In recent years, the Eucharist has become controversial – not in the sense that the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine is denied, a fraught opinion that grew to prominence after the Protestant Reformation and persists, of course, today. What we have witnessed lately is what some call the “weaponization” of the Eucharist, denying its reception to members of the Church because of conflicting political positions. We have come a long, long way from the unity and love promised us by Jesus in this sacrament and celebrated for centuries as “agape,” the Greek word for selfless, unconditional love, later rendered by the Latin “caritas,” charity. Agape was the word used for the celebration of the Eucharist itself.
Today’s second reading is taken from a section in St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth, for whom the Eucharist had already become a source of division rather than unity – in this case a socio-economic divide between the rich and the poor. His account of the institution of the Eucharist is the earliest reference in Christian scripture.
Like the Feast of the Holy Trinity, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) has its origins in the early centuries of the Christian faith. But as we know it, the celebration comes to us from the Middle Ages. That it is one of the richest liturgical feasts in the Church calendar owes much to the man who was commissioned to create the liturgy, a saint whose name might surprise you – Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas is primarily known as the preeminent theologian of the Middle Ages and time after in the Catholic Church. But he was also an accomplished poet, whose carefully-composed and beautiful words are still sung in churches throughout the world and have found settings by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Cesar Franck, and Francis Poulanc, among others. When in 1264 Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi as a Solemnity for the whole Latin Church, he commissioned Thomas to compose the liturgy, including five extraordinary hymns — Adoro Te devote (Devoutly I adore you), Pange Lingua (Sing O tongue),Verbum supernum prodiens (The Word descending from above), with its well-known final two stanzas known as the hymn “O Salutaris Hostia” (O saving Victim), Lauda Sion (Praise O Sion), and Sacris solemniis, with its famous final stanza “Tantum ergo”).
Thomas’ pastoral concern is subtly but strongly evident both in his election of scriptural passages to be read and his poetry. And for good reason. Already in the thirteenth century, a tendency had developed among many Christians to emphasize adoration of the Eucharist rather than its reception. A century later, elaborate (and costly) portable shrines called “monstrances” which exposed the consecrated host to view were developed. Soon, “Corpus Christi” processions, in which monstrances containing the eucharistic host were transported throughout cities, towns, and villages, became popular social events throughout Europe.
For one reason another, “eating and drinking,” were increasingly reserved to the clergy and vowed religious. The elevation of the host at mass was the climax of the celebration, one marked by the ringing of bells. Alerted, people were known to run from church to church to witness the event – not to receive communion. Actual reception of the Eucharist was infrequent. Daily reception was rare. This began to change in the modern era, most notably when in 1910 Pope Pius X lowered the age for First Communion from twelve to seven years of age. In the following years, increased reception of the Eucharist became a goal of papal instructions, culminating in the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.
It is worth noting that in his hymns and teaching Thomas stressed what might be called the edible and potable dimension of the eucharist, so clearly stressed in the words of Jesus and St. Paul’s insistent reminders – “take and eat… take and drink.” Like Paul, 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.” For in this sacred meal we enter into union with all the saints and in fact all creation. It is the food of the soul, not a reward for good behavior as Pope Francis reminded us. That’s why the eucharist is called Holy Communion — that’s what it does, because that’s what it is.
Perhaps Thomas’ lovely little antiphon for the Magnificat on the feast of Corpus Christi best summarizes his entire teaching:
“O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of His Passion is recalled, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
The Eucharist is not just food for the soul. It is food for the world, a cosmic banquet of unity. Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).