The Feast of Corpus Christi
An excerpt from Paraliturgical Devotions
of the Western Chruch And Their role
By the V. Rev. Edward W. Hughes
THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI
As it was stated earlier, devotion to the Blessed Sacrament must be considered in light of the Liturgy. And as we saw with regard to the Scared Heart, the liturgy of the feast tends to be very clear about the teachings of the Church regarding the subject of the feast. Therefore, it is best to begin examination of the Blessed Sacrament devotions with the feast of that Sacrament.
This feast has its origin in the thirteenth century. One Saint Julians, a prioress near the city of Liege, requested the institutions of the feast by the local ordinary. He compiled in 1246 making it a local feast. Shortly after that, Pope Urban IV, who had been archdeacon in Liege, instituted the feast for the entire Church.¹ The feast is seen as an affirmation of the nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and a thanksgiving to God for it. It is recognized that Holy Thursday is most appropriate for such a feast except that this time at the end of Holy Week is overshadowed by the closeness of Good Friday. Therefore, it is celebrated immediately at the end of Paschaltide² which again points to something in the nature of the Sacrament. It is one of the primary ways Christ comes to us during this middle time, while we await His second and glorious coming. Therefore, the Eucharist is the theme of the feast very near the Ascension and Pentecost when Christ promises to be with us always and sends the Comforter.
Strictly speaking, such a feast is not paraliturgical since its entire expression is liturgical. It would be however a grave omission to speak of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament without mentioning its greatest expression and also one which is clearly expresses the western church’s view on the nature of the Sacrament. All paraliturgical devotions, also, can be recognized here in a liturgical context. All are derived from the feast and find their meaning in the feast.
Being such a late feast, the Office and Mass were composed or edited at once, especially for this feast. It is not a result of ages of growth. Thomas Aquinas put it together at the request for the Pope Urban IV. He as extremely conscious of the role of the liturgy in expressing the faith, and this feast is a masterpiece of liturgical composition.
Rather than examine the service in its entirety, which would be far too lengthy, some quotations from it will serve to show what the western church believes it is doing in this feast.
Let us adore Christ the King, the Lord of nations, who gives marrow for the spirit to those who eat Him. ³
The reason for adoration is clear. It is because of the goodness of the Lord and the effect of His Sacrament. In the magnificent Matin hymn, the stanza Panis Angelicus stands out. The hymn itself traces the institution of the Sacrament on Holy Thursday and then theologizes:
The Bread of Angels become man’s Bread; the Bread from Heaven puts an end to the types. What marvelous happening is this; the poor, the servant, the lowly feeds upon His Lord.
We ask you, Godhead three and one, to come to us even as we worship you. Guide us along your paths to our journey’s end to the light in which You dwell. 4
Here we see very clearly just what the Sacrament is and what the goal of receiving it is. We will note that throughout the services of the feast, the emphasis in the text is upon the value and benefits of receiving the Sacrament, while the external rites emphasize the very presence of Christ. The two must not be seen apart from each other but together for the fulfillment of adoration must be communion. This was the age of the greatest proliferation of devotion to the gifts themselves, but at the same time this service was composed which places all importance on the benefits of receiving. Both go together, chronologically as well as ideally.
The antiphon at Noctourns recalls the consecration thanksgiving of the Didache:
Having grown by the fruit of grain and wine, the faithful rest in Christ's peace.
It is by the communion of the chalice in which God Himself is consumed not by the blood of calves that the Lord has brought us together. 5
Here is the ecclesiological value of the Eucharist; it is as St. Paul says that one bread and one cup make us one Body in Christ.
What men seek from food and drink is to do away with hunger, dispel thirst. But certainly, the only food or drink that will accomplish this is something that renders the partakers free from death and decay; this implies participation in the fellowship of the saints, where peace and fully perfect unity are to be found. In harmony with this as men of God grasped long before our time, our Lord Jesus Christ gave us His body and blood in the form of those things which are produced by the assimilation of many into one. For bread is made by the union of many grains of wheat, while wine results from the blending of many grapes. Finally, now Christ explains how His word is fulfilled, what it means to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
R. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, he abides in me and I in him.
V. There is no other nation so great, that has gods so close to it as our God is to us. He abides in me and I in Him. 6
This is a quotation from a homily of St. Augustine which appears in Nocturns with the antiphon which immediately follows it. The homily is an excellent statement on the power of the Eucharist. The antiphon is magnificent and touching. “God is with us” in a very intimate way. It is the fulfillment of the prophecies, it is the fulfillment of the Incarnation.
