Making the Case for Corpus Christi

How are we ever to convince an indifferent world that Christ matters if he is never seen outside of a church?

Pope Francis leads a Eucharistic procession to the Basilica of St. John Lateran where he offered Mass for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on May 30, 2013.

There can be no greater gift than the Holy Eucharist. Period. End of sentence.

And how do we know this? Because if there were anything greater than God breaking himself to become our bread, he would surely have given it to us. And since it is the gift of himself, never mind the clever disguise beneath the accidents of food and drink, it is the most precious possession we have. Nor can there be any greater hunger and thirst than the desire to feast on his Body and Blood, which comes to us every day in that most stupendous festive event we call the Mass.

Even when we long for goods far less nourishing than the Bread of Life, we surely know in some deep and dim way what we’ve given up, and that we’ve taken a pass on the most priceless offer of all. Why would anyone want to walk away from the very source and summit of the Christian life?

“When my Papa invites me to the seaside” sings Anna-Marie Boudreau from her album Hints and Guesses, “will I go or just fill my silly mudpie?”

An invitation from Christ is far more than an outing at the beach; it is a gift no greater than which can be imagined. Refuse to go and you may well forfeit far more than mere sunshine and sand.  

Of course, when Christ comes it is not only in order that we take and eat; he comes also in order that we worship and adore. And nowhere is that fact more stunningly shown than in the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, which represents the sublimest expression of joy and homage humankind can possibly pay to our Eucharistic Lord. 

Initiated in 1246 by St. Juliana of Liège (Belgium), it was approved for the whole of Western Christendom by Pope Urban IV in 1264, who drew upon the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas to compose hymns suitable for its observance. Of which Tantum Ergo is certainly the most widely known and sung. Here is the opening stanza: 

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! The Sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

Ah, yes, the feeble senses. And yet, might not the hymn itself aid in overcoming that particular defect? So that, while the frailties of life in a fallen world will never finally be overcome this side of the grave, nevertheless, the fact that we are lifting our voices to God at all is itself a positive sign. A sign of what exactly? Of Real Presence. Of the fact that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, is here among us, enthroned upon the altar; then taken up and carried aloft in solemn procession through the streets that truly belong to him.

Who in his right mind would choose to reverence anything less? Can someone imagine, say, a piece of toast, buttered or otherwise, ceremonially inserted within a monstrance made of gold and silver for all to see? One would have to be an imbecile to fall down and worship a piece of bread. Are we really expected to genuflect before that? If not an imbecile, then certainly an idolater, one who will always settle for something less than God.

“If it’s just a symbol,” to recall the reply given by Flannery O’Connor on hearing Mary McCarthy’s patronizing dismissal of the Eucharist, “then the hell with it!” 

How wonderfully full-throated the Church can be on the subject. At the Council of Trent, for example, convoked in the middle of the 16th century to confront the challenges posed by the Protestant revolt, the learned fathers and doctors sought, among other things, to awaken a sense of gratitude concerning the Eucharist, the celebration of which defines our identity as Catholics.

And what it is that we celebrate? Nothing less than Christ’s conquest of sin and death, which brings us the certainty of salvation, provided, of course, that we avail ourselves of it. We must not forget that fact, which is why Trent, in its repeated insistence upon the outward aspect of the feast, the sheer monstration of Christ’s presence among us, hoped that by so dramatizing the truth of Christ’s victory in public procession, “that in the face of such magnificence and such joy on the part of the whole Church, the enemies of the truth will either fade away or, stricken with shame, attain to insight.” 

And while it was not to be, at least not yet, that large swaths of the Protestant world would simply lay down their arms and, beguiled by the beauty of the feast, return to the bosom of Mother Church. Still, the point needed to be made, which is that our connection to God, to Jesus his Son, is not defined by the inward attraction alone; it requires external, processional expression as well. How are we ever to convince an indifferent world that Christ matters if he never leaves the church, if we keep him tucked away in the tabernacle as though his appearances were to be limited to brief Sunday showings?

That is not the logic on which divine revelation rests. Faith was never intended only for the fastidious few, but for the unwashed many — the whole world, in fact. Christ longs to occupy the entire stage on which we live and move, extending his presence to the very ends of the cosmos itself. The human adventure, if it is to be redeemed at all, cannot exclude a single square inch of the universe, which means the public life since Christ came to consecrate all that pertains to man.

So, for the sake of one afternoon in early June when, spilling out from the pews of the parish, Christ is carried into the streets of the city for which he too has died, why don’t we follow along in joyful procession with our king? 

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