We celebrated Trinity Sunday last Sunday. The Thursday following, June 20, was the feast of Corpus Christi, a day of thanksgiving for the Eucharist. In some countries – like Germany, where I was at the Diocesan Synod last week – it’s a public holiday. Where it’s not a holiday, it makes sense to transfer its celebration to the following Sunday, which is what we shall do.
Corpus Christi is a very popular festival in some churches. Arundel Roman Catholic cathedral in England is famous for the carpet of flowers that they have along the nave for the feast. In Nice, our celebration will be much less elaborate. However, it does provide us with a chance to consider the importance of the Eucharist in our lives.
I remember – as I am sure many readers will – when I first received communion. I had just gone away to school and I was confirmed in my second term. It was a February day in 1967. Even now, it remains vivid. The same can be said of the first time, a dozen years later in Oxford, when I first helped with the chalice and gave communion.
In both cases, my primary memory is what I felt Later, I learnt about the theology of the Eucharist but my first, formative encounters were more to do with feeling – devotion might better express it.
Religious feeling was the reason for the inception of the feast of Corpus Christi. A vision led a nun called Juliana of Liège to long for a special feast day to give full value to the veneration that she felt for the Eucharist.
She had this vision repeatedly over a period of twenty years but she kept it secret. Only her confessor knew of her experience.
Later he told her bishop and Juliana petitioned a number of influential people, including the future pope, Urban IV, then archdeacon of Liege and her own bishop Robert de Thorete.
At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so in 1246 Bishop Robert convened a synod and ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held each year thereafter.
The celebration of Corpus Christi became widespread only after both St. Juliana and Bishop Robert de Thorete had died. In 1264, Pope Urban IV declared it a feast through the Western Church.
St. Thomas Aquinas composed a new liturgy for this, which included the well know hymns Pange Lingua and Tantum Ergo. The readings for the day were also set at the same time: St Paul’s account of the first Eucharist in his first letter to the Corinthians (actually the earliest New Testament account of it, pre-dating the Gospels) and Jesus’ description of himself in John’s Gospel as the living bread.
The feast of Corpus Christi bears some resemblance to Maundy Thursday, but Maundy Thursday includes other elements apart from the Institution of the Eucharist: Christ gives a New Commandment (“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you.” John 13:34); he washes the disciples’ feet; and he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Corpus Christi gives us the opportunity to focus exclusively on the Eucharist itself, its meaning and significance and the gratitude that we feel for it.
You will remember from when we celebrated the feast of Pentecost, that Jesus did not want to leave his disciples – or, by extension, us – comfortless. So, the gift of the Holy Spirit was given to the church, so that we might experience the presence of God anywhere and at any time. But Jesus also gave us the gift of the Eucharist so that we might continue to know his presence throughout our lives.