Today’s great feast has been traditionally called Corpus Christi: the Body of Christ. Sometimes we can have something priceless in our possession, but don’t fully appreciate its unique value. Well, the Church’s proudest possession has always been the Eucharist, God’s greatest gift to His people. But perhaps we, too, do not always appreciate its unique value. From the Church’s earliest days, Christians assembled in private homes and relived the Last Supper; and Holy Communion was taken to the sick people who could not come. In his writings before his martyrdom, the priest, St. Justin (+165 AD) describes this in some detail for us.
The Mass and Holy Communion are as old as the Church herself. Gradually, the custom developed of keeping hosts for Holy Communion somewhere safe, so that they would be available to the priest or deacon in an emergency. We believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, even when reserved in the tabernacle. This is the body and blood of the risen and living Lord. He deserves our attention, indeed our adoration, not only at the moment of communion but whenever we come into the church. The greatest saint and scholar of the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas, wrote superb hymns in praise of the real presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament, some of which we still sing today.
Over many centuries, the custom developed of carrying the Blessed Sacrament in procession, for the veneration of believers unable to get to church. This is part of what we do on Holy Thursday evening – we take the Eucharist to the altar of repose, so there is a short procession around the church to our Adoration Chapel. But that night is a sad one, because Jesus is beginning His passion. So the Church, displaying the magnificence of this glorious gift she has always had in her possession, launched the springtime feast of Corpus Christi, or, as the Church now calls it, “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.” In many countries there are still processions through the streets, with the Eucharist exposed in a precious casing called a monstrance. The bells are rung, children scatter rose petals, citizens hang colored banners out their windows, and, even in some cases, the town band plays traditional hymns.
What about us? In the tabernacle, Our Lord is alive and welcoming. The sanctuary lamp, always burning, is a sign of that. Christ invites us to come and spend time with Him. The tabernacle is a place for a face-to-face encounter; and the face of the Lord is a challenging face, but also a smiling face, an understanding face, an encouraging face, a merciful and forgiving face. Since we are privileged to have a beautiful Chapel of Perpetual Adoration, we have an opportunity to spend time with the Lord. Here, in the Eucharist, we can have that quiet, prolonged, personal conversation that is the heart of all prayer.
Today is a day on which we can focus on the full beauty of this great gift God gives us. Those who never adore our Lord in the Eucharist risk becoming indolent and tepid in their relationship with Jesus. Those who adore our Lord but do so in a careless manner at least may start out with the right intention, but miss a golden opportunity to grow closer to Christ. Adoring our Lord devoutly is an expression of our love for God and our gratitude for His love and for all the gifts of His creation. In his homily for Corpus Christi celebrated last year in Vatican City, Pope Francis concluded with a call for solidarity with all those who do not have such freedom. “In a little while,” he said, “we shall walk along the road. Let us perceive ourselves in communion with our many brothers and sisters who do not have the freedom to express their faith in the Lord Jesus. Let us see ourselves united with them; let us sing with them, praise with them, adore with them. And we venerate in our hearts those brothers and sisters from whom the sacrifice of their lives has been required for fidelity to Christ: let their blood, united to that of the Lord, be a pledge of peace and reconciliation for the whole world.”
As you receive Holy Communion today, remember the elegant and simple words of St. Augustine regarding our reception of the Body and Blood of Jesus: “If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. What we receive is Christ who Himself is God, and as St. John tells us, ‘God is love’.” As we seek to pay fitting homage to our Eucharistic King through the devoted and careful celebration of the Holy Mass, may we always feel the gentle presence of Jesus, drawing us like a magnet into his company. In this way, may we come to an even greater realization that the law of the heart is love.