The First Corpus Christi Procession
COMMENTARY: That Mary, Mother of God and now Mother of the Church, who first carried the Child in her womb, should now do so before the world he came to claim as his own.
Let’s do a thought experiment: What is the single most necessary thing we need to know? Indeed, the very best news we could possibly hope to hear?
The answer cannot be an idea or construct of the faulty human mind, however sublime; nor can it be a movement of the equally fallible will to accomplish some mighty deed. It can only be an event taking place in an unforeseen and wholly unexpected way, breaking into a barren and broken world to announce something completely new.
Where, then, does such an event come from? The only finally acceptable answer is found outside ourselves, from above, amid the silence of the heavens, from which in a most dizzying descent this moment suddenly erupts into history at an appointed time and place. An entirely unique and unrepeatable event, it could never have happened before, nor will it ever happen again.
Do the results of this thought experiment remind you of anything? Does the experiment awaken a memory of a certain impossible intersection of time and eternity, history and heaven?
Is it the incarnation of God no less? And who is the mediating figure here but a young Jewish maiden of maybe 14 or 15 years of age, who boldly said Yes to God and thereupon set in motion the entire mystery of our redemption? She who, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins exclaims, “not only / Gave God’s infinity / Dwindled to infancy / Welcome in womb and breast, / Birth, milk, and all the rest / But mothers each new grace / That does now reach our race.”
We do not know how soon thereafter the Mother of God set out to visit her cousin, traversing the difficult hill country along the way. The ospel accounts are silent on how long was the interval between the Annunciation and the Visitation. But we do know this much: Mary arose in haste — and that she did not go alone. There was Someone with her, hidden away in her body, to whom she had given the most full and free assent of her will.
Not only had she conceived God in her womb, but from the very beginning he dwelt in the deepest intimacy of her heart. And now this same Someone wishes, of course, that she take him to others, to the very ends of the earth.
In this way, Mary becomes “a vessel, a monstrance of the Word and Will of God to become flesh,” as Hans Urs von Balthasar put it in a lovely little book called The Threefold Garland. “And she does not know,” he adds, “how this center within her, around which she now has her life, will grow to full stature.” She only knows that her whole life belongs to this Other, “expropriated into God’s whole objective history of salvation,” the very center of which, “is here living and growing within her own center, eventually to emerge from her.”
Why not call this journey into the hill country, therefore, by its rightful name: The World’s First Corpus Christi Procession? Such an honor includes, to be sure, an essential ecclesial dimension, inasmuch as Mary does not act alone, does not move in a solitary universe untethered to others, or to God. She is, after all, Mother of the Church, Mater Ecclesia who, in the purity of her response to God, represents pure grace, total transparence before his will. And until we recognize this deep Marian reality of the Church as having first burst into bloom in that little room in Nazareth during the Annunciation, then borne along the way to the home of her cousin in the Visitation, we shall have left out the most essential and necessary detail of the Blessed Virgin’s identity. The Church is not primarily an institution or apparatus of power, but a presence, a person, a woman — one who is both virgin and mother right from the beginning.
The visit of Mary to Elizabeth, whose child leaps in her womb on seeing this New Reality in their midst, is not merely about Mary or Elizabeth. It is about Christ coming to visit John and through him the entire nation of Israel and the Gentile world beyond.
“The two mothers,” as Adrienne von Speyr tells us in The Handmaid of the Lord, “are only there for the mediation of the sons.” Wherever Mary goes with her child in tow, “the grace of the Child flows out through her into the world.”
What a perfect snapshot this provides of the feast of Corpus Christi! That Mary, Mother of God and now Mother of the Church, who first carried the Child in her womb, should now do so before the world he came to claim as his own. What could be more natural — obvious even — in one so steeped in innocence than this sudden impulse to share the gift of her son and present him to others — to monstrate (from the Latin verb monstare: “to show”) him before the world that he made and then, sin having very nearly unmade it, which he undertakes to remake in the event of his coming among us? Why shouldn’t we, then, members of a church modeled along Marian lines, want to showcase Our Lord and Savior in this way?
What better way to unmask the lies that surround us, the principalities and powers that oppress us at every turn, than to proclaim the truth of Jesus Christ? How perfect to do so in the most outward and public way, too, with processions along the streets of the cities and towns which also belong to God even if many in the world will not yet recognize the fact. And because the last enemy to be overcome is death, who besides Christ is there to demonstrate his defeat?
In a moving reflection on the Feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that, “at its very heart the Eucharist is the answer to the question of death, for it is the encounter with that love which is stronger than death. Corpus Christi is the response to this central Eucharistic mystery. Once a year it gives demonstrative expression to the triumphal joy in Christ’s victory, as we accompany the Victor on this triumphal procession through the streets.”
What a fitting gesture to offer Christ, our king and savior, by taking him out into those very streets he longs to visit, that world which he first entered in the womb of his mother, who is our mother as well.
Regis Martin, STD, is a professor of theology and a faculty associate
with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville.