INTRODUCTION TO MASS OF CORPUS CHRISTI THE SOLEMNITY OF THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 6 June 2021
Jacques Pantaléon was a cobbler’s son who entered the priesthood and, with local mystic Juliana of Liège, introduced the Feast of Corpus Christi into that diocese.[i] In due course he rose to being Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem and was at the papal court in Viterbo in 1261 pleading for help for oppressed Christians in the East when the pope died. After three months wrangling, the eight cardinal-electors could not agree on a new pope and so decided to look outside for a non-Cardinal – something rare in the second millennium. They lighted upon Pantaléon. He took the name Urban IV but decided not to live in the holy but anarchic city, preferring the safety of Orvieto. In 1263 that city became a centre of Eucharistic piety after a miracle in nearby Bolsena: : a consecrated host bled when it was broken and the corporal (cloth) stained with the Precious Blood is still displayed today.
In the following year Pope Urban decided to make Corpus Christi a universal feast, and he turned to the greatest theologian of the age to write the prayers and lyrics for the Mass and Offices. Thomas Aquinas was already famed for his thinking on the Eucharist, including the idea of transubstantiation by which he helped clarify how what seems like bread and wine can be truly Christ’s Body and Blood. But now he was invited to write in a more popular, mystical, poetic idiom.
:Aquinas borrowed from Scripture, existing chants and his own theology. The result was our opening collect, the sequence Lauda Sion, and popular hymns such as Sing my tongue the Saviour’s glory,[ii]Down in adoration falling,[iii]O salutaris hostia,[iv] Godhead herein hiding[v]and that wedding favourite set by Franck, Panis angelicus.[vi] Our choir will sing Victoria’s moving setting of St Thomas’ antiphon O sacrum convivium at the Offertory. Were there copyright and royalties in those days, the Dominican Order would have had it made!
O sacrum convivium: O sacred banquet in which Christ is received. In our first reading today (Ex 24:3-8) God makes a covenant with the people of Israel by which He pledges fidelity to them and they promise to keep His Law. In our New Testament readings (Heb 9:11-15; Mk 14:12-16,22-26) Christ makes ‘a new covenant’ with the Church, pledging to save us and we promise to worship, proclaim and live according to the Gospel. The annual Passover meal renews the first covenant and marks the constitutive event of Israel’s history: the passage through the Red Sea from slavery to freedom. The weekly Eucharist confirms the new covenant, while marking the foundational event for the Church: Christ’s passage through death to Resurrection by which all are saved.
:There are similarities, but differences also. Moses’ covenant was only for the Jews and it’s hard to become a Jew; Christ’s was for all humanity and it’s rather easier to become a Christian. Moses’ offering expiated for guilt but didn’t change those who offered it and had to be repeated indefinitely; Jesus’ was once-for-all, and heals and elevates us to be more than sinners, to be children of God. Where Moses or the high priest stood in place of God as a kind of representative, Jesus is God and so God is really present in the sacrament of His Body and Blood.
O sacrum convivium: O Sacred Banquet in which the memory of His Passion is renewed. Our thoughts wander back, a thousand years to the mediaeval Eucharistic miracles and hymns, another thousand to the Last Supper and Crucifixion, two more millennia to the first Passover. Indeed we might reach even further back, to the very genesis of humanity. In Eden, humanity are not yet meat-eaters, but God gives Adam and Eve a garden full of choices – bread, wine, fruits and vegetables – to sustain in them the life-spirit He’d breathed into them (Gen 2:15-17). Not satisfied with God’s plan for them, our proud first parents seek to make themselves gods (Gen ch. 3).
:They take the fruit of the tree of knowledge, hoping to gain dominion over good and evil. But things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.[vii] Instead of making them superhuman the forbidden fruit makes them subhuman: it makes them sinners, ashamed of their actions and even their bodies, hiding, blame-gaming, at odds with God. Divine life, like Holy Communion, is not self-service: it is received as a gift from the tree of the Cross and savoured, not stolen from the tree of knowledge and devoured.
