The Feast of Corpus Christi
"Do this in memory of me"
THE YEAR MADE HOLY
Msgr. Matthias Premm
THE name of this feast means the Body of Christ, that is, the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ as present in the Eucharist.
What is the meaning of the feast? Let us imagine for a moment that the Savior had instituted all the other sacraments, but not the Sacrament of the Altar. There would then be no Mass, no Communion, and during the day Jesus would not be present in our churches. How desolate and miserable we would feel! The heart would have gone out of Christianity. But in fact, thanks to the Savior, He is really and uninterruptedly with us, offers Himself up for us daily in the Mass, and even comes into our breast at Holy Communion. To render Him our heartfelt praise and thanks for these gifts we celebrate Corpus Christi with great gladness and rejoicing. Hence the many Alleluias in the Mass, the same as at Easter time through the feast falls outside that season. It is true that the Mass texts of Maundy Thursday too draw their inspiration from the Most Holy Sacrament which was instituted at the Last Supper, but there the passion of Jesus is too present in our minds to permit of joyful exultation. That is why Pope Urban IV, in the year 1246, prescribed the present feast for the whole church.
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Because of this singleness of object of the feast—the Body of Jesus in the Eucharist—the Mass texts of themselves reveal a harmonious unity. In the separate parts the various attributes and workings of this sacrament are set forth, unfolding the mystery for us in all its fullness.
In the Old Testament God nourished His chosen people, in their wandering through the desert, with manna, a miraculous “bread from heaven!” And from a rock—which according to Paul (1 Cor. 10:4), was a symbol of Christ—in marvelous manner He provided them with water. Even more marvelously does Christ provide for His people of the New Testament, for us Christians in our pilgrimage toward heaven: He has given Himself to be our food, a sustaining and at the same time a sweet and blessed food: “He fed them with the finest wheat, and filled them with honey from the rock, Alleluia!” (Introit). (In the East the honey sometimes flows from rocks in the crevices of which the bees have nested.) In Holy Communion Jesus gives us strength to live uprightly (“wheat”) and sweet comfort in our earthly sorrows (“honey”). Therefore let us “sing aloud to God, our Savior!”
The Collect is full of moving thoughts. It calls the Eucharist a “wonderful sacrament,” since for its realization a whole series of wonders is necessary. Bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The incarnate God is present in the little particle of bread, spiritualized somehow, and yet preserving His true human nature. He is consumed by us without thereby being impaired. Even if the Hosts are divided He is still fully present in each part. Truly, “what can be more wonderful than this sacrament?” Through the separation of body and blood it represents the passion of Jesus. “O God [we say to Jesus], in this wonderful Sacrament you have left us a memorial of your passion.” For in the Host, symbolically regarded, is contained only His dead body, and in the chalice His blood that was shed on the cross. “Do this in memory” of My passion! The Eucharist embraces the bloody sacrifice of the cross with all the sufferings and indignities that accompanied it: the sweat of blood on the Mount of Olives, the scourging at the pillar, the crowing with thorns, the sublime renunciation, the obedience and the unquestioning surrender to the will of the Father, His immeasurable love for us sinners—all of this we humbly and adoringly revere in the Holy Eucharist. It is a sacred funeral feast at which we are given the Flesh and Blood of Jesus to eat. With what devotion we should do this! But we mortals succumb so easily to routine and place so little value on what we can every day enjoy! Hence we address to the Savior Himself in the Sacrament the request: “Grant us to venerate the sacred mysteries that we may evermore feel within us the fruit of thy redemption.”
In the Epistle Paul tells us factually how Jesus instituted this most holy sacrament at the Last Supper for all time. He handed the Apostles bread and wine with the words: “This is my body . . . My blood.” Then He went on: “Do this in memory of me.” Thereby He transmitted to the Apostles and their successors the power to do as He had done, namely to change bread into His body and wine into His blood, to celebrate Mass and to give Holy Communion. By the one sentence were the priesthood and the Eucharist instituted.
The Gradual gives us first a text from the Old Testament, followed by one from the New. The first speaks of all the natural food that God provides with open hand for all His hungry creatures. In the New Testament Jesus Himself is the supernatural food of our soul: “My flesh is food, indeed, and my blood is drink indeed!”
In the Sequence, with which this great feast is specially marked, the Church, through the mouth of her greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, imparts to us a most detailed dogmatic instruction on the mystery of the Eucharist.
In the Gospel Christ appears before us and tells us of the fruits of Holy Communion. “He who eats [me] abides in me and I in him.” There results a mysterious union between our soul and the divinity of Jesus. St. Cyril of Jerusalem makes the comparison: “Pour molten wax into molten wax and they will mix completely. In like manner does Christ merge in us and we in Him.” As I live because of the Father so “He who eats me, he also shall live because of me.” In the Communion there takes place an inexpressible fusion of ourselves with Christ. Christ unites His divine life and the life of our soul into single common life, just as between the heavenly Father and His Son there is but one life. What a sublime and unfathomable mystery it is that we have in Holy Communion!
Without a priest there can be no sacrifice and in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass Christ Himself is the priest. But all the faithful must unite with Christ, the Priest-Victim, to offer the Lamb of sacrifice to the Father in heaven Through baptism all the faithful are called to this service and are become “royal priests.” Therefore they must be free from sin. Of all this we are reminded by the Offertory hymn (The priest of the Lord . . .”).
What we have just been pondering now becomes full reality on the altar in the Consecration and the Communion. In order to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and receive Communion worthily, so far as this is at all possible for a sinful mortal, we must, from the very beginning of the Mass, repent of our sins with all our hearts, bearing in mind the warning of the Communion hymn: “Whosoever eats this bread . . . unworthily, will be guilty of the body . . . of the Lord.” Ω