Note: For a better read, check out Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's “What Corpus Christi means to me” from the Feast of Faith.
What is so special about Corpus Christi? Is not every Sunday Corpus Christi since the Eucharist is the celebration of the body and blood of Christ? What is unique about Corpus Christi is that it is associated with the annual procession during which the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament followed by the congregation, moves through the streets of his parish with stops along the way for adoration and at the end of it, gives a Benediction to the congregation. What is the purpose of the Corpus Christi procession?
Is it, according to some theologies, a pious practice arising from pagan past or just a superstitious feast arising out of ignorance? Consider these cases. A sacristan of a rural parish when running out of consecrated hosts during Communion time was told by the priest to replenish the ciborium. When the sacristan discovered that the Tabernacle had not enough consecrated hosts, he went to the sacristy, got unconsecrated hosts, added into the ciborium and shook them together, in order to “consecrate” them. That is ignorance arising from poor catechesis. In rural parts of a country, where cock-fighting is de rigueur, it is not uncommon for a person to secret away Holy Communion in order to feed his fighting cock so that it can spar better. Apart from poor catechesis, that is just pure superstition. Finally, there are some parents here who, when receiving Holy Communion, also do the same; they break a bit and feed it to their child. That is not just poor catechesis, ignorance but also a blatant disregard for the discipline of the Church.
When these things happen, then the procession of Corpus Christi can feel like a pious practice of pagan past or even be superstitious simply because we do not understand what we are really doing here. When there is ignorance, superstition or abuse, then the procession leads us closer to idolatry than we are to true worship.
So, what is the purpose of our procession? Why are Sunday school children and their parents asked to join in the procession?
The origin of this feast is to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist and the procession with the Blessed Sacrament, in essence, parallels everything that takes place during the great drama of last week of Jesus’ life, namely, (1) the procession on Palm Sunday and (2) as heard in the Gospel today, the procession to the Mount of Olives after the institution of the Eucharist. In the first procession, He enters Jerusalem in triumph and in the second, He enters into His betrayal and death. Both these processions are closely related and they bring us into the heart of every Eucharist. How so? On the one hand, His entry into Jerusalem climaxes with the cleansing of the Temple and that seals His death. On the other hand, His death is a necessary pre-condition for the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The cleansing of the Temple, resulting in His death, now gives rise to the new Temple no longer of the Law but of Love. In the Eucharist, celebrated in the new Temple of Love, when we are invited to share His life, we do two things: first, we anticipate His death and second, we look forward to the Resurrection.
Thus, you can perhaps appreciate that the liturgy of the early Church with its processions reflected this reality of His death and Resurrection not so much as a remembrance of an event past but rather an active accompanying of Christ the Victor in His triumphal entry to take possession of what belongs to Him. According to Pope Benedict XVI, essentially, the Holy Thursday procession is an accompanying of the Host, a walking with the Lord as He goes to deliver Himself up for us. But, because Maundy Thursday falls within Holy Week, the principal focus of those days must be on the Passion of the Lord.
What we cannot do during Holy Week, with the feast of Corpus Christi, the Church is able to express the elements of the Easter mystery in a manner which is befitting of the triumphant Lord as we invite Him to take possession of our streets and our squares. We are asking Christ to take possession not just of our lives but everything that we have. In some countries, Corpus Christi is celebrated in a manner reminiscence of a state visit by the head of state and here we have not just a head of state but the Head of State, the Lord of the world coming to our streets.
Thus, the manner in which we welcome Him is the measure of our acceptance of Him. In places with a longer Catholic tradition, houses along the route where the Lord is to pass by are beautifully decorated. The route is also carpeted richly with flower petals. Nothing, it seems, is too much to accord to the King.
It is not extravagance, not ostentation and certainly not, according to Judas, a waste of money. Rather, it is exuberance or if you like, euphoria. Why euphoria or why exuberance? According to the Pope, nothing can make us laugh unless we have an answer to the question of death. And only by possessing an answer to death will we dare to live genuine joy. Corpus Christi is our answer to the question of death because it celebrates Christ’s triumph and victory over death. In the Eucharist we find the answer we need to the question of death because the Eucharist is an encounter with a love that is stronger than death.
The Corpus Christi procession helps us to see or better understand that the meaning of “receiving” Holy Communion is not restricted to lining up and coming up to receive Holy Communion. In the procession, the meaning of receiving Holy Communion is expanded and is expressed fully because it means that we accompany the Victor over death in His triumphant procession through the streets. With an expanded understanding or vision, receiving also means to give the Lord the proper reception that is due to Him as the Victor over death. Now you understand why the Church is so insistent on the discipline with respect to reception of Holy Communion. I am sure the language of the sequence shocks you. The bread for God’s true children meant, that may not unto dogs be given. Why? The harshness of our language is more a statement of what we hold the sacrament to be and not, as it seems, a statement of those who are unable to receive Holy Communion. Indeed, the manner of our reception is the measure of our acceptance of Him. If we dressed shabbily, we shabbily receive Him. If a priest celebrates poorly, then he poorly receives His Lord.
Today, Corpus Christi means 3 things to us. First, it reminds us of who it is that we are receiving and what we are doing when we approach the Eucharist. Second, it gives us the chance to be grateful to the Lord, for so great a wondrous gift. Thirdly, we all want fellowship very much. Corpus Christi reminds us that we ought to look at the Lord together. It is He who has the power to unite us into one. It is like the Tower of Babel overturned or reversed. Then, the people wanted to go to God and they believed in their own strength. But, here we realise that unity is not our gift to God but rather unity is God’s gift to us and if we want unity, we need to look at the Lord.
We are not yet a Eucharistic people. We may think that we are as long as we receive Holy Communion on Sunday. But, Corpus Christi has broadened and deepened our understanding. Corpus Christi helps us to understand that Holy Communion also means 3 things. The Procession where we give proper reception due to the Lord of all creation; the Holy Communion at Mass where we receive the Body and Blood of Christ and finally the Adoration which is the continuation of the Mass and where we also receive Jesus spiritually.