Immaculate Conception and St. Dominic, Stone

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The Feast The Body and Blood of Christ – Corpus Christi, Year C

Just a Thought

What a wonderful Feast we celebrate today! The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ has always been the object of great veneration expressed especially at the moment of Communion. ‘No-one eats this flesh without first adoring it,’ says Saint Augustine. He does not speak thus in a sermon on the Eucharist but in a commentary on a psalm. This means that adoration and awe for the Blessed Sacrament was already part of the communion rite in his time. Besides, as soon as Christians were able to build places of worship, they made provision for a place where, after the celebration, the Eucharistic species were taken with respect and even with a certain solemnity regarding Communion for the sick and, in due course, for prisoners. However, there was not yet what could be called a true worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass. (Although places of reservation for the Blessed Sacrament i.e. ‘Tabernacles’ were in place by the third century). This sort of worship developed from the ninth century, but especially from the eleventh century on, as a consequence of controversies about what is called ‘The Real Presence’ of Christ in the sacrament. These controversies helped to develop the doctrine and understanding of the mystery, which we know today: the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ, but under the sign — the sacrament— of bread and wine. The Council of Trent clearly defined this doctrine in 1551. Good was to come out of these controversies because they also stimulated Eucharistic devotion.

Male and female recluses were the first to become aware of what the Eucharistic Presence in the churches really meant. The walls of their cells, built against the church walls, had holes, called ‘hagioscopes,’ bored through them, to allow them to see the altar on which Mass was celebrated and to receive Communion. They became accustomed to spending their daylight hours kneeling before this little window in order to adore the Blessed Sacrament. Lanfranc, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, instituted the custom of carrying consecrated bread during the procession with palms in order to express the Presence of the Lord among his people. However, it was in the thirteenth century that Eucharistic devotion really blossomed. A nun, Saint Juliana (1192-1258) the first abbess of the Augustinian Sisters of the Assumption of Mont-Cornillon, near Liege in Belgium, campaigned in favour of the institution of a feast of the Blessed Sacrament.This request provoked mixed reactions on the part of theologians and bishops, but it was well received by Robert, bishop of Liege, who celebrated the feast for the first time in 1246. Pope Urban IV (1261-1264) published a bull that extended the feast to the universal Church. Pope Clement V (1305-1314) promulgated the feast anew, and his successor, Pope John XXII (1316-1134), inserted the feast into the collection called Clementines.The new celebration then spread rapidly. It should go without saying that we should be most grateful to all those who played a part in bringing this feast to us today.

Other than the processions of Lanfranc, the first time a procession of the Blessed Sacrament officially appears is in Cologne between 1274 and 1279. It was not long before processions spread to most countries and became the most characteristic and popular rite of this new solemnity. Even in the tiniest villages, people were at pains to give to the procession, according to their means, a fitting splendour. In the cities of Europe, the long cortege that went through the main streets adorned with draperies and banners was often impressive. The monstrance (from Latin: to show), in which a large host had been placed, was carried under a festive canopy, preceded by all the clergy and followed by the civil authorities. Religious confraternities with their banners, and various other groups had their assigned places according to a strict etiquette. The procession paused at repositories that vied with one another in magnificence and where the Blessed Sacrament was set down while people sang a hymn; then the blessing with the monstrance was given. The greatest number of the faithful stood in the streets to see the procession pass by. They knelt as the Blessed Sacrament passed by, or else they thronged around the repositories in order to receive the blessing. This Corpus Christi triumph publicly expressed the faith of an entire people acclaiming the Lord present in the host. (A similar procession of the Blessed Sacrament takes place daily at the French shrine of Lourdes. Led by banners and great solemnity, the people, the sick, and the clergy all process to the place where the benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is given, as passers by who line the route, fall to their knees as the Lord passes by.)

Unfortunately, in the years that preceded Vatican II, processions in the streets were gradually replaced in many cities with other forms of celebration designed to make easier and enable Christians to pay homage to the Blessed Sacrament, these devotions although laudable, regrettably lack the public witness that the previous processions had given.

Since Vatican II, this feast has been called the Body and Blood of Christ. The change is significant. The emphasis is no longer on devotion to the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle and presented for the adoration of the faithful. The emphasis is on the celebration of the Eucharist. This is why the preface of Holy Thursday is used:

It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks, Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternql God through Christ our Lord.

