On the night before giving His life on the cross, Jesus instituted the Eucharist, the gift of his Body and Blood, in the form of bread and wine, as the perpetual passover sacrifice for his followers. This was done in the context of what is traditionally called the Last Supper. The solemnity we celebrate this Sunday centers on the gift of the Body and Blood of the Lord, which we partake in at Holy Mass (the Eucharist) until the Lord comes again in glory at the end of the ages.
Instituting the Eucharist at the time when the Jewish Passover lambs were being sacrificed, Jesus inaugurated the Christian Passover. As the ancient rite commemorated the freedom of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, so the Christian ritual recalls freedom from sin and death and the gift of new life being offered in and through Christ, who rose from the dead to bring eternal life.
A happy echo of this feast is often seen and heard in the rite of First Communion on Corpus Christi Sunday, when children, and sometimes adults, come to receive for the first time the consecrated bread and wine at the Mass, the Holy Eucharist.
Authentic faith and genuine devotion to God’s are often beautifully expressed at First Communion Masses, and that was certainly the case of my own First Communion on Mother’s Day in 1960, at the end of first grade at Saint Charles Borromeo School in Portland, Oregon. It was a joyous and faith-filled day for us children and our families in attendance. Those were simpler times and I do recall that few if any pictures or videos were taken during the actual ceremony. For sure they were afterwards, but not during!
Did we children in that long ago day really understand the fullness of the mystery of which we were partaking? How could we, but we all have to start somewhere, and the kindly Holy Child nuns had us reverently and genuinely approaching the altar of the Lord in the hope of receiving not ordinary bread, but the Bread of Life, the very Body of Christ. In those days we did not receive from the chalice, but we knew we were receiving of the fullness of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood even in the tiny host.
While the celebration of the Lord’s Body and Blood has been taking place since the Last Supper and continues to be celebrated at every Holy Mass, the more formal feast of “Corpus Christi” has been observed since 1246, beginning in the diocese of Liege in Belgium. The feast entered the Roman Missal for use in the Latin Church later in the same century, incorporating many of the texts composed by the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas, who lived from 1225 to 1274. Aquinas’ words became the hymns for the Mass and Divine Office (Liturgy of the Houses) of this great feast.
From its origin in the Middle Ages, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi was intended to affirm Catholic belief in the Real Presence of the Risen Christ in the consecrated bread and wine at Mass. The feast came to be accompanied with processions where the Blessed Sacrament, held in an elaborate monstrance, would be carried to “altars of repose,” for adoration by the faithful and Benediction (blessing) with the Blessed Sacrament.
This practice is still carried out in many places and holds strong memories for me from my home parish celebrating the feast. In those days (the early 1960’s), the Corpus Christi Mass with procession and Benediction afterwards was held on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday. Why Thursday? The idea then was to recall the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. Today Catholics normally keep the feast on the Sunday following Trinity Sunday.
Popular piety has certainly waned in many places since the late 1960’s, especially in cultures other than African, Asian and Latino. Nonetheless, in the best Catholic tradition, the Eucharist, Holy Mass, wherever it is celebrated, remains the source and summit of belief and practice.
Firm belief in the Body and Blood Christ and regular reception of the Blessed Sacrament or Holy Communion is fundamental to Catholic doctrine, spirituality and growth in holiness. This is our inheritance. Let us joyfully embrace the gift of “finest wheat” which God offers us regularly, even every day.
The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century, including Zwingli, Calvin, Luther and others, taught that the Holy Eucharist was simply a symbol. The unbroken teaching of the Church is that we behold and receive in the Eucharist the Real Presence of the Risen Lord, who promised to be with us until the end of time. It is a great mystery yet at the same time a simple truth: God-is-with-us in a very special and singular way in the Blessed Sacrament, both received at Holy Communion and adored in the tabernacle or exposed on the altar at Exposition and Benediction.
The Mass, Holy Eucharist, is the sacrifice or offering of the new covenant in the Blood of Christ. It is likewise the offering of the faithful, God’s people, united to Jesus in praise of the One God.
Saint Paul the Apostle preached that the entire life of a Christian is a prolongation of the Eucharist, as a spiritual sacrifice offered to God in union with Christ. For this reason, Saint Paul exhorted his hearers to offer themselves as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the message for each of us today as well and the heart of our religion and worship, in spirit and in truth (see Saint Paul’s Letter to the Roman, chapter 12, verse 1).
We should not come to Mass out of mere obligation, but because the Eucharistic celebration is an integral part of our life in Christ and our communion with others. The celebration and reception of the Eucharist should be our strength and joy, a commitment in faith and love that gives meaning to all our existence.
We aren’t Christians because we go to Mass, but we go to Mass because we are Christians, to celebrate God’s unbounded love for us and to participate in the action that followers of Christ have engaged in since the Lord walked among his own.
The Mass never ends, we might say, because at the conclusion of every Mass we are “sent forth,” to announce the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, to the ends of the earth, by our words and especially by our deeds (“actions, not words,” the nuns always taught us as children). As tabernacles of the Lord, by receiving His Body and Blood, we are commissioned with a special task that not everyone has embraced: to be bearers of Christ, christophers (cristoferos, in Greek), to all people, until our final breath. Could there be a higher call?
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB,