Q: Archbishop, what is Corpus Christi?
Many years ago, anticipating the feast of Corpus Christi and the holiday, a teacher asked: “Why do we have a holiday tomorrow?” A little boy put up his hand to answer. When she signed to him to answer he blurted out “Thank God for Corpus!” He thought Corpus Christi was a person. He was not far wrong. It is Latin for “Body of Christ”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church #787 says: “Jesus spoke of a still more intimate communion between him and those who would follow him: ‘Abide in me, and I in you.… I am the vine, you are the branches.’ And he proclaimed a mysterious and real communion between his own body and ours: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’”
Corpus Christi, as a feast, is the third aspect of the Holy Thursday celebration. Holy Thursday is broken into the Chrism Mass, where we focus on priesthood; and on the washing of the feet. For Corpus Christi we focus on the institution of the Eucharist. Each of these three is an indispensable part of the Paschal Mystery.
Speaking about the presence of Christ in our world today and ways of encountering Christ the Catechism #1373 says: “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,” is present in many ways to His Church: in His Word, in the Church’s prayer—‘where two or three are gathered in my name,’ in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the sacraments of which he is the author, in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the person of the minister. But “he is present … most especially in the Eucharistic species.”
There are many ways of encountering Christ as the text tells us. But the Eucharist is most especially or preeminently the presence of Christ in the world. Or as #1374 says: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained…This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes Himself wholly and entirely present.
Body of Christ
Corpus Christi has many points of reference. The first is the Eucharist. “This is my Body given for you” (Lk 22:19). Here we are asked to believe that the wafer and the wine have been transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ by the actions of the priest. We are asked to believe that Jesus is present. That this is His “real presence”. This requires faith.
What we see is a wafer and wine, what we are asked to believe is that this is our God. This is the most amazing claim of any religion. That is hard to believe. It was so hard to believe that many of His disciples stopped following Him because of this Eucharistic doctrine (Jn 6:66).
So Jesus asked the Twelve if they wanted to stop following also. It was Peter who answered: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” The Eucharist is the most direct connection with Christ that we have on earth. He comes to live in us each time we receive Him.
St Paul speaks about the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:17ff), but also speaks to Body of Christ in a very different way. St Paul sees us, the members of the Church, as the members of the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12ff).
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many” (1 Cor 12:12–14).
From this analogy when we are gathered together we are Christ’s Body—Corpus Christi.
Mathew 25:31ff opens another dimension. Here Jesus says that in so far as we have shown mercy to the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner, we do so to Him personally.
Here Corpus Christi is a connection with the broken body of Christ in our world today. Remember that Thomas was asked by Jesus to put his hand into the wounded side of Christ to come to faith (Jn 20:27). This creates a structure of grace for encountering the Risen Lord. Touch the wounded Christ, love the poor and minister to Him.
Corpus Christi Feast
When the Spanish handed over Trinidad to the British in 1803, one of the terms of agreement was that the holiday of Corpus Christi must be retained. In England at the time Catholicism was banned, and the Catholic bishop there was not recognised. But in Trinidad, the Catholic bishop, priests and faithful received a 21-gun salute on Corpus Christi. The British Governor attended.
Our festival of Corpus Christi is very important, for national reasons, but not more important than the religious significance of the feast. It is an invitation to renew our devotion to God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
For Corpus Christi we focus on the institution of the Eucharist.
Key Message: Corpus Christi is the Body of Christ—Eucharist, us and the poor—all three are the Presence of God.
Next Step: Reflect on your belief about the Body of Christ in its three dimensions. Do you recognise it is He? Do you believe? Do you worship Him?
Scripture: John 6:25–71, 1Cor 12:12–31