Reflections for Sunday, June 26, 2011
Solemnity of Corpus Christi

It sometimes seems odd to me that we celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) two weeks after Pentecost, after we have just celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit. Corpus Christi, the focus on Jesus’s body, should come during Lent as we are preparing for the crucifixion, the literal sacrifice of Jesus’ body for us, a sacrifice that is re-remembered in the Eucharist. In fact, we do have a Lenten Corpus Christi, which we celebrate on Holy Thursday. Why have one now as Easter and Pentecost come to an end? In Veritatis Splendor, however, John Paul II connects the solemnity we celebrate this Sunday with the work of the Holy Spirit which we celebrated two weeks ago:

“The presence of Christ to men of every time is actualized in his Body, which is the Church. For this reason the Lord promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would ‘bring to their remembrance’ and teach them to understand his commandments, and who would be the principle and constant source of new life in the world” (25).

Though the the main focus of this feast is on the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ made sacramentally present at the altar, it cannot be separated from the other manifestation of the body of Christ—the Church. Pope Benedict XVI expanded on this theme in his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist “Sacrament of Charity,” describing the Eucharist as the “causal principle of the Church:”

The Church “draws her life from the Eucharist.” Since the Eucharist makes present Christ’s redeeming sacrifice, we must start by acknowledging that “there is a causal influence of the Eucharist at the Church’s very origins.” The Eucharist is Christ who gives himself to us and continually builds us up as his body. Hence, in the striking interplay between the Eucharist which builds up the Church, and the Church herself which “makes” the Eucharist, the primary causality is expressed in the first formula: the Church is able to celebrate and adore the mystery of Christ present in the Eucharist precisely because Christ first gave himself to her in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Church’s ability to “make” the Eucharist is completely rooted in Christ’s self-gift to her.

On this feast of Corpus Christi, we are reminded also of the connection between the Church and the moral life. The moral life of the Christian is inextricably connected to the body of Christ which is made manifest in the Church by the work of the Holy Spirit.

What does this mean? It means that Christian morality complete with its rules and proscriptions, virtues and vices, cannot be separated from the person of Christ. Christ reveals himself not only as a teacher of the moral life, but also as the way to authentic moral flourishing, what Jesus calls true life.

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him.
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.

It means also that this dualism we are wont to see between a life of piety and a life of service is a false dichotomy. For the Christian, worship and the moral imperative to feed the hungry, provide for the widow and orphan, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, are all intimately connected. The moral life is made possible by the Church, and the Church only fulfills its purpose when its members fulfill the demands of the moral life.

I have several friends who live lives of remarkable devotion to service but who don’t go to church, arguing that they spend the time they would spend in worship serving the community. In Boston, where I currently reside (until this Sunday at least), it is especially easy for service-minded individuals to find themselves forced to choose between Sunday morning worship and some other activity which advances the good of humanity, whether it is the Walk for Hunger or for a cure for breast cancer, a run to raise money for AIDS awareness, or a community “Clean the Charles.” More and more Christians I know seem to be adopting the motto, “Don’t go to Church. Be the Church.”

But as we contemplate the meaning of Corpus Christi, we begin to realize that for the Christian, there isn’t really a choice between going to Church and being the church or between worship and service. Both are necessary, and both depend on one another. The Eucharist is the glue that holds the two together.

Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me.

Reflecting on this passage from our reading this Sunday from the Gospel of John, Benedict XVI writes in “The Sacrament of Charity,” “These words of Jesus make us realize how the mystery “believed” and “celebrated” contains an innate power making it the principle of new life within us and the form of our Christian existence. By receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ we become sharers in the divine life in an ever more adult and conscious way (70).” By eating the body and blood of Christ in the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist, we are mysteriously transformed by it and nourished by Christ’s very self to do God’s will in this world. In fact, the word for “mass” comes from the conclusion of the liturgy, “Ite missa est” which means roughly “Go, you are sent forth.”

It is appropriate that we have the language of food on this feast day to reflect on the meaning of the church in the moral life. When we worship, we are spiritually nourished by the Word of God and by the Eucharist. Like physical food, without this spiritual sustenance, we cannot live. As we hear in our reading from Deuteronomy, “Not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.” Our lives truly become lives of service only when they draw their nourishment from the Word Jesus Christ.

The best example of this that comes to mind is from the beautiful and powerful film “Romero” based on the life of the Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Romero who was assassinated largely due to his activism on behalf of the Salvadorian poor. In one scene, Romero is walking down a street when he is confronted by soldiers who strip him of his cassock. Romero, overwhelmed by the task before him, by his inability to feed his starving people and to protect them from oppression, is moved with sympathy as the townspeople surround him and reverently lay a blanket over his bare chest. “You are our bishop,” a woman tells him. “Who will speak for us if you don’t?” In response, Romero announces that they will celebrate the Eucharist, and in the middle of the street, as the soldiers look on, he begins the mass. What the film makes clear and what Romero’s life testifies to is that the strength to serve, the strength to speak words of righteousness and justice, the strength to “be the Church” comes from the Eucharist. How fitting that Romero was assassinated as he was saying mass, shot just as he was elevating the chalice, his own blood mingling with the blood of Christ. Romero’s ability to give himself over as a sacrifice to his people came from the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for us.

So on this feast of Corpus Christi, we remember the absolutely indispensable role of the church in the moral life of Christians. We remember that in our worship, we are nourished and empowered to be “sacrifices of charity,” to offer our lives as a holy and living sacrifice to God. It is fitting, then, to close with one of Thomas Aquinas’ own hymns in honor of the feast of Corpus Christi:

The Bread of Angels now is Bread of man.
Heavenly bread fulfills what prophecies foreshow.
O wondrous thing! God is consumed
By the poor, the humble, and the low.

You, threefold God and one, we pray:
Be present as we worship well.
Lead us on Your pathways
To live in glory where You dwell.

Ite, missa est.