HOMILY for the Solemnity of Corpus et Sanguis Christi
We celebrate the Eucharist every day, worshipping Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and venerating his Real Presence in every Mass. So why this special Solemnity in honour of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ? In brief, a Norbertine canoness of Liège, in what is now Belgium, received mystical visions in which she recognized that the liturgical calendar was incomplete without a special feast to honour the Mystery of the Eucharist. Several theologians were consulted about this, including eminent Dominicans, and they advised the bishop of Liège to permit a local celebration of Corpus Christi. The first such celebration was in 1246.
Among the Dominicans present and involved was the theologian and famed preacher, Hugh of St Cher, who was then Provincial of France. Hugh was a great supporter of women’s religious movements, and it seems that he saw this feast, coming from the initiative of St Julienne of Liège, as one instance of the sensus fidelium at work in the Church. And he was so impressed by this celebration that he began to promote it far and wide. In 1263, Hugh is in Orvieto where his Dominican confrère St Thomas Aquinas was living and teaching, and one year on in 1264 we find St Thomas working on a new set of liturgical texts for the feast of Corpus Christi. For St Thomas had been commissioned by Pope Urban IV, who had been Archdeacon of Liège, to turn his considerable poetic talent and theological acumen to compiling the Scriptural passages, and writing antiphons, hymns, prayers, and poetry for the Mass and Office of this new feast day. These liturgical texts put together by St Thomas Aquinas are all of a solidly Biblical character, and they still used by us today, in several different contexts apart from this feast day, such as during Benediction or sung in part as motets. As such, I think that they are the most well-known of St Thomas’ work, for few can cite St Thomas’ teaching from the Summa but they can quote the Tantum ergo or have heard the Panis Angelicus.
But of all the texts we find on today’s feast extolling this great Sacrament and expounding the Mystery of our Faith, the finest and most musically exuberant is arguably St Thomas’ Sequence hymn, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, which was sung before today’s Gospel (see video below). It is a wonderful summary by St Thomas of our Catholic faith, drawn from Scripture and Tradition, concerning the Eucharist.
As you may have already noticed, then, it’s been 750 years since St Thomas wrote these texts. And 750 years ago, on 11 August 1264, Pope Urban IV also wrote a text, a document called Transiturus de hoc mundo, in which he encouraged the universal Church, and not just the local church of Liège, to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi. Hence this year is the 750th anniversary of the institution of this beautiful feast; a special celebration, indeed, which is, in the words of fr Paul Murray OP, “a liturgy of the Church prompted by the dream-vision of a young girl, and given final literary shape and form by the greatest theologian of the period”.
So, to return to the question I asked at the beginning – why celebrate a special feast of the Eucharist? – Pope Urban IV gives an answer. He notes in Transiturus that the memorial of institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday takes place at such a busy time when we are otherwise occupied with other activities like “the reconciliation of penitents, blessing the chrism, fulfilling the Commandment about the washing of the feet, and many other things” – you can see that this was a former Archdeacon with much pastoral experience! So, he says, that just as we keep a feast of All Saints when we can gather especially to remember those saints whom we were too busy to celebrate on their proper feast days during the course of the year, so, likewise, he thinks we should keep a special feast of the Eucharist. He says: “This feast must shine with a special festivity and honour so that whatever of solemnity is perhaps omitted in other Masses might be supplied in this feast with diligent devotion”. Again, with a realism that comes from pastoral experience, Pope Urban acknowledges that during the year we may attend Masses, even daily, and do so in a distracted or hurried way, “perhaps from negligence of human frailty”. But today, on the feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Urban exhorts us to “attentively restore what was lacking and do so in humility of spirit and purity of heart”. Thus Pope Francis said that “On Holy Thursday we remember the institution of the Eucharist. On Corpus Christi we adore It”.
Today’s feast, then, is a graced opportunity given to us by Christ’s Church to gather and solemnly adore Our Lord who is really present here for us. We gather today to strengthen our faith in the Mystery of the Eucharist; to increase our loving contemplation of this great Gift of Christ’s Body and Blood; and to publicly give thanks for the marvellous work God is doing as he faithfully comes and walks alongside Mankind – He, who is God-with-us – through this great Sacrament. The simple Procession that we’ll walk after this Mass is an expression of all this. For, as Pope Urban says, this “is the memorial most sweet and salvific in which we gratefully recall the memory of our redemption, in which we are drawn from evil, strengthened in good, and secure an increase in virtues and graces”.
Therefore, on this feast of Corpus Christi, let us, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, feast on his Body and Blood; feast on God’s goodness and sweet graces; feast on the eternal life and love that comes from Our Lord. For as Jesus promises us: “whoever eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:58). And let us also feast on the teaching of St Thomas embodied in the liturgical texts of this Mass and Office; going home and meditating on what Truth has revealed to him (some texts here). Thus, as Pope Urban IV said, we shall be so overwhelmed with joy and gratitude that we can let “faith sing, hope dance, and charity exult; let devotion applaud, the choir be jubilant, and purity delight; [let us celebrate] the solemnity of so great a feast”!