Today we celebrate the solemnity of Corpus Christi—the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ. This feast is part of the great unfolding of the Church year, in which we celebrated the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday, his Ascension into heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and the Holy Trinity just last Sunday. We have been doing a lot of celebrating. So why is today special? Precisely because today we celebrate the fulfillment of a promise: the promise Jesus made when he said, “Behold, I am with you until the end of the age.” I’m talking about the Eucharist—the real and tangible presence of Jesus Christ with us.
Every once in a while, the Pew Research Foundation does a survey about current religious practices in America. One of the questions they ask of Catholics is what they believe about the Eucharist. I’m always a little saddened when I read the results, because it’s usually something like 50-60% of Catholics who do not really believe that the Eucharist (Holy Communion) is actually the Body and Blood of Jesus. It saddens me because this is something so central to being Catholic. Although many Christian denominations commemorate the Lord’s Supper in some way, they don’t go so far as to say that this is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That’s something that the Catholic Church has always upheld.
If what the Church teaches is actually true, and the bread and wine actually transubstantiate into Jesus’ Body and Blood, then what does that mean to us? It means that the Eucharist is the most intimate encounter I can have with Jesus Christ on this side of death. It is mind-blowing to think that I can take Jesus into my person, into my heart, flowing through my veins.
It’s unfathomable, really, to think that a transcendent God would become a man, and then that man would command his friends to eat his flesh and drink his blood, and that that would give them eternal life. This is NOT NORMAL! And so, it is admittedly very difficult to believe. So, in a certain sense, I can understand why 60% of Catholics say they don’t believe it.
Priests, too, sometimes struggle to believe. Once upon a time, 1263 A.D., to be exact, there was this priest, Father Peter of Prague. He was on a pilgrimage to Rome from his home, presumably in Prague, and along the way he stopped in a little Italian town called Bolsena. This priest had been struggling in his belief in the Eucharist. He, too, found it hard to believe that the bread and the wine actually changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Still, the priest was faithful to his duties, and went to the chapel to celebrate Mass. And while he was celebrating Mass, an amazing thing happened. As he elevated the host, the host began to bleed. The blood dripped from the host onto the corporal, the square white cloth that lies on the altar. Father Peter, probably terrified at this point, stopped the Mass and asked to be taken to see the Pope, who just happened to be staying in Orvieto, just a couple of miles away. The Pope, Urban IV, sent his delegates to investigate this extraordinary occurrence. The miracle was quickly confirmed, and the host and corporal were brought to the Pope in Orvieto, where he enshrined the stained corporal in the cathedral for all to look upon and believe. That corporal is still hanging above the altar in the Orvieto cathedral to this day.
But the story doesn’t end there. Pope Urban, so moved by this Eucharistic miracle,set aside a very special day on which the Church would always commemorate the miracle that is the Eucharist—the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That day is today, the solemnity of Corpus Christi. Pope Urban then commissioned a certain Dominican priest by the name of Thomas Aquinas (perhaps you’ve heard of him!) to compose a hymn and special Mass prayers for this newly minted solemnity. And so, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the words to Pange Lingua Gloriosi. You may know it by its last two verses, which we sing at the end of Adoration.: Tantum ergo sacramentum/ veneremur cernui/ et antiquum documentum/ novo cedat ritui/ praestet fides supplementum/ sensuum defectui.
These last five words mean: Faith supplies evidence where the senses fail. Father Peter had evidence of the true presence. He held it in his hands. When we receive the Eucharist, sure, it looks like bread and wine, tastes like bread and wine. But faith supplies what is lacking in the senses.
We know that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ based on this faith—faith that Jesus will do what he says he will do.
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Jesus promised it, and so we believe that he transforms this bread and wine into his Body and Blood through the words spoken by the priest, who is ordained in a line of unbroken succession from the Apostles themselves.
As Catholics, we know and believe that this Sacrament, the Most Blessed Sacrament, is the REAL PRESENCE of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith gives us the ability to look upon the sacred host and say, like St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
At the end of this Mass, we will have a Eucharistic procession thru the streets of our town. This is a tradition that goes all the way back to the origin of this feast, to that Eucharistic miracle that happened in Bolsena so long ago. This very day, in Bolsena, in the neighboring town of Orvieto, and in parishes all across the Roman Catholic world, the faithful will make processions just like this one, boldly bringing Christ into the world in a very tangible way.
Processions have long been a tradition of the Catholic Church as well. This is because processions remind us in a very concrete way that we are going somewhere. We are a pilgrim people, journeying together with Christ towards our heavenly homeland. We gather followers along the way, and we bring them into relationship with Jesus Christ. Each step we take today symbolizes a step in our personal relationship with our God. As we follow Jesus in the Eucharist, our own faith journey takes on a very real meaning. We are his people, the sheep of his flock, and we follow him wherever he goes.
After we receive Holy Communion today, we will expose the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance, a vessel used to display the Sacred Host. We will burn incense to symbolize our prayers rising up to heaven, and to make present the sweet aroma of holiness. We will carry candles, symbolizing the light of faith that we each possess. We will sing songs, manifesting the joy of the Gospel. And yes, we will sweat, just as our Lord sweat in the Garden before his Passion. Don’t worry, there’s water available on the trailer.
We will bring Christ into the world. And this too is symbolic, because it is the reality that we live each and every time we come to Mass. We receive from this altar the grace that is source of our Christian life, and we carry it out with us in these very bodies. Each time we come to Mass, we receive the Real Presence of Christ, and we are told to go forth in peace, glorifying the Lord with our lives. We, Christians must bear Christ to the world. This is our mission, the mission of the Church. We are proud to carry it out, that our friends, neighbors and families will know that our God is with us—even until the end of the age.
 1 Corinthians 11:23-25