For this Sunday in many places even using the Vetus Ordo of the Roman Rite, there is an “external celebration” of the Feast of Corpus Christi, which was properly last Thursday, that day of the week being a special moment to honor the Eucharist and its institution at the Last Supper. In 1246, Robert of Thourotte, Bishop of Liège, Belgium, had instituted in his diocese the feast now known as Corpus Christi at the request of an Augustinian nun Juliana of Cornillon, who composed an office for it. In 1264, Pope Urban IV ordered the feast of the Body of Christ to be celebrated as a holy day of obligation for the universal Church on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday and accepted the lyrically genius texts by the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas Aquinas for the Mass and Office. That’s the historical context.
How about a liturgical context? Remember, we are our rites. What we celebrate both reflects who we are and shapes who we are simultaneously. If Holy Thursday of the Triduum is also shot through with the ominous Passion to come, Christ’s agony starting that very moment with the stripping of the altar after Mass, then Corpus Christi allows us on another Thursday to bask in the sheer joy of so great a gift, the source and goal, fons et culmen of Christian identity, the Eucharist.
Our devotion is too much to bear keeping within the thin walls of our churches, and so we take Our Eucharistic Lord into the streets in joyful demonstrative processions to give glory and thanks to God in the sight of all our neighbors.
There’s something wrong when Catholics don’t take Christ into the streets, as well as beloved relics and statues of Our Lady and the Saints. That “something wrong” can come from outside the Church, from persecution. It can also come from within the Church, for example when our leaders, once shepherds, get their priorities scrambled, and begin giving logical priority to things like “process” and “dialogue” and even works of mercy, as good and as important as those things can be. They have their place. But, for them to be fruitful and Catholic in the deeper sense, they must have their origin in and direction back to the fons et culmen, the source and summit, which is the Eucharist, itself in the sacramental species as well as in its celebration which is Holy Mass. We are our rites. Therefore, we have to have our priorities straight, logically, even though their ends may chronologically overlay each other. Identity checks are in order.
For our joy to be true joy, it must be genuine. Our rites and processions and devotions should spring from something real. Otherwise, they are sounding brass, a pointless gong … hardly more than the Gong Show of old (cf. 1 Cor 13:1)
Let’s see the Epistle for Corpus Christ in the RSV.
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
And the next verse, not included in the reading for Mass:
That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
By its well-known proximity, this verse ought to ring in our ears in the silence that immediately ensues after the reading of the Epistle.
Greek kríma “judgment,” as in the decision of a court. Condemnation… damnation. Get your head around this. This is life or death stuff not a cookie and a pat on the head. This isn’t, “I want mine or I’ll feel excluded!” For so many people, I fear, because of the way Mass has been celebrated, how priests have behaved in handling the Eucharist, because of Communion in the hand and the overall dumbing-down of our sacred liturgical worship, the very architecture that should exalt rather than reduce us to a human experience tantamount to entering a municipal airport, so many understand “Communion” as “the moment when they put the white thing in my hand and then we sing a song and I feel included.”
As Bl. Ildefonso Schuster puts it (pay special attention to the last part):
The Lesson is from the First Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (xi, 23-29) containing the narrative of the institution of the Eucharist, and warns us of the heavy penalties to which those expose themselves who receive the Blessed Sacrament unworthily. Experience teaches us that whilst nothing is of greater benefit to the soul than frequent Communions received with proper dispositions, so nothing exposes a man more to increased hardness of heart and final separation from God than sacrilegious Communions, especially when they form a long chain of repeated profanations. St Paul, in order to make clear to us the horror of so doing, says that such a man “eateth and drinketh his own condemnation,” and by this he wished to point out that, as food is changed into the substance of him who eats it, so the profaner of the Holy Eucharist is so filled and pervaded by the malediction of God that, in a manner, it penetrates his bones and marrow and flows through all his veins.
What about a Church wherein – I think we have to say it – the vast majority of people who receive Communion on Sundays in churches across the globe are indeed “not discerning” and who are not in the state of grace? Would that sort of Body be sick and even moribund? “Moribund”… “someone in terminal decline.”
The reading has its own context. St. Paul wrote this to the Church of Corinth over which he had authority. He is writing less than thirty years after the Eucharist was instituted by Christ. Paul had learned of terrible abuses during the most important thing the Christians did together: their agape meal preceding their celebration of the Eucharist. I must condense this for the sake of space and your patience. In Corinth the early Christians had a wonderful representation of the Last Supper that was a meal and, as St. John Chrysostom wrote, “An occasion for charity, a means of alleviating poverty and of making wealth wiser, a grand spectacle of edification and a school of humility.” However, perhaps under the influence of pagan customs stemming from various fraternal associations, abuses arose, factions developed. Different groups would bring their own provisions and not share with others. Some drank to excess. The result was the reduction of the agape meal into, as the great Jesuit Pauline scholar Fernand Prat describes, a “vulgar picnic.”
As I write, I am struck by the image of structures more like picnic tables in churches, set up at times in front of beautiful and artistically superior main altars which were and remain the visual focal point of the space’s design. And there are examples of vulgarities perpetrated around them as well. But I digress.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians to check their abuses, to remind them that their banquets were not primarily meals in the sense of satisfying physical hunger. They were to foster unity and charity as a preparation for the Eucharist. The abuses of the one being profanation of the other.
Ut brevis, let’s underscore a key point in Paul’s corrections, understanding that Paul connects even physical death with its violation. Before receiving the Eucharist we must “examine” ourselves, Greek dokimazo or “test, scrutinize, see if a thing is genuine or not” as in the testing of metal. In a state of unworthiness, to receive Communion, is to “me diakrínon tou kuríou soma… not discern the Lord’s Body.”
The Lord’s Body here can be taken a couple ways. There is the obvious way, of course: the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. The Body is also the Body of believers who belong to the Lord’s mystical Person, as John Paul II wrote.
Someone might be tempted to say, “Well, maybe (Senator… President… Speaker whatever) Joe Bagofdonuts goes to Communion unworthily. He’s only hurting himself.” No! Unworthy Communions hurt all of us who are members of the Body of Christ.
Gee whiz, I started out with joy and here I am, fulminating. Also, I’m well over the amount I wanted to write this week, so I’ll be blunt to wrap this up.
How about gut check context?
If you know you are not in the state of grace, and you are receiving Communion, knock it off. You are tearing at the fabric of Body from within. Examine yourself. “Prove… test… discern.” Ask yourself if you are the “real deal” in being a Catholic, a member of a Church with a Body, members who need you. Don’t make excuses. This is life or death stuff. We need you.
Go to confession.
If you are reasonably sure that you are well-disposed to receive Holy Communion then, “Joy!”, a lovely archaic term of endearment which both reflects and shapes the one who receives it. You are “Joy” to us all. As the Psalmist sang: “Thou hast put more joy in my heart than have their grain and wine abound.” You build us up.
When you are joy-full it spills out of the thin walls of your heart to flood into the lives of others. We can increase that Joy by a true renewal of our fons et culmen. How it is celebrated. How it is received.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz