Sunday, June 7, 2015

Corpus Christi

Thursday, June 4, was the 60th anniversary of my First Holy Communion.  While I can’t claim to remember all that happened that day, I do remember some of it. Certainly I remember the rehearsals we had beforehand. The Dominican Sisters were perfectionists when it came to such things, and everything was going to go just so! And I remember being taken to the photographer’s studio to pose for pictures, and how my mother fussed about that and made sure she knew which side of the church I would be on, so she would see me walking back to my pew and then I would see her in turn when she went up to the altar rail. 

Finally the big day dawned, Saturday, June 4, 1955. Dressed up in the prescribed outfit, I was out of the house early - to the safety of the school (where there was no danger of anyone inadvertently breaking the fast). Finally, we all lined up, and all those rehearsals paid off as we walked in absolutely perfect formation into the church at exactly 8:00 a.m. It was, as I later learned, a solemn Mass, with deacon and subdeacon, although I honestly don’t remember any of that. But I do remember walking two by two up the marble sanctuary to kneel before the main altar, then returning by the Epistle side, And I remember seeing my mother go to Communion, just as she had wanted me to.

Napoleon Bonaparte - the revolutionary Corsican soldier who eventually turned himself into an emperor and successfully persuaded/compelled poor Pope Pius VII to come to Paris in person to watch Napoleon crown himself - that Napoleon, who presumably enjoyed many successful and happy days in his adventurous life, famously described his First Communion as the happiest day of his life. 

Of course, what many – maybe most – of us remember best about our First Communion Day, is all the frills: the outfits, the photos, the presents. Those are all perfectly nice things, of course, and should not be disparaged. As for the actual act of Communion itself, it may perhaps stand out less because it in fact merges in memory with so many other subsequent trips to the altar rail - for many of us  (brought up post-Pius X) at least once a week, for those of us in religious life, likely as often as once a day. That's a lot of Communions!

So, if the first one merges in memory with all those subsequent Communions, that may be as it should be. As I always like to say to First Communicants on their big day, the key word to remember about the experience is first – the first time they are doing what (hopefully) they are going to be doing many more times, over and over again, at least once each week, all the rest of their lives.

Today the Church celebrates the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, the feast commonly called Corpus Christi. The meaning and spirit of this festival is succinctly summarized in the familiar collect – so familiar because it is also the collect traditionally sung after the hymn at Benediction: O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood that we always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.

This prayer reminds us that the sacrament of the Eucharist is intimately connected with Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection.  The Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday recalls the anniversary of the institution of the Eucharist, but there is so much else going on then that over the centuries it was thought appropriate to accent the Church’s joy in this wonderful sacrament on a day all its own. Hence, this feast – established by Pope Urban IV in 1264 with its Mass and Office specially composed for the occasion by the great 13th-century Dominican Doctor of the Church Saint Thomas Aquinas.

The prayer he composed calls on us to revere the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. Hence the special traditions of Eucharistic veneration associated with today – the traditional outdoor procession, for example, which elaborately marks this occasion in Catholic countries. As a seminarian in 1984, I had the privilege of witnessing the impressive outdoor Corpus Christi procession in Montreal’s Old City. In Germany, they have a tradition of the procession stopping at four altars erected along the way, at each of which is read the beginning of one of the four gospels before Benediction is given with the monstrance. It is a symbolic way of suggesting that the entire story can be summed up in some sense in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

But along with our veneration of this wonderful sacrament, the primary point is for us to experience its benefits. One particular ancient Roman prayer expresses this idea very eloquently in the Canon of the Mass:

In humble prayer we ask you, almighty God, command that these gifts be borne by the hands of your holy Angel to your altar on high in the sight of your divine majesty, so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son, may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

In other words, by participating in the Eucharist and receiving Holy Communion, we, like Christ’s offering of himself, are, so to speak, carried along, to the Lamb of God’s heavenly altar, as a pledge of our future glory.

In the beautiful words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, which the Church recites this evening at Vespers: 

How holy this feast, in which Christ is our food; his Passion is recalled; grace fills our hearts, and we receive a pledge of the glory to come.

Homily for the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 7, 2015.

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