In this too-often crazy world, God still matters. God always matters. But today’s feast reminds us sacramentally that matter also matters. In his wonderful meditation, La messe sur le monde, the Jesuit mystic and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminded us of this in a striking way. Deprived of bread and wine for the mass while on an archeological expedition in the wilds of Mongolia and effectively in exile from the Christian community, he pondered on the mystery of God’s presence in the very stuff of creation. In the great mystery of the Incarnation, the foundation of Christian faith, Teilhard, like the great Church Fathers and mystics such as Meister Eckhart, held that all matter has been taken up into the redemptive presence of God, right down to the stones on the hillside. The eucharist is a memorial, as Thomas Aquinas taught in the great liturgy he composed for this celebration, but not only of the redemptive passion and death of Jesus, but also of the meaning and effect of his passion and death, the cosmic consequences of the Incarnation. It is to these unfathomable and deeply mysterious teachings that today’s scripture readings recall us.
The celebration of the eucharist as the unifying sacrament of the Christian community arose almost immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection. St. Paul was the first witness to that, but he received that tradition as already established throughout the churches. The liturgical feast itself arose in the 13th century at a time when the eucharist had become more of a marvel, something to see more than to eat and drink. The earliest “monstrances,” elaborate portable shrines which exposed the consecrated host to view, were developed just at this time. Soon, “Corpus Christi” processions, in which monstrances containing the eucharistic host were transported throughout cities, towns, and villages, became popular social events through Europe. But reception of the sacrament continued a proportionate decline, one which was seriously addressed only at the beginning of the 20th century and especially in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
But when in 1264 Pope Urban IV selected Thomas Aquinas to compose the liturgy for the feast of Corpus Christi, he picked a saint as well the keenest theologian of the day. And Thomas stressed what might be called the “culinary” dimension of the eucharist – “take and eat… take and drink.” In his teaching and in the immortal poetry of his liturgy, he reminds us over and over again that the eucharist is truly the food of the soul, but it is to be taken, received, eaten and drunk, not merely viewed, much less merely thought about. More than that, he recalled that the eucharist provided the life and nourishment of the whole Christian community, the “mystical body of Christ.”
Despite all the great theological works he wrote, Thomas Aquinas is probably best remembered for the poetry he wrote for this feast — very theological poetry, but poetry nonetheless. The sequence or long hymn that was traditionally sung after the first reading of the mass is called Lauda Sion, “Praise, Zion, your Savior.” Parts of two other hymns were known by heart to every Catholic school child a generation or two ago, even in Latin. They are still known by their Latin names, the words of the first lines — Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris Hostia. And what “old Aquinas” told us in these hymns should never be forgot — that try as we might, we’ll never understand the mystery of the eucharist or the miracle of God’s presence and love for us. Sense experience by itself can’t penetrate the mystery. The most powerful electron microscope will find only atoms of carbon and hydrogen. In order to see, you have to look with eyes of faith.
The term “transubstantiation” had only fairly recently been coined by theologians as a way of referring to the real presence of Jesus’ body and blood in the bread and wine in terms meaningful according to the philosophy of the day. Aquinas used it only twice. But we don’t enter into communion by understanding transubstantiation, but by actively receiving the eucharist, in which we are communing with the very body and blood of Christ, that is, the physical reality of the Lord Jesus. More than that, we enter into communion with all the saints and in fact all creation when we do. That’s why the eucharist is called Holy Communion — that’s what it does, because that’s what it IS.
“The difference between corporeal and spiritual food lies in this, that the former is changed into the substance of the person nourished, and consequently it cannot avail for supporting life except it be partaken of; but spiritual food changes man into itself, according to that saying of Augustine (Confess. vii), that he heard the voice of Christ as it were saying to him: “Nor shall you change Me into yourself, as food of your flesh, but you shall be changed into Me.” [Summa Theologiae, III, Q 73, A 3, Reply OBJ 2.]
The Eucharist is not just food for the soul. It is food for the world. Eckhart and Teilhard would add, it is celestial, a cosmic banquet of unity. To God, matter matters.