The timing of the Feast of Corpus Christi is not accidental. As a celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and as an affirmation of the Church's belief in the Real Presence, Corpus Christi is in some sense a reprise of Holy Thursday, which is why it makes sense to celebrate the feast on this particular day of the week. While the festive character of Holy Thursday is tempered somewhat by the penitential nature of Holy Week, the fact that Corpus Christi comes after the conclusion of the Easter Season gives today's feast a pride of place in the liturgical calendar that it would not otherwise enjoy. Given the place of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, it seems appropriate for the Body of Christ to have a feast all its own - and that is precisely what Corpus Christi offers.
As a feast focused on the Christ's gift of himself in the Eucharist, Corpus Christi challenges Roman Catholics to reflect more deeply on the importance of this central mystery of the faith. If we take the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist seriously, if it should be hard for us not to regard the Eucharist as the very center of our lives. One Catholic who understood this point very well was Flannery O'Connor, who had the following to say in a 1955 letter reproduced in The Habit of Being:
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. [Bowden] Broadwater. . . . We went at eight and at one, I hadn't opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. . . .What does it really mean to affirm that the Eucharist is "the center of existence for me" and that "all the rest of life is expendable"? How many of us can make this affirmation with sincerity? I suspect that many of us who unhesitatingly affirm belief in the Real Presence would nonetheless have to admit that the Eucharist is not really the center of our lives. Even if we receive the Eucharist very regularly - and perhaps even daily - we can still stubbornly refuse the demands that the sacrament places upon us; we can easily fall into the routine of frequent communion without being open to the grace that Christ offers when he comes to us in a most humble and unassuming means.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater [i.e., Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."
I have just suggested that receiving the Eucharist places certain demands upon us. To provide a sense of what I mean by this, I would like to quote once again some words from Father Robert Taft, S.J. that I first shared on this blog a number of years ago:
. . . Liturgical celebrations are celebrations of the entire body of Christ, and the main celebrant of the liturgy, so to speak, is Christ himself. But the point of liturgy is that we are supposed to become what we celebrate. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change bread and wine into Jesus Christ, it’s to change you and me into Jesus Christ – that’s what it’s all about. We are supposed to become the word of comfort and forgiveness, we are supposed to become the bread of life for the world, we are supposed to become the healing oil – and by 'we,' I don’t mean just the ordained, [but] all Christians. So there’s no possibility of separating liturgy and spirituality.In offering us his own body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine, Jesus Christ offers us the very food of salvation - a source of spiritual sustenance which we hope will help us to become citizens of heaven. If we really want this to happen - that is, if we expect the Eucharist to help us to get to heaven - we must allow our reception of the sacrament to inwardly transform us and to change the way in which we live our lives. In other words, as Father Taft would put it, we must be willing to "become what we celebrate," allowing our experience of Eucharistic communion to have a tangible effect on our lives outside of church.
Liturgy is simply the mirror of what we are supposed to be, so that when we leave the liturgical assembly, we are supposed to go out and be what it is that we celebrate. That’s why St. Paul never once uses sacral terminology, like 'sacrifice,' 'offering,' 'liturgy,' 'priesthood' and so forth for anything except Christian life in Christ. What we do in church is simply the initiation into, and the feeding, and the restoration, if it’s lost by sin, and the intensification through preaching and the sacraments of what we’re supposed to be. If we don’t become it, we might as well stay in bed on Sunday morning, because what we’re doing is just a comedy.
As we celebrate Corpus Christi, let us not neglect the opportunity that this feast offers us to examine our consciences. In what ways can we become more open to the mystery that we celebrate in this feast? How can we make the effects of our sharing in Christ's body and blood more visible in our daily lives? How can we more truly "become what we celebrate"? AMDG.