Processing to the Kingdom
Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ | Fr Allan White explains that the Eucharist is food for our pilgrim journey, which is a procession to the kingdom.
The celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi began in the merchant cities of the Low Countries in the Thirteenth Century. It was originally promoted by religious women who had developed a strong devotion to the adoration of Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. Pope Urban IV, at one time Archdeacon of Liege, extended its observance to the whole Church and commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to compose the Office for the feast. The hymns ‘O Salutaris’ and ‘Tantum Ergo’, traditionally sung at Benediction, are stanzas taken from St Thomas’s hymn Verbum Supernum. In many dioceses, including now the diocese of Rome, the feast has been detached from its traditional date of the first Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Until the reform of the liturgical calendar Trinity Sunday was kept as the last day of the Easter Season. Fixing the celebration of Corpus Christi on that day marked a connection between the feast and the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday. It was thought that the somber events of the Passion and death of Jesus overshadowed the Triduum, and did not allow for an appropriate expression of joy at the gift the Lord makes of himself in the Eucharist. A special feast was therefore established on the earliest possible day after Easter, but which would maintain the connection with the sacred Triduum.
In many Catholic countries on Corpus Christi, processions of the Blessed Sacrament wind through the streets of the towns and villages, as the people sing and pray. What we celebrate is the triumph of Christ the King who comes to take possession of the kingdom he has won through his defeat of all earthly powers. Our procession mirrors the great triumphs of Roman generals who paraded through Rome with their victorious army after a successful campaign. The Te Deum, the hymn we sing on Sundays and solemn feast days, gives an image of such a procession. It lists the ranks of apostles, prophets and the white robed army of martyrs. In a Roman triumph the soldiers marched unarmed and in their white togas through the city; the martyrs are their spiritual counterparts. In the ordered ranks of the magistrates, the army, and the representative bodies of the city, the people of Rome saw themselves reflected. In the Eucharist we look on that which sacramentally we are: the Body of Christ living with his life.
In his sequence, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, St.Thomas speaks of the bread of angels sent for pilgrims in their banishment. The Eucharist is food for our journey. In the readings today a direct connection is made with the original miraculous bread showered on the people of Israel during their pilgrimage of redemption from slavery in Egypt. The manna that rained down from heaven was quite specific in where it fell. It was not scattered indiscriminately over the desert, but was gathered from around the tents and in the confines of the camp. The manna separated the people from what surrounded them. It marked them out as having a special identity and the privilege of a special mission. It made them into one people. It forged them into one body to be an instrument of God’s glory.
The Eucharist is at the heart of the Church. It is the beating heart of the Church. The cardiac cycle is composed of systole and diastole, contraction or concentration and expansion. The Eucharist is dynamic. It draws us together but in order to send us out. The manna ceased to fall when the people crossed the Jordan. It was an anticipation of that life they would enjoy with God in the land. It was food for the journey. The Eucharist is food for our pilgrim journey, which is a procession to the kingdom. ‘There we shall rest and see, we shall see and love and praise. Behold what will be at the end without end. For what other end do we have, if not to reach he kingdom which has no end?’
(St. Augustine, De civ. Dei 22,30,5:PL 41,804.)
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a Corpus Christi Procession in Oxford.