The celebration of the feast of Corpus Christi began 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 extended its observance to the whole Church and commissioned Saint Thomas Aquinas to compose music for the feast which are still used today such as ‘O Salutaris’ and ‘Tantum Ergo’.
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 one of his Eucharistic Songs, Saint 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 God’s people and His glory.
The Eucharist is at the heart of the Church. It is the beating heart of the Church. The heart cycle is composed of systole and diastole, contraction or concentration and expansion. Like the heart, 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 on earth, which is a procession to the kingdom. As Saint Augustine says: “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 the kingdom which has no end?”