Today’s feast owes its existence to a vision reported by a beguine, Julienne de Cornillon (1193-1258), in 1230. It began life as a local feast in Liège, in what is today the Belgium, until Julienne, aided by local Dominicans, persuaded Pope Urban IV (1195-1264), himself a former archdeacon of Liège, to promulgate it in 1264 as a feast of the universal Church, the first of the gender. The pope invited no less than Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) to compose the liturgy of the feast, that is to say the prayers of the mass and of the divine office, which also includes hymns familiars such as Tantum Ergo and O Salutaris Hostia. It will be another fifty years before the feast of Corpus Christi arrives in England.
By the end of the 14th century it had become one of the four days of the year, the dies praedicabiles, on which sermons were preached at Great St Mary’s, the university church here in Cambridge. The Eucharist has as its center the simplest and literally the most vital of all human activities, namely eating and drinking which, together with the most ordinary things of daily life, bread and wine, become the means by which which God enters into our daily human lives to draw us thus into the unfathomable mystery of his divine life and, in so doing, to unite us not only to him but to each other.
Bread and wine are, of course, natural symbols of life, as such, even before they become sacramental signs of the divine life of Christ. It’s not hard to see why. Wheat is one of mankind’s greatest civilizing innovations, cultivated extensively since at least the sixth millennium BCE, and now covering over 600 million acres of this planet’s surface, much of it, poignantly, in Ukraine. Although it is now believed that the original by-product of wheat was not bread, but beer – if so, it is the demand for beer, not bread, that is first prompted human beings to grow wheat and engage in agriculture – bread remains deeply symbolic of physical sustenance and, therefore, life itself.
When it comes to wine, it is reassuring to know that throughout the Old Testament there is no more powerful symbol of stability, contentment, and peace than the vine. Unsurprisingly, the Psalmist says of its fruit that it “joyeth the heart of man” (sic), another sentiment echoed throughout the Old Testament. After Israel’s liberation from Egypt, they wandered in the desert without any means of food. God’s first intervention on behalf of his people was to provide them with food to sustain them on their journey.
The manna the wandering Israelites found on the ground each morning was, literally, bread from heaven; and the Passover meal from that time until now celebrates their coming out of Egypt and their arrival in the Promised Land. It was at the Easter meal that Jesus shared with his friends on the eve of his execution by the Roman authorities that something entirely new happened. Jesus took the Passover bread and wine, the staple foods and the symbols of life and food, and identified himself with them. He identified himself, in other words, as our food, as manna from