O sacrum convivium: O Sacred Banquet in which the soul is filled with grace. Through the history of salvation, God keeps trying to re-establish His gracious meal.[viii] So, at His Last Supper Jesus does what Jews had always done, sharing unleavened bread and wine, roasted lamb and bitter herbs. But then He says and does something strange.
“This is my body, eat”, “This is my blood, drink”. The food Jesus offers is no ordinary food from an earthly garden to keep body and soul together: it is heavenly food that fills the soul with grace and keeps God and man together. The Last Supper replaces the old covenant with the new, the bad meal of Eden with the holy communion of the Eucharist, the theft with the gift.
But it comes at a cost. In a world gone awry, where things are misaligned, and people and actions go astray, there’s no harmony or communion without sacrifice. God seals His covenant with Israel through a ‘communion sacrifice’ of animal blood. He seals His new covenant with the Church with Christ’s Precious Blood.
Getting back on track is costly, it hurts: hence the talk of sacrifices. It wasn’t because God needed offerings like the pagan gods to propitiate His rage. No, the sacrifices were always for our sake not His. Sacrifice signalled the wrenching of our lives back on track, back in order. What happened to the animal was supposed in some sense to happen to us: for we too must give our all.
But unlike the animal sacrifices of old, we do not have to die; Jesus has done this for us. And He rises, that we might say: O sacrum convivium: O Sacred Banquet in which the pledge of future glory is given us. “The Lord will provide the lamb of sacrifice,” Abraham told Isaac (Gen 22:14). And in place of Abraham’s son, God provided His own. Jesus Himself is the Paschal Lamb, freely giving Himself up, offering His own blood. He is the Lamb that was slain who is worthy of all praise.[ix] In Christ, God reaches all the way to the bottom of our dysfunction, our misalignment, and sets things straight. We are brought back to the Sacred Banquet of the Mass, with each other and with God. And all of this is the pledge of our future happiness, when we will enjoy the heavenly banquet.[x]O sacrum convivium, we say with St Thomas Aquinas and sing with Victoria: O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is renewed, the soul if filled with grace, and a pledge of future
[i] He was Archdeacon of Liège. Present at the First Council of Lyon (1245), he impressed Pope Innocent IV, who appointed him papal legate for various tasks, including negotiating the Treaty of Christburg (1249) between the Teutonic knights and the Prussians. Innocent appointed him Bishop of Verdun. Pope Alexander IV then appointed him Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1255.
[ii] Pange lingua gloriosi.
[iii] Tantum ergo sacramentum.
[iv] Verbum supernum with its last two verses O salutaris hostia.
[v] Adoro te devote.
[vi] On their authenticity as works of Aquinas see Paul Murray, Aquinas at Prayer: The Bible, Mysticism and Poetry (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2013).
[vii] William Shakespeare, Richard II: “Things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour.” Cf. Prov 20:17 “Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterwards the mouth is full of gravel.” Rev 10:9-10: “Take and eat: it will be sweet as honey in the mouth, but bitter in your stomach.”
[viii] Gen 18:1-8; Ps 36:8; 63:5; Prov 9:1-6; Isa 25:6; Ezek 39:17-24; Mt 22:1-14; 24:45-51; 25:1-12 etc.
[ix] Rev 5:12; cf. Isa 53:7; Jn 1:29,36; 1Cor 5:7; Rev 5:9; 13:8; 19:6-9; 21:14.
[x] Isa 25:6; Mt 22:1-14; 25:1-13; Lk 12:35-40; 14:15; Rev 3:20…
Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney for the Solemn Mass of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. As He departed this world, the Lord promised He would not leave us orphaned but would send the Holy Spirit (which we celebrated at Pentecost) and that He would be with us till the end of time (which we celebrate today): for that last promise is fulfilled in His real presence in the Holy Eucharist. And so to all present today, whether physically present or via live-stream, a very warm welcome!