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.
I apologize in advance for such a lengthy comment. This is something I am quite passionate about RW
Some while back, I was invited to a private Mass at my brother and sister in law’s home in preparation for their daughter leaving the country on missionary work in Africa. The celebrant was a Roman Catholic priest who is noted for his devotion to the Eucharist. At the consecration, his devotion and faith were quite evident. During the communion, however, something struck me as just “off center”, not quite right.
At communion, the priest, rather than breaking the large host and distributing it to the 5 or 6 of those present, he took it for himself and the rest of us were given the usual individual wafers. While doctrinally correct, this atrocious pastoral practice was one of the occurrences that led to this reflection on the Eucharist.
The Church is weak and sick. Some parts are dying or have already died.
I have come to the conclusion we have brought it on ourselves by not heeding Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians: 27-32 and by twisting it to fit our theological agendas.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
We have spilled so much ink and blood focusing on the issue of “what happens to the bread and wine” that we have indeed failed to “discern the body”.
We have gotten wrapped around the theological axle over “Transubstantiation”, “Consubstantiation”, “Nonsubstantiation” (OK, I made that one up) and no telling how many other unsubstantiated substantiations that we have lost count. This is not to mention the fights over leavened or unleavened bread, wine or grape juice, whether Jesus is still present when everyone goes home, whether bread AND wine/grape juice is required or only bread constitutes the Sacrament/ordinance/memorial. Some claim that by looking at the consecrated bread we are actually looking at Jesus. Others claim that it’s only a “memorial”.
Many in the Western world, especially our young people, choose to say “so what?”
For most of Christian history and in many cultures, this is not an issue. Today, things are different.
In contemporary Western society our theology has folded like a cheap tent in a windstorm before the onslaught of the hurricane generated by the Enlightenment and Postmodern thought.
This is a tragedy. In our current societies marked by so much alienation and meaninglessness and (whether we admit it or not) are most in need of what Paul was doing, the message has been reduced to theological twaddle. Asking most people in these circumstances to “just go back to ‘that old time religion’ isn’t going to hack it.
We must go back to what Paul meant when he was talking about “discerning the body.” (Hint: he wasn’t talking about “substantiantions”, Trans, Con, or otherwise.)
Paul’s entire worldview was shaped by the little incident on the Damascus road – you know the story: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME”. Not “Them”. Not “My Followers”. “ME”. Needless to say, this made a pretty profound impression on the man who would become “Paul”.
Paul came to experience that those followers of “The Way” were, in fact, the literal, walking, talking presence of the Jesus whom they claimed was the promised Messiah or “Anointed One”. This Jesus of Nazareth had lived as a Jew (like Paul) proclaiming “God’s Reign was at hand” and backing it up with signs, was crucified by the Romans with the connivance of the Jewish religious establishment, was raised from the dead and seen alive by his disciples along with 500 or so of his followers and after he no longer appeared to them the power of “God’s Spirit” was manifest in the gathering of his followers.
The former “Saul” set out to replicate those gatherings, believing that the message was not only for the Jews, but for the “uncircumcised” as well. The rest of his life would be consumed with establishing communities which were the “Body” of this risen Messiah or “Christ”. The life in these communities would overturn the social conventions of the Roman world where people were divided by class, sex, nationality and ethnicity. To Paul, the only difference was between those “In Christ” and those who were not. Contemporary spiritual teachers such as Richard Rohr would even go so far as to say “Those who KNOW they are in Christ and those who have yet to realize it”. As Rohr would put it, “The gift not received is, in fact, not given.”
And what was Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians about? It wasn’t whether or not they “believed” the correct theology about the bread and wine, or whether or not they were in a “state of grace” or somehow “worthy” but whether they recognized what their behavior was doing to the “body” – the literal, walking, talking presence of Jesus that Paul had experienced that day on the way to Damascus. In those places, the reconciliation of all things under Christ was occurring. Not just reconciliation with the unseen God “up” or “out” “there”, but the realization and celebration of a God incarnated in each and every one of those who had been adopted into relationship. True “religion” – the re-joining of what had been separated, as opposed to “religiosity” – the rituals, the trappings, the “magic” of what is usually understood as “religion”.
The explosive growth of “Christendom” after the Edict of Milan coupled with the Church becoming the State Religion of the Empire ended persecution but opened a whole different set of problems. What had once been a communal meal now became more and more ritualized. The increasing rise of “professional” clergy and an increasingly institutionalized organization dedicated toward the Emperor’s agenda of social cohesion further distanced the church from the original Pauline vision.
The next 1500 years brought about the current situation. Perhaps the Post-Constantinian developments were inevitable. Perhaps they brought about good – many good and holy people (read Benedict, Francis of Assisi) certainly kept Paul’s vision before them, but considering the unholy alliance between Empire and Church, this was somewhat of a “Minority Report”.
My contention is that if the Church is to be the agent of creating disciples (followers of Jesus) and apostles (witnesses to the Resurrection sent forth) we need to revisit Paul’s notion of “discerning the body” and face up to the radical implications of the incarnation in our theology of the Eucharist.
We must recognize the Eucharist is about the unity of the body at the table, just as Jesus reconciled all things in Heaven and on Earth through His life, death, resurrection and ascension. We must stop seeing it as something done “for” us, rather what is done “by” us and “in” us. If we walk out the doors after Mass and do not realize we have been transformed into the Body of Christ (a real transubstantiation) I believe we have (in the words of Tom and Ray Magliozzi on NPR’s Car Talk) wasted a perfectly good hour of our time.
The Eucharist, at least in the Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican traditions is seen as the very core of worship. When it becomes both the sign and the reality of our reconciliation with one another (How many times have we considered that at the Last Supper Simon the Zealot was present alongside Matthew the Tax Collector for the hated Romans?) and sends us forth to participate in God’s mission of reconciling all of creation to himself, then we will TRULY be engaging in worship.