It is with great joy that we gather today to celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi—The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Two weeks ago, we gathered on Pentecost Sunday to celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Church. Last week, we gathered on Trinity Sunday and celebrated that God is a unity of three persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and by the grace of our baptism we share in the life of the Blessed Trinity. And this week, the third in our trifecta of feasts, celebrates the source and summit of our lives as Christians—the gift of the Eucharist. It is Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, whom we receive in holy Communion and is present within the tabernacle of our churches. Today’s feast also marks the start of a three-year National Eucharistic Revival during which time we, as individuals, parishes, dioceses and country, are especially invited to fall even more deeply in love with Jesus’ Eucharistic presence.
Let us take a moment now to look at what brings us here and how we go forth. We begin by what brings us to this feast. The roots of this feast go back almost 800 years to the 1200s. St. Juliana Cornillon, a nun and mystic who lived in Belgium, had a vision of the moon in which there was a dark spot. A heavenly voice explained to her that the moon represented the church and the spot indicated the absence of a feast in the church that honored the Blessed Sacrament. After years of trying, she was able to convince her bishop, the future Pope Urban IV, to designate such a feast in their diocese. After his election as pope, not long after Juliana’s death, Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi for the universal church. Contemporaneous to the establishment of this feast, Urban also commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas to compose hymns in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. The hymns composed by St. Thomas include Pange Linge, Tantum Ergo, Panis Angelicus and O Salutaris Hostia and they continue to be sung at Eucharistic Adoration and feast days. In addition to the hymns he composed, however, the philosopher-theologian Thomas also helped us to enter even more deeply into the mystery of the Eucharist through his writings. Amongst his many teachings, Thomas helped us reflect upon the difference between the external appearance of people and things and what they truly are. He called the external appearance of things—what we perceive through our five senses—accidents. Beneath their outward appearance is the reality or substance of the person or object. The miracle of ordinary bread and wine becoming the Body and Blood of Jesus is the miracle of the accidents remaining the same, but the substance itself changing. What appears to be ordinary bread and wine becomes through the consecration at Mass, the Body and Blood of Jesus. This for Thomas is known as transubstantiation.
Let us, however, go even further back than the twelfth century. Let us indeed go back to the time that Jesus walked this earth and instituted the Eucharist. In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we hear the oldest written account of the Last Supper. St. Paul wrote this letter in the early 50s AD. It was only 20 years after the first Last Supper and St. Paul is handing on to the Corinthians and to us, what was handed on to us. He tells us how Jesus took bread and wine, blessed it and gave it to the Apostles, telling them to do this in remembrance of him. Perhaps as a parent you have been asked by a child why, on a Sunday, we have to get out of bed, delay getting together with friends or going home from the beach early in order to go Mass. Certainly, the third Commandment tells us to keep Holy the Sabbath and that would be a good answer. However, even more direct are Jesus’ words to his disciples to do what he did at the Last Supper in remembrance of him. It is at Mass that we do what Jesus told us to do.
Moreover, as we gather together today, we do not only remember a past event. We also enter into Jesus’ saving offering of himself on the Cross. St. John Paul II reminds us of this in his encyclical, The Church of the Eucharist as he writes: “The Church constantly draws her life from the redeeming sacrifice; she approaches it not only through faith-filled remembrance but also through a real contact since this sacrifice is made present ever anew, sacramentally perpetuated, in every community which offers it at the hands of the consecrated minister” . We may have perhaps been surprised with the Gospel reading today in which we heard of Jesus multiplying the fish and loaves in order to feed the thousands who had gathered that day. At first sight it may appear to be just one more miracle story. For the early church, however, it was not just one of Jesus’ many miracles. It is the only miracle story, apart from the Resurrection, that appears in each of the four Gospels. And it was significant for the early followers of Jesus as it is for us today for what it teaches us about the Eucharist. As we look a little more carefully at today’s Gospel and St. Luke’s account of the multiplication of the fish and loaves, we notice that the wording of what Jesus did as he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to his disciples is exactly the wording that is used to describe what Jesus did at the Last Supper as, the night before he died, took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to his disciples. The parallels between Mass and miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes continues in other ways also. St. Luke tells us that the crowd gathered in groups of 50. This detail parallels the way that the early church would gather in small communities in the homes of the first Christians and the way we continue to gather in parishes. The disciples brought forth the bread and fish that Jesus offered. Jesus’ action in the Gospel of taking and offering what the disciples brought to him parallels the action a Mass as bread and wine are brought forth and they, along the offering of ourselves, are offered by Jesus to the Father. In addition to the bread that Jesus multiplies and feeds to the crowd, fish are also multiplied and fed to the crowd. While fish would have been a natural staple in the diet of people living at the time of Jesus’ earthly life, the word “fish” had come to take on a deeper meaning after Jesus’ death. The word for “fish” in Greek is ichthus. The letters of this Greek word are the first letters of the Greek phrase, Jesus, Son of God, Savior. The significance of a fish symbolizing Jesus is born out by the way that the drawing of a fish are still able to be seen on the walls of the ancient catacombs in Rome or the way that the early Christians would identify themselves to one another by tracing the symbol of fish on the ground as they were speaking to one another. And so, as we think once again of today’s miracle account, it tells us how it is the story of Jesus not only feeding the crowd earthly food but it also prefigures the way that Jesus will ultimately be giving us the gift of his very self in the Eucharist.
Having reflected a bit on what brings us here, how do we go forth? After Mass today, we will have the opportunity to participate in a Corpus Christi Procession. We will be joining parishes and dioceses throughout the world in this traditional practice. Back on the Feast of Corpus Christi in 2008, Pope Benedict led a similar procession. He spoke of walking with the Lord and said that in walking in such a procession we are moving behind the one who is the way. In walking behind Jesus, Benedict continued, we are freed from our “paralysis” and enabled to go forward and proceed by taking step after step. As we go forth in procession today, and follow Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, may we be freed from that which holds us back from following Jesus. May we be a sign to the world around us of what truly sets us free. And may today’s Eucharistic feast and procession be the first of many opportunities over the next three years in which and by which we will fall even more deeply in love with our Eucharistic Lord.