Corpus Christi Sunday
June 3, 2018
First Reading: Exodus 24: 3-8
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 116: 12-13, 15-16, 17-18
Second Reading: Hebrews 9: 11-15
Gospel: Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26
When I was a kid growing up in New York, my favorite museum was the Cloisters located on the northern cliffs overlooking the Hudson River in the Dominican barrio of Washington Heights. A branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it was created as an ensemble of different medieval ecclesiastical buildings from Spain and France. To many it looks like a misplaced castle. This hybrid cluster of cloisters and gardens reflects Benedictine, Cistercian, and Carmelite origins, among others.
Housed within its eclectic walls is one of the largest collections of medieval religious art in the USA, including the piece that fascinated me most–the Eucharistic Dove, a receptacle for the consecrated host that, suspended by chains, would be raised and lowered into the sanctuary. The purpose was not for adoration. Rather it was practical, a safe space to reserve the Eucharist intended for visitation of those who were sick or dying. Symbolically the dove was a reminder of the epiclesis within the Eucharistic Prayer, the invocation of the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine. It also intimated the Spirit that animates the Church to go forth from the table of thanksgiving to be about the healing work expected of the Body of Christ in the world.
The readings from Scripture draw attention to Corpus Christi, a solemnity affirming the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist celebrated in the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church since 1264 CE. Among the traditions that developed around the feast was the carrying of the Blessed Sacrament in procession through the streets.
Pope John Paul II, who brought this tradition back to Rome in 1982, in particular requested the practice for the Year of the Eucharist (October 2004- October 2005):
“Our faith in the God who took flesh in order to become our companion along the way needs to be everywhere proclaimed, especially in our streets and homes, as an expression of our grateful love and as an inexhaustible source of blessings.”
In some cultures the procession has long been an integral part of the Corpus Christi celebration, for example in any number of Latin@ communities. Recently there has been an increase in the restoration of this tradition in various parish and diocesan contexts. In and through these public ritual expressions participants literally bring the Body of Christ into the streets.
The first reading from Exodus portrays a public, ritualized, and holistic response to divine revelation. Moses relates God’s words and ordinances to the people who respond “We will do everything that the LORD has told us” (Ex 24:3). Moses writes it all down and then reads it aloud, once more to the people, who again reaffirm their commitment: “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do” (Ex 24: 7). The bond of their relationship with God is sealed in ritual use of the blood of a sacrifice, underscoring the gravity of a covenant with obligations not only to heed but to do, to live out the details in the actions of daily life. The public nature of such promises in response to a relationship with the divine is reiterated in the Psalm: “My vows to the LORD I will pay in the presence of all his people” (Ps. 116:18).
For Catholic Christians the second reading and the gospel are part of a trajectory of biblical interpretation and reception that articulate divine revelation encountered and ritualized through the celebration of the Eucharist. Mark’s gospel tells us that the bread and wine are given by Jesus to the disciples with the invitation to “take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22) and they all respond by drinking from the cup (14:23). It is this self-gift of life for others, offered “through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:11-15), that reveals the depth of divine love and calls for holistic and communal response, for heeding and doing.
Our relationship with the Body of Christ and the accompanying obligations for us as members of the Body of Christ are ritualized in moments like the Corpus Christi processions. The Jesus whose real presence we celebrate is one whose body was broken and battered, as the references to blood remind us. Artists who depict the Risen Christ do not flinch from representing the marks of his suffering, the wounds of his Passion. Processions are empty gestures, if, as members of the Body of Christ, called to take our own bodies into those streets, we fail to recognize the Body of Christ in the alleys and avenues we traverse daily, at the borders and margins, incarcerated, victimized, homeless, defiled by racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, ableism, poverty.
This Sunday, Pope Francis will break with past practice and go outside of Rome for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi. He will celebrate Mass in the plaza in front of the Church of Santa Monica in Ostia and process to Nostra Signora di Bonaria where he will impart the eucharistic blessing. Considering the proclivity of Francis to use his papal trips to communicate symbolically, this appearance in Ostia bears watching. In the most recent municipal election there, a 71 year-old priest took a leave from his ministry as a parochial vicar at Santa Monica in order to run for political office. Franco De Donno, who is also the director of Caritas Ostia (an equivalent of Catholic Charities), has been a tireless advocate for those who are poor, homeless, and immigrants. He has been outspoken against the violence of both the mafia and the growing neo-fascist movement that exercise disproportionate control in the region. The presence of Pope Francis on Corpus Christi in Ostia undoubtedly is not a coincidence, but an accompaniment of a suffering Body of Christ.
In their time, the medieval Eucharistic Doves were not museum pieces, and even now they retain the power to remind us of the Spirit that animates the Body of Christ. The Eucharist reserved within the container of the metal dove is meant to be brought to those in need, to those who are sick, homebound, dying, to those bodies broken by daily indignities. That same Spirit urges us into the street to heed, to be, to do, and to live as a healing–and at times resistant–presence in our neighborhoods and in our world.
Professor of Hispanic Theology and Ministry
Director, Hispanic Theology and Ministry Program