supper begins with the solemn words that he is handing on the tradition as it was handed on to him. He then quotes what are called the Words of Institution, the words traditionally believed to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. When put this way, we again have the sacrament restricted to a few words and Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic elements. St. Paul, however, provides many more words to the social context of the Eucharist, namely that the Corinthians should be sharing the food they bring to the celebration with the poorer members of the congregation rather than flaunting their feasting in front of those deprived. That is, it is not enough to discern the presence of Christ in the sacrament; it is also necessary to discern the body in all of God’s people.
The leaders of the Liturgical Movement of the last century, Lambert Beauduin in Belgium and Virgil Michel in the United States, grounded their liturgical principles, featuring engaged participation of the laity, with a theology of the Church as the Body of Christ. More importantly, they argued that the Eucharist is a sign and dynamic of social change, especially in ameliorating life for the poor. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement worked very closely with Michel to this end. Far from being trapped in the bread and wine or in a monstrance, Christ is running wild throughout the world, changing not only bread and wine, but people and the whole fabric of society.