The theme of the Incarnation is picked up by Thomas Aquinas in his own homilies which he includes in the Office. He also touches on Salvation and even theosis:
How inestimable a dignity the divine bounty has bestowed upon us Christians from the treasury of its infinite goodness! There neither is nor ever has been a people to whom the gods drew so near s our Lord and God draws near to us. Desiring that we be made partakers of His divinity, the only begotten Son of God has taken to Himself our nature, so that having become man, He would be enabled to make men godlike, whatever He assumed of our nature became instrumental in the work of our salvation. For on the altar of the Cross He immolated to the Father His own body as victim for our reconciliation and shed His blood both for our ransom and for our regeneration. And so, we were liberated from our wretched bondage, washed clean of all our sins. Moreover, in order that a remembrance of such great benefactions may always be with us, He left the faithful His body to be taken as food and His blood drink under the appearances of Bread and Wine. 7
This is one of three sermons included in the hours by St. Thomas. All speak well of God's entire economia and what the Eucharist represents in that entire scheme.
The hymn Verbum Supernum also recalls the Incarnation, the institution of the Sacrament and looks to eschatological fulfillment.
The heavenly Word came forth and yet did not leave the Father's right hand. He went out to His work and came to His Life's evening.
When He was about to be given over by a disciple to His enemies unto death, He first gave Himself over to His disciples as the food of Life.
He gave them His flesh and blood under two species for it to be the food of the whole man, who is of twofold nature.
By His birth He became man's companion; at this supper He became man's food; in His death He became man's price; in His kingdom He becomes man's prize.
Saving victim, opening wide heaven's gate, wars and enemies press hard upon us; give us strength, bring us help.
Everlasting praise be to the Lord, one and three. May He give us everlasting life in the land where dwells our Father. Amen. 8
Observe how the whole Christ is there in all His saving action. This is not a reduction or a partial emphasis by any means. The Sacrament is seen as it fits into the entire scheme of salvation not as an entity in and of itself.
In the Mass of the feast, we find the sequence, which is a long hymn of very short verses giving praise and thanks to God for the Sacrament.
... See today before us laid the living and life-giving Bread. (Panis vivus et vitalis) theme for praise and joy profound.
... Lo! upon the altar lies hidden deep from human eyes bread of angels from the made the food of mortal man.
... Jesus, Shepherd of the sheep! Thou thy flock in safety keep living Bread! Thy life supply strengthen us, or else we die fill us celestial Grace. 9
Other stanzas trace the institution of the Sacrament and also the effects of receiving it. Those quoted best explain the meaning of the feast itself. The thanksgiving, the meditation on the Eucharist itself, and prayer.
The actual ceremonial of the feast is what people are most familiar with and the event that comes to mind when one thinks of this feast.
From the time of the communion of the Mass, the Sacrament isi placed in a monstrance and exposed to view. After the Mass, it is carried in procession either within the Chrusth or outside, especially in Catholic countries. This procession can become an elaborate affair with thousands participating and observing. The procession ends with Benediction with the Sacrament and may be followed by a period of exposition. 10
It had been mentioned that the first procession with the Sacrament was held on Palm Sunday during the Eleventh Century. 11 This had been in response to the popularity of Berengarius heresy. There is a striking similarity between this procession of the Sacrament and the Eastern procession of icons on the first Sunday in Lent. Both are ceremonial affirmations of the faith of the Church in response to a widespread heresy. The Sunday of Orthodoxy was arranged and written to affirm the Church’s belief in Christ’s presence in the Sacrament, and the Service of Corpus Christi was instituted and written to affirm and teach the Church’s faith in the Eucharist and the nature of salvation in general. St. Thomas used the feast as a didactic opportunity to teach much about the faith as a whole.
We have seen what the west church affirms in the tests of the liturgy. The regulations concerning the external forms are also carefully thought out to preserve the proper perspective on the nature of the Sacrament. The original feast did not include the now popular procession and exposition. These are later developments. At first it was only the regular services of the Church with their excellent texts. The idea of the procession with the Sacraments which had been carried out at other times of the year such as Palm Sunday was transferred to this feast. This procession would have to have been with the sacrament exposed as today, however, by the 15th century, the Sacrament was exposed which according to King, accounts for the growth in the popularity of the custom. 2
It has been stated that the purpose of the Sacrament is that it be consumed. This is evident also in the texts of Corpus Christi itself. The idea is followed even in this case. Two hosts are consecrated at the Mass of the day, one especially for the procession and exposition. Yet it would seem that this Host is treated as an extended part of the priest’s communion. In the procession and benedictions, only the priest who celebrated is supposed to carry it and bless with it, 13 and it is he who consumes it after the ceremonies during a later Mass. In a sense it is similar to the practice of reservation of the Sacrament from one liturgy to the next, symbolically, during the first centuries in Rome. Ideally also, the procession is to take place immediately at the end of the liturgy of the Mass. 14 This is to maintain the connection with the Mass of which it is an extension.
