Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger

Corpus Christi — or the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ — evokes memories of great joy and pride in Catholic identity for those of us, particularly Americans blessed with strong ethnic traditions. The origins of the festival can be traced to Belgium, the city of Liège, where a group of devout women, an archdeacon (Jacques Pantaléon) who eventually became Pope Urban IV, and a zeal for experiencing and promoting the presence of Christ in everyday life came together. The proclamation of the feast for universal observance (1264) quickly took hold in so many countries worldwide that it is difficult for many not to imagine it as something of a national celebration as well.

In my parish days in Ridgewood (Queens), members of our Polish, German, Italian and Latino populations always came together, celebrating with a procession throughout the neighborhood with hymns and prayers in all our languages, and stations (stops) at the homes of representative families of our ethnic communities. The focus, however, was always on Jesus-with-us. No national banners were carried about, not even a statue of Mary or some favorite patron saint.

Theologically, we understand the fundamentals of the Eucharistic mystery we proclaim: the Real Presence of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, under the form of the consecrated Bread and Wine. The procession is also an extension of the Mass, where Jesus is present in the whole community, deepening our awareness of the passionate longing of Jesus not only to be within us, feeding us personally with himself, but among us, to accompany us into the world to which he sends us as his disciples.

The three synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke — detail the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, leaving little doubt that Jesus is identifying himself, his whole reality, with this action that he commands his Apostles to do in perpetual memory of him, as they and the Church have always understood. Nowhere is the desire of Jesus to imbue us intimately with his presence revealed more graphically than in Chapter 6 of the Gospel of St. John. His words too are shockingly, even scandalously provocative to us as to the Twelve who, as Jews, would have recoiled at any suggestion of drinking blood. Thoughts of cannibalism might also have been part of the difficulty as the human imagination can hardly grapple with the intensity of the divine desire for total bonding with sinful human souls not only to sanctify them but to share the ecstasy of divine encounter. When questioned even more about the apparent absurdity of the revelation, Jesus doubles down with his insistence that we cannot have life unless we consume his living presence, his flesh and blood. We need him as food for life and for the journey of faith from here to eternity.

During the pandemic, many have experienced the holy longing for this intimate presence that cannot be shared fully by livestreaming and Zoom sessions. The need to be together with one another in this Eucharistic event which we call the Mass, also brings home the palpable reality of the Church as the Body of Christ, as St. Paul insists in calling us. We are most who we are when we are at Mass, the summit and substance of our identity.

The celebration of Corpus Christi also helps us experience, in a dramatic fashion, that the Real Presence of Christ, sacramentally within us and among us, is something that we carry into the world, into the streets, the highways and the byways of our lives. It proclaims the reality of parish life as being more than just “church-life,” in the sense that our life of faith cannot be confined just to a sacristy, a sanctuary or any ritual moment. Sacrament forms us, transforms us and impels us to be who we are transformed by and into: Christ himself, who is with us in the world.

As I was awed by the honor and privilege to carry through the streets of my parish the weight of the monstrance in which the sacred species is contained, I could not help but be aware of the wonder and curiosity of the many neighbors of all ages and faiths, leaning out their windows and standing at their doors, fascinated by this clear demonstration of something sacred and holy with us and among us. Jesus certainly knew that there would be a risk of objectifying the sacred species so that the food he intends his sacramental presence to be is rendered inaccessible to those who most need it. Jesus wants us all to be fed.

At the same time, he enjoins us to see his real, sacramental presence as holy and sacrificial, something that he died for to give us, because our sins denied him and led to his crucifixion. Awareness of the price of our salvation, and the confession of our sinful complicity as a condition of our openness to and reception of his Real Presence, is an essential component of our Catholic identity as a Church faithful to the reality of who Jesus is, our Savior who frees us from our sins. Jesus can only friend us fully when we confess him as Lord, when we accept him as he really is.

Although we do retain the species in tabernacles and enthrone it for benediction and processions such as we do on Corpus Christi, it is always understood as destined to be consumed and to nourish the soul, the spiritual life of those who say “Amen” to this gift of divine presence. The Eucharistic procession is not the only way in which we bear the presence of Christ, carrying him into the world. The practice of bringing Communion to the sick and homebound testifies to this. For this reason, we designate extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, primarily for this mission, so that Communion is not only for those who can be physically present at Mass.

Finally, for those of us privileged to be present at Mass and to receive Holy Communion, we bear in mind that we are to carry that gift into the world as, literally, tabernacles of the Holy Spirit, who become what we consume. Our mission as disciples is to be the presence of Jesus because we have been fed by him with himself and have become one with him — who is and the Gospel that he proclaims through us. Though of many tongues and nations, we teach and live one Faith, one Lord, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life (cf. Jn 14:6).