There’s something wrong, or at least not quite right, about Corpus Christi, the medieval feast established by Pope Urban IV in 1263. Like Trinity Sunday and the American holiday of Thanksgiving it involves an ignorance about Eucharist in the ancient Church. What’s wrong with Trinity Sunday? Why have such a feast, when the Trinity is revealed and reverenced in every Mass, because what we do in Mass is to offer worship to God the Father, in the name of the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. What’s wrong with Thanksgiving in November? Every Mass is the Church’s great act of Thanksgiving, one she never ceases to offer. The very word “Eucharist,” coming from the Greek “to give thanks,” says as much. And what’s wrong with Corpus Christi? Eucharist is more act than artifact. Eastern Orthodoxy shares Catholicism’s belief in the Real Presence but never developed much practice of Eucharistic adoration apart from the liturgy. Like many liturgists today, the Eastern Churches emphasize that the Eucharistic elements exist primarily to be consumed as part of a ritual meal. And, given the fact that more and more Catholics are beginning to treat Holy Communion along the lines of “take-out” fare, seeking access to it outside of Mass, even without being sick, both liturgists and the Orthodox are on solid ground.
So what’s wonderful? It’s hard to get much more Catholic than Corpus Christi. In his magisterial The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580, the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy offers this description of the feast’s rapid spread through medieval England.
Observed in England from 1318 and seized on by the authorities as an occasion for the promotion of both charity and Christian catechesis, the feast rapidly won popular allegiance. Its progress in lay affections can be traced in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the foundation and spread of Corpus Christi gilds to honour the Host as it was carried in procession, and the emergence of the Corpus Christi processions as major civic events. Craft gilds and urban corporations saw in the ritual order of the great processions associated with the feast an opportunity for civic and social iconography, the display of piety an opportunity for the display of the worship and the social clout of those involved. In Tudor York it was required that “for the honour of god and worship of this Citie” the citizens whose houses lay along the route of the procession with the Host should “hang before ther doores and forefrontes beddes and coverynges of beddes of the best that thay can gytt and strewe before ther doores resshes and other such flowres...for the honour of god and worschip of this Citie.”...Particularly in urban parishes Corpus Christi became a focus of elaborate ceremonial and lavish expenditure on banners, garlands, lights: the gilds, not the clerks, took over the management of the processions. These celebrations also became the principal occasions for the performance of cycles of devotional and didactic plays on the theme of salvation history, which in some places involved virtually the whole community (44-45).
So, when it comes to Corpus Christi, why chose wonderful over wrong? Because taking the consecrated host in procession through the area surrounding the local Church is a way of insisting that our glorified Christ has a corporeal, rather than simply a spiritual, presence in the cosmos.
While so many other religions, and other branches of Christianity, equate the divine with the spiritual, with this feast, Catholicism rather brusquely responds by insisting that the Incarnation, the taking on the flesh which began with the Annunciation, remains a reality in the Church, in the cosmos today, even after the Resurrection and the Ascension. One might say that in the Feast of Corpus Christi Eucharist becomes ecology.
The very design of the monstrance, the object used to display the consecrated host, says as much. The host rests transparent behind the glass or crystal at the center of the monstrance, surrounded by rays that carry its presence out into the cosmos. And even Duffy’s description of social hierarchies, shuffling with each other for pride of place around the host, is a way of asserting Christ’s presence among us, as one of us, much like Queen Elizabeth II, making her way down the River Thames last weekend, the riverbanks and the river itself thronged with folk wanting to participate in the royal progress.
The Eucharist wasn’t meant to go on parade. Neither were monarchs originally. But divine progress through fields and streets is a way of saying that we are not alone, that the earth and our thoroughfares have themselves been raised by Christ into a new order, a new cosmos. Granted, there’s something wrong with Corpus Christi, but, all the same, something rather wonderful.
Terrance W. Klein