Corpus Christi (feast)

Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi (from the Latin for Body of Christ, although we actually celebrate the reality of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist).  Corpus Christi emphasises the joy of the institution of the Eucharist.  Before this feast was created, the Institution of the Eucharist had only been observed on Maundy (Holy) Thursday, situating it within the sombre atmosphere leading to Good Friday.

However, Holy Thursday, also commemorates Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and, earlier in the day, the institution of the sacramental priesthood at the Mass of the Oils.

With so much being commemorated on Holy Thursday, and its overarching atmosphere of the Passion, the principal event celebrated — the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper — was almost eclipsed.

In the early 13th century, Juliana of Liège, belonged to a group of Augustinian nuns, Norbertine canoness in fact, who were particularly dedicated to veneration of the Blessed Sacrament, which shaped their lives of prayer and charitable work.  Juliana developed a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament and she always longed for a feast day outside of Lent in its honour

One night she had a vision of the full moon having one dark spot marring its face.  In her prayer, she recognised the moon represented the Church and the dark spot signified the absence of a feast dedicated solely to the Blessed Sacrament.

It took some forty years for the feast to spread from Liège to the rest of the Church, helped on by Pope Urban IV developing a love for the feast during his time working as a priest in Liège.  When he became Pope in 1264, he instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost.

When Pope Pius V revised the General Roman Calendar, Corpus Christi and Trinity Sunday were the only two ‘feasts of devotion’ that he kept.  In many countries, Corpus Christi is transferred to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday.  There was a separate Feast of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord on the first 1st July.  In 1969, this feast was removed from the Calendar, as the Most Precious Blood of the Redeemer is already venerated in the solemnities of the Passion, of Corpus Christi, of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and in the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

At the time of the Reformation, when belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was attacked, we put the tabernacle in the centre of our churches, higher than the altar, to say clearly that the consecrated host is always the presence of Christ.

In the same way, the Feast of Corpus Christi came at a time when it was important to remember that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine.  It continues the message of Pentecost.  In the desert, the Ark of the Covenant dwelt in a tent in the midst of the Hebrew encampment.  As John tells us, in becoming human, God chose a new tent to dwell in — the flesh of Jesus.  At Pentecost, we celebrate God choosing yet another tent — each of the hearts of believers.  And, in the Eucharist, he is made flesh for us once again, and, through our communion, the life of God within our spirits is nourished and strengthened.  Tabernacle is Latin for ‘tent’— and so, through the Eucharist, we are each transfigured daily into a tabernacle of Christ, bringing him to birth anew in our hearts.

Fr Andrew Scott Davidson, C.Ss.R.

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