Processions themselves are an ancient way of showing honor to someone and also a sign of joy. The Church has processions of relics, statues, or icons to show honor to these things (that is, to their antitypes) and to rejoice in them. This is exactly the case with the Sacrament. By proceeding with it the Church expresses joy and thanksgiving for the gift of the Eucharist, as well as showing honor due to the Sacrament as Christ’s presence in a unique way. In the intent the context of the liturgy and the offices of the day as well as the Church’s entire teaching on the Eucharist prevent any general reduction to a superstitious worshipping of the elements.
The idea of exposing the Sacrament is a later idea. It seems to have originated around the end of the 13th century in the countries of Northern Europe. 15 Many writers believe that the need to look upon the Sacrament arose from a lessening of communions at the time - - the people replacing reception with mere gazing. Partly that may be true, but these were also the times when relics were quite popular. Expositions of relics drew large crowds (and turned in a good deal of money). Perhaps during the late Middle Ages, it was a part of the culture of the north to need visual contact occasionally with that which was held in reverence. 16 It is true that even now political figures must take care to be seen often in order to keep the people happy. Humans need to see. Apophatic theology was never a popular piety anywhere.
In the east, there is certainly much opportunity for visual contemplation of the divine – through icons primarily. It is interesting to note that the parallels between devotion of icons in various forms in the east are often identical with devotion to the Blessed Sacrament in the west. The procession of icons on Orthodoxy Sunday has already been noted. Of striking interest is the watching over the Epitaphios during Holy Week. In the west, after the stripping of the Altar on Holy Thursday night, the reserved Sacrament is also removed to some other place outside of the main sanctuary. It is the custom to watch at this “Altar of Repose” until midnight of Thursday. This altar is usually extravagantly decorated with flowers, reminiscent of a funeral home. In actual practice and piety, it is nearly identical with the eastern watching over the Epitaphios. The atmosphere is strikingly identical. Historically this is even truer. The Holy Thursday watching is all that is left of a rite from the Middle Ages of ritually “burying” some of the reserved Sacrament, placing it in a special Easter Sepulchre and keeping watch there until the Easter resurrection service at which time the Sacrament, often exposed, would be joyously brought out of the “sepulchre” and taken to the altar. 17 This almost exactly parallel to our Eastern rite of the Epitaphios. Some Uniates have seen the connection and when they set out the epitaphios, they also set the reserved Eucharist in a chalice on top of it! This is a logical connection of the two rites.
Gregory Dix feels that the reason that veneration of the reserved Sacrament never grew important in popular piety in the east is that the Iconostas with closed doors prevented the tabernacle from being seen. 18 In his view, the possibility of visual contact or lack of it was the determining factor in the development of “Eucharistic Piety.” There is some psychological connection between visual contact and communication. People look at someone they are talking to even to the point that some will concentrate on a loudspeaker when it is used for an announcement. For this reason, many people claim that icons help them to pray. It is more natural to have some visual focus in communicating. As such, the Eucharist can be psychologically very powerful, especially when seen as the physical way Our Lord comes to us in the time between His two comings. In the mind of the pious believer, nothing is so good a focus for his prayers to his Lord. One must note that most devotions to the Sacrament are addressed to Christ Himself present, not to the Sacrament as such.
At the end of a period of exposition, the feast of Corpus Christi ends with a “Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.” In this service, the congregation present is blessed with the sign of the cross made with the Sacrament. This act is customary in communing sick from the reserved Sacrament also. The rubrics prescribe that after communing the sick, all present be blessed with the pyx, containing the Sacrament. 19 In this context, it seems quite as natural as the blessing Orthodox receive during the Liturgy after communion, when the gifts are removed to the table of prosthesis. It is also again very similar and even parallel to the rites of the east at the leave-taking of any feast. At the elevation of the cross, for example, the hymns to the Cross are sung, the Cross is censed, and then it is taken up from the center of the church and the people are blessed with it. Also at the leave-taking of any other feast, the same is done with the appropriate icon. Here, this is the leave-taking of the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. The Sacrament, like the Cross or Icon was exposed in the Church for veneration. The Hymns of the feast are sung, the Sacrament is censed, and the people are blessed with it. This is the logical leave-taking of the feast.
Taken as a whole, the feast can be seen to closely parallel the eastern feast of the Cross. In this feast, the east rejoices in, gives thanksgiving for and honors and even prays directly to the Cross. In an exact parallel, the west rejoices in, gives thanksgiving for and honors the Eucharist as Christ’s gift of Himself. Both feasts are strongly soteriological, remembering many of the same points of Christ’s saving act, and both tend to make reference to the temporal salvation from enemies. Finally both feasts share many of the same outward rituals.