In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is the feast of Corpus Christi – the day on which we celebrate the gift of life, the gift of God’s own Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us: a gift perpetuated among God’s people in the Eucharist.
Historically, the feast of Corpus Christi was, as it were, an extension of Maundy Thursday, the day on which we celebrate the Mass of the Last Supper and the institution of the Holy Eucharist. But because Maundy Thursday is rightly contextualized by the great and broader considerations of Holy Week, our Lord’s suffering and death, the Church thought it salutary to dedicate a feast exclusively for the consideration of the Body of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. And so this feast came to be universally observed in the western Church after a proclamation of Pope Urban IV in the year 1264.
The most conspicuous feature of the observance of Corpus Christi has been, from the 13th century onward, a procession of the Blessed Sacrament, after the mass of the day, and we will continue that tradition here this morning, as we have done in years past, concluding with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
The question remains: what are we doing? And why are we doing it? We are, most fundamentally, worshiping Jesus in his Eucharistic presence. As I said earlier, the mass is the primary means by which Jesus perpetuates his presence among us, and so fulfills his true promise to be with us always, even to the close of the age (Matthew 28.20).
But, to appropriate a phrase of St. Paul, “Lo! I will tell you a mystery” – namely, and this should be a little provocative: The Holy Eucharist CREATES the Church. It is how we are constituted as God’s people. On a very basic level we can see this in the simple fact that THIS IS WHAT CHRISTIANS DO. It is what Christians have always done, in obedience to Jesus’ own command to “Do this, in remembrance of me,” (cf. Luke 22.19). Again, St. Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes,” (1 Corinthians 11.26). God’s people, the Church, are the ones who proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. And so “eating this bread” and “drinking this cup” is what creates and constitutes the Church. It is, in an important sense, what it MEANS to be the Church. What is the Church? The communion of persons who proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. How is the Lord’s death proclaimed? It is proclaimed whenever we eat this bread and drink this cup. The Holy Eucharist creates and constitutes the Church.
But the Eucharist considered as the creation of the Church, the constitution of God’s people, evokes the first Passover, the Passover of the Jews, of which the mass is archetype and prophetic fulfillment. Pope Benedict said:
This leads us to reflect on the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. It took place within a ritual meal commemorating the foundational event of the people of Israel: their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. This ritual meal, which called for the sacrifice of lambs (cf. Ex 12:1-28, 43-51), was a remembrance of the past, but at the same time a prophetic remembrance, the proclamation of a deliverance yet to come. The people had come to realize that their earlier liberation was not definitive, for their history continued to be marked by slavery and sin. The remembrance of their ancient liberation thus expanded to the invocation and expectation of a yet more profound, radical, universal and definitive salvation. This is the context in which Jesus introduces the newness of his gift. In the prayer of praise, the Berakah, he does not simply thank the Father for the great events of past history, but also for his own “exaltation.” In instituting the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus anticipates and makes present the sacrifice of the Cross and the victory of the resurrection. At the same time, he reveals that he himself is the true sacrificial lamb, destined in the Father’s plan from the foundation of the world, as we read in The First Letter of Peter (cf. 1:18-20). By placing his gift in this context, Jesus shows the salvific meaning of his death and resurrection, a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos. The institution of the Eucharist demonstrates how Jesus’ death, for all its violence and absurdity, became in him a supreme act of love and mankind’s definitive deliverance from evil.
Just as the Jews, through their ritual celebration of the Passover meal, show themselves to be the People whom God delivered from slavery in Egypt; so we now, through our celebration of the Eucharist, show ourselves to be the people whom God delivered from slavery to the elemental spirits of the universe (cf. Colossians 2.20), and from death itself, by our incorporation into the crucified and risen Lord. So the celebration of the Eucharist constitutes us, CREATES us, as a people – as THE People of God. The Eucharistic elements are therefore truly “The gifts of God, for the People of God.”
We might well ask: Why? This consideration invites us deeper into the mystery of our faith. And the answer is: because God loves us. I have said before that at the foundation of philosophical inquiry is the question of why there should be something rather than nothing. Why is there a creation to begin with – if God is perfect in himself, needing nothing to add to his perfection, why should he create anything at all? The answer – and it is an answer which leaves the mystery intact – is that he loves us. This mysterious answer finds expression in the words of the Psalm (139):
…while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in
all of them were written in your book;
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
The Eucharist shows us God’s eternal love. As a sublime refraction, a re-presentation of Calvary, it is as it were a proof of this divine love that overflows in the very act of our creation and re-creation. Again, Pope Benedict:
The Eucharist reveals the loving plan that guides all of salvation history (cf. Eph 1:10; 3:8- 11). There the Deus Trinitas, who is essentially love (cf. 1 Jn 4:7-8), becomes fully a part of our human condition. In the bread and wine under whose appearances Christ gives himself to us in the paschal meal (cf. Lk 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11:23-26), God’s whole life encounters us and is sacramentally shared with us. God is a perfect communion of love between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. At creation itself, man was called to have some share in God’s breath of life (cf. Gen 2:7). But it is in Christ, dead and risen, and in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, given without measure (cf. Jn 3:34), that we have become sharers of God’s inmost life. (16) Jesus Christ, who “through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God” (Heb 9:14), makes us, in the gift of the Eucharist, sharers in God’s own life. This is an absolutely free gift, the superabundant fulfilment of God’s promises. The Church receives, celebrates and adores this gift in faithful obedience. The “mystery of faith” is thus a mystery of trinitarian love, a mystery in which we are called by grace to participate. We too should therefore exclaim with Saint Augustine: “If you see love, you see the Trinity.”
If you see love, you see the Trinity. In a few minutes, at the end of the mass, some of the bread we are about to consecrate will be put into the monstrance and reposed on the altar. We will kneel down and worship Jesus there, and as the Blessed Sacrament is carried in procession around the church. We will then be blessed by the Host – as I take the monstrance from the altar and make the sign of the cross. In answer to the question of what the faithful should be doing while this is going on, old devotional manuals said that we should make the sign of the cross, as it is made over us, but they say, more simply, that we should LOOK and adore, repeating quietly to ourselves the name of Jesus.
A great part of the point of all this is in the looking – in SEEING in the Eucharistic bread the locus of the mystery of this Trinitarian love, which overflows eternally, bending its force, as John Donne said, to break, blowe, burn and make us new.
I will close by suggesting that when we gaze adoringly on the Sacred Host, we are caught up in a great overflowing stream of devotion. We stand with all who are united to Jesus by love, and therefore dear to the heart of God the Father, with the women who, St. Luke’s Gospel says, followed Jesus from Galilee to Golgotha, and “stood at a distance and SAW these things,” (Luke 23.49) – these mysteries of agonized, ecstatic love, recreating the cosmos, making all things new (Rev. 21.5). When we look adoringly at the elevated Host, we look forward already to the heavenly vision where we shall see him unveiled. And we fulfill now, in our own small way, the prophecy of Job (19.25-27), who said:
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and at last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then from my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.
My heart faints within me!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The extended block quotes in this sermon are from Benedict XVI’s apostolic exhortation, “Sacramentum Caritatis.”