For he is the true and eternal Priest who instituted the pattern of an everlasting sacrifice and was the first to offer himself as the saving Victim. Commanding us to make this offering as his memorial. As we eat his flesh that was sacrificed for us, we are made strong, and, as we drink his Blood that was poured out for us, we are washed clean. And so, with Angels and Archangel, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and powers of Heaven, we sing the hymn of your glory as without end we acclaim: Holy, holy, holy… (Preface 1 of the Most Holy Eucharist)

The Eucharist has a cosmic meaning and scope that the extreme simplicity the rites only partially reveals. Today’s liturgy gives us an opportunity to become aware, perhaps more aware, of this cosmic dimension.

The book of Genesis preserves the memory of an encounter between Abraham and Melchizedek, a mysterious ‘priest of God Most High.’ No-one knows where he came from. He made an offering of bread and wine before blessing God and the father of all believers [Abraham], then he was gone. He would have been forgotten had not the Christian tradition and the Roman Canon evoked Christ as a priest ‘according to the order of Melchizedek,’ that is, beyond any human institution. It has also been noted that Melchizedek, the first person to which the Bible gives the name of priest, pronounced a blessing on Abraham while offering him bread and wine, somewhat akin to the blessing of the offerings that would be done later during the paschal meal. Jesus, too, pronounces a blessing at the Last Supper, a blessing that was endowed with new meaning.

The bread that the Lord ‘on the night he was handed over’ took in his hands and broke to give to his disciples is his Body ‘for [us].’ The cup of blessing is ‘the new covenant in [his] Blood.’ Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim ‘the death of the Lord until he comes.’ Of the rite born in the remotest times and transmitted by the tradition of the Jewish Passover, Jesus made the perfect offering to ‘God Most High,’ the sacrament of his Presence in our midst, the efficacious ‘sign’ of our participation even now in the life he received from the Father, the pledge of eternal life to come and of our entrance into the kingdom on the day of his Parousia. To participate in the Eucharist causes us to enter into the dynamics of salvation that have been unfolding since the beginning and is constantly expanding, a salvation to which we are all called.

It was on the night of his passion that the Lord gave his disciples the sacrament of the new Covenant, saying to them, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ However, in order to fully understand the words and actions of that evening, we must see them by the light of what the Lord said and did throughout his ministry, the numerous ‘signs’ he accomplished in particular the multiplication of the loaves. Only Jesus can provide the food the crowds need, the food able to satisfy their hunger. The abundance of bread endlessly broken is such that down the ages there will always be enough left to allow the disciples to distribute it lavishly for all those who gather in order to commemorate the Lord by announcing and calling for, his coming.

The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ is not a kind of repeat performance of Holy Thursday. Of course, the same Eucharistic mystery is celebrated. But the liturgy of the Last Supper is the first phase of the great celebration that unfolds within the unity of the Easter Triduum. By turning our eyes towards the immolation of the Lamb, whose sacrifice redeems the sins of the world, and the passion of the Lord celebrated on the following day, the liturgy of Holy Thursday places the emphasis on the Eucharist as a sign of charity.

The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ dwells rather on the Eucharist celebrated and received in the ordinary time of the Church, the Christian communities, each believer. Whoever eats the flesh and drinks the blood of Christ already possesses eternal life and receives the pledge of resurrection on the last day. By commemorating the Pasch of the Lord, one renews one’s involvement in the Covenant his Pasch definitively sealed. By participating today in the meal of the Lord, one is getting ready to enter with him into the banquet hall on the day when he will come back to gather, in joy and thanksgiving, the immense multitude of those who hunger for God and have at last reached the end of their exodus. A little bread, a little wine: in the sacrament of the Body and Blood we participate in the whole mystery of faith and salvation. When receiving Christ in Holy Communion — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity we can do no better than to heed the instruction of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (ca 315-386):

‘When you approach, do not advance with extended palms or fingers held apart; with your left hand make a throne for your right hand since the latter is to receive your King, and, in your cupped hand, receive the Body of Christ, saying ‘Amen.’ With care, sanctify your eyes through contact with the holy body, then eat, careful to lose nothing. For what you should lose would be like losing one of your own members. Tell me, if you were given specks of gold, would you not keep them with utmost care, taking pains not to lose any and suffer a loss? Are you not going to watch with greater care over this object more precious than gold and gems, so you do not lose any crumb?

Afterwards having received the Body of Christ, approach also the chalice of his Blood. Do not extend your hands but, bowing, and in an attitude of adoration and respect saying, ‘Amen’ sanctify yourself by taking also the Blood of Christ….. Then, while waiting for the prayer, give thanks to God who has judged you worthy of such great mysteries.’



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