Sunday, June 23, 2019

O Sacred Banquet!

When I was growing up (admittedly a long time ago), Sunday was a special day.  In my family, we all went to Mass, of course. But we did that separately, at different times throughout the morning. What we all did together as a family came after that, in the early afternoon - Sunday dinner, which was intended to be special in every way. Now that I am old and sadly distant from all that, I look back fairly fondly on those Sunday family dinners, for what they represented - or at least what I nostalgically want them to represent.

Corpus Christi celebrates a very different sort of Sunday meal, every bit as important, indeed so much more so, since it takes us beyond the narrow, exclusive bonds of family, creating a new and more completely inclusive community where we all eat and are satisfied.
But, of course, we are not all satisfied, certainly not all of us all the time, which is one reason we need to come back, again and again, week after week. After all, even those miraculously fed on that faraway Gospel lake shore were only satisfied for at best a little while, before they got hungry again. Saint Paul’s account of what Jesus did at that Last Supper, the oldest written recollection of that most famous meal in all of human history, says nothing about being satisfied. Rather it looks back to the past , commanding us to eat and drink in ritual remembrance of Jesus’ death, and looks ahead to the future, proclaiming Jesus’ death until he comes again, which is, of course, what we do every time we come to Mass and celebrate the Eucharist.

Established in 1264, this feast of Corpus Christi highlights the Church’s devotion to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. According to tradition, two 13th-century contemporaries, the Dominican Friar St. Thomas Aquinas and the Franciscan Friar St. Bonaventure, began composing texts for the feast. But, when Bonaventure visited Thomas and read the antiphon Thomas had composed for today’s Evening Prayer, he threw his own manuscript into the fire.

Thus it is the words of Saint Thomas that summarize what we celebrate today – and every day – in the Eucharistic sacrifice: “O Sacred Banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given us.”

The custom most associated with Corpus Christi is the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance - if possible outside through the local streets with great solemnity and communal festivity, as a public witness of the Church’s belief in and devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Recent popes have revived the custom at the papal level, celebrating Mass at Rome’s Cathedral, the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran, and then going from there in procession with the Blessed Sacrament up the Esquiline Hill to the Papal Basilica of St. Mary Major, where the procession concludes with Benediction outdoors.

In 1984, I got to attend a particularly impressive Corpus Christi procession in Montreal, Quebec, where we followed the Blessed Sacrament through the narrow streets of the Old City to the historic basilica of Notre Dame. But perhaps the most impressive, certainly the most moving, outdoor eucharistic procession I’ve ever attended was not on Corpus Christi but the one that takes place every summer afternoon at the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in southern France. After being exposed all day under a tent, the Blessed Sacrament is carried at the end of a procession of sick pilgrims and their caregivers to the massive underground basilica. Empty, the basilica (the only structure large enough to contain the vast number of pilgrims present on any given day) resembles an ugly underground parking lot. Crowded to capacity for afternoon Benediction, however, the effect is awesome – awesome in the sense the Patriarch Jacob used the word in Genesis: How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven; and it shall be called the court of God [Genesis 28:17]. It is no accident that verse is traditionally used in the Mass for the Consecration a church.

We build and maintain churches to be “awesome,” so that “awesome” things can happen there - so that the community of faithful we call the Church (with a capital “C”), can assemble to pray, to hear God’s word, and to celebrate the sacraments, especially the Eucharist in which Christ is present in a unique way in his Body and Blood. Prefigured by the bread and wine offered by the priest and king Melchizedek [Genesis 14:18-20], the Eucharist was established as a sacrament by Christ at the Last Supper [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and now is celebrated daily on our altar and  permanently reserved for adoration in the Tabernacle. Today’s celebration is meant to highlight all of that, all the while inviting us to a deeper devotion to and recognition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is that Real Presence which is so vividly celebrated in the traditional Corpus Christi procession, in which the Church ritually acts out the reality of Christ coming into our world, walking our streets, so to speak.

In the Eucharist – and in the life we share together as Christ’s Church united by and through the Eucharist we celebrate – Christ comes among us. And he remains with us, blessing the streets we and he walk together, nourishing our ordinary and sometimes somewhat messed up lives with the real, flesh-and-blood presence of God himself, who invites us to eat again and again until we have more than enough.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 23, 2019.

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