Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi. If you want to sound smart, you can call it the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It sounds important. And it is.
This day is important because on this day, every year, we remind ourselves of who our God is and what he has done for us.
Who is our God? Our God is almighty. He existed before all time and he made all things. He is more vast than the universe and holds each one of us in the palm of his hand. That’s who our God is.
And yet, and yet — in our Lord Jesus Christ, God became a man. He walked with us and lived with us here on earth and he shared the dirt and the sweat and the blood of our lives. He died for us. But he triumphed over death. And he is here still: he comes to us every Sunday, every day, at every mass, in the form of ordinary wine and plain bread. And we hold him in the palm of our hands. That’s what our God does for us.
Why does the Church make such a fuss about this feast, Corpus Christi? The older members of the congregation will remember that the time-honored Catholic custom on this day is to lift up the Blessed Sacrament after Mass — to take the consecrated bread which is the real presence of our Lord — and put it on display. This is a day for processions. Remember processions? This day, Corpus Christi, is when we take the Blessed Sacrament, this little Host, and carry it out of the church, out of the building, and into the streets. We put our greatest treasure out on the street. It doesn’t seem very discreet.
Processions happen in some places even today, and last year at this time I processed down the streets of our city with more than a thousand people. The Blessed Sacrament was held up in the middle of the crowd. There were bands and uniformed guards and children in folk costumes. But all I could think was: this is the street where the Number 5 bus runs four times an hour. There’s that noisy all-night restaurant. That’s where I got my shoes fixed — right here on this corner. And here comes Jesus, disguised as bread, being carried by our bishop, past the bus stop and the parking lot, right down the middle of this city street. And Jesus says on those streets, as he said on the streets of Jerusalem, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Who thought of these processions? Who thought of doing such a thing? Well, the real answer, the most profound answer, is that God thought of it. When our Lord came to us as a little child, he was already showing us how he wanted to reveal himself to us and how he intended to stay with us. He was telling us that he wanted come right into the fabric of our daily lives, onto our streets and into our bodies — in this humble and intimate way.
But another answer to the question, “Who thought of these processions?” is a plain and simple one: a Belgian lady. A Belgian lady is responsible for these processions all over the word. The Lord moves in a mysterious way, and he works through ordinary people. So we can say that it was this one woman, Juliana of Liege, who was orphaned with her twin sister at the age of five. Juliana worked for about forty years — with all the challenges and limitations of a woman living in the Middle Ages — she prayed and she spoke and she wrote letters to convince the Church to add this feast, Corpus Christi, to its official liturgical calendar. And she succeeded, with God’s help.
Juliana, Saint Juliana, looked for the Lord and found him in the Holy Eucharist. She sensed in her bones what a gift the Blessed Sacrament is. And when she heard the words of the Book of Deuteronomy, these same words we heard today, she knew that God was speaking to her: “Do not forget the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt… who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its… serpents and scorpions… who brought forth water for you from the flinty rock and fed you in the desert with manna….” Do not forget! Do not forget who your God is and what God has done for you. This plain bread is manna, it is the Bread of Heaven. This feast is on our calendar today so that we never, never forget.
In its holy liturgy for this Sunday the Church advises us to sing a sequence, which is a long and intense poem, that describes the Blessed Sacrament. We Catholics believe that when Jesus said, “this is my body” and, “this is my blood” while he held the bread and the wine at the Last Supper — we believe our Lord meant what he said. Both the bread and the wine, when consecrated by the priest at Mass, contain even in their smallest particles the whole of our Lord: the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, as the Catechism says. That is awesome. But it’s also overwhelming. And that’s when we turn from the clear dogmatic language of the Catechism to the words of the poet. A poet can help us to feel and to intuit these mysteries that our mind cannot hold.
Today the Church asks us to listen to a very distinguished poet. And that poet is a priest — a priest, a Dominican, and probably our greatest Catholic theologian: Saint Thomas Aquinas. You don’t think of saints writing poetry, but many of them do. Because even Saint Thomas — especially Saint Thomas, with his brilliant systematic mind, knew when to shut up. He knew when to turn off his analyst’s microscope and put away his professor’s cap and approach God in wonder, with the heart; with faith made stronger by reason.
Saint Thomas looked at the Lord coming to us in the Eucharist. He thought of God stooping down to come into our bodies in the form of bread and wine. He saw Jesus brought out of churches and carried in procession through the streets of the wild medieval cities that he knew. And this is what he wrote:
Lauda Sion Salvatórem
Lauda ducem et pastórem
Zion, lift your voice and sing;
Praise your Savior and your King.
(Zion, mount Zion, is the hill in Jerusalem on which Jesus instituted the Eucharist. The Upper Room, this plain stone room, was on mount Zion, and it is still there today.)
Saint Thomas goes on:
Nor a single doubt retain, …
But that in each part remains
What was in the whole before.
Nought the precious gift divides, …
Jesus still the same abides,
still unbroken does remain.
This prayer describes a great mystery, but it is beautifully clear — not mysterious. Saint Thomas reassures each one of us. He says to you and he says to me: yes, Jesus really does come to you, whole and entire, in every drop of wine and every particle of consecrated bread. Yes, Jesus actually chose to come to you that way. He truly is that humble. He is truly that loving. He really does this, just to be close to you.
We have to wake up today — wake up and look with new eyes at what we do here in this church every Sunday when we form a line and shuffle up to receive communion. What is really going on?
In this same sequence, Saint Thomas describes a church full of people approaching the altar to swallow the Body of Christ:
Thousands are, as one, receivers,
One, as thousands of believers,
Eats of him who cannot waste.
This reminds me of something I experienced in the course of my religious formation. One afternoon in May we were made acolytes, which meant we could help at mass in distributing communion. And the next Sunday, there I was in the middle of a really crowded church, and I did what priests do at every mass. I picked up a Host with my fingers and held it out to someone I had never seen before and said, “The Body of Christ.” “Amen.” And to the next person: “The Body of Christ.” And, one after the other, the whole church seemed to pass in front of me in a sort of procession. Very old people and little children. Mothers with babies. People on crutches and in wheelchairs, teenagers with crazy hairdos, pious old nuns, one after the other. And to every one, to every one, the same:
The Body of Christ. The Body of Christ.
Each man and each woman, each member of the Church, receives God Almighty, whole and entire. To each one and everyone, one at a time:
The Body of Christ. The Body of Christ.
Christ is coming to you. Now, no less than before. He is coming to you in all his majesty as if you were the only one in the world. Before all time, he knew you. He formed you in your mother’s womb. He is here now. And he will feed you.
Let’s learn again this Sunday to be hungry for him — to hunger for the Body of Christ. Let’s approach the table of the Lord with sincerity and pray with Saint Juliana as Saint Thomas prayed:
Thou, who feedeth us below:
Source of all we have or know:
Grant that with Thy Saints above,
Sitting at the feast of love,
We may see Thee face to face. Amen.