Sunday, June 19, 2022

Corpus Christi

The popular custom probably most widely associated with the celebration of Corpus Christi is the procession in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried in a monstrance through the local streets with great solemnity and communal festivity. The procession is a public witness of the Church’s belief in and popular devotion to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Beginning with Saint John Paul II and continuing until the pandemic shut it down along with so much else, recent popes have revived the custom at the papal level, celebrating Mass at the Papal Basilica of St. John Lateran (Rome’s Cathedral), 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.

As a seminarian in 1984, I was fortunate 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 actually 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 experience is – as my British friends would say – “brilliant.”

A more traditional word might be ”awesome” – a word which really used to mean something before it became a contemporary synonym for “nice.” Thus, the Mass for the Consecration of a Church used to start with the words of the Patriarch Jacob 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].

We build and decorate churches (with a small “c’) to be “awesome,” so that “awesome” things can happen there - so that the community of faithful which 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 (as we just heard) by the priest-king Melchizedek [Genesis 14:18-20], the Eucharist was established as a sacrament (as we also just heard) by Christ at the Last Supper [1 Corinthians 11:23-26], and now is celebrated daily on our altars and  permanently reserved for adoration in our Tabernacles. Today’s celebration is meant to highlight all of that, all the while inviting us to a deeper devotion to and appreciation of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist and its transformative effects in our lives.

But, if the Eucharist is one of the Risen Christ’s great gifts to his Church, its transformation effect is also a challenge. The four short verses we just heard from Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians are part of a longer text which highlights the Corinthians’ conflicts, divisions, and factions – in other words, their resistance to being changed by the very Eucharist that they were privileged to experience together.

We hear a lot in the news about the conflicts, divisions, and factions in our society and we can certainly see and experience the consequences all around us. Well back then, among those to whom Saint Paul’s account of the Last Supper was originally addressed, all was not well either, even among themselves. It seems that the values of secular Roman society, with its social and class distinctions and inequalities, were making themselves felt even within the Church community, to the point that even the celebration of the Eucharist seemed to mirror those conflicts, divisions, and factions.

Perhaps the Corinthians couldn’t quite help bringing the world with them to Mass, any more than we can. It is always temptingly easy to miss the point and focus on the wrong food, as Pope Francis reminded us on Corpus Christi a couple of years ago, when he said: If we look around, we realize that there are so many offers of food which do not come from the Lord and which appear to be more satisfying. Some nourish themselves with money, others with success and vanity, others with power and pride. But the food that truly nourishes and satiates us is only that which the Lord gives us! The food the Lord offers us is different from other food, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as flavorful to us as certain other dishes the world offers us. So we dream of other dishes, like the Hebrews in the desert, who longed for the meat and onions they ate in Egypt, but forgot that they had eaten those meals at the table of slavery.

So, what about us? “Where do I want to eat? At which table do we want to be nourished? At the Lord’s table? Or do we dream of other flavorful foods? What do we recall? The Lord who saves me, or the garlic and onions of slavery? On this feast of Corpus Christi, when the Church in the United States is embarking on an official program of “Eucharistic Revival,” let us, as the Pope suggests, recover the right memory and learn to recognize the false bread that deceives and corrupts, because it comes from selfishness, from self-reliance and from sin.

In the traditional Corpus Christi procession, the Church ritually acts out the reality of Christ coming into our world and overcoming all our conflicts, divisions, and factionsIn the Eucharist – and in the transformed life we share together as Christ’s Church united by and through the Eucharist we celebrate – Christ doesn’t just come to us. He remains with us, blessing the world where 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 – like the 5000+ people in the Gospel [Luke 9:11b-17] – to put aside our conflicts, divisions, and factions to eat until we have more than enough.

Homily for Corpus Christi, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, NY, June 19, 2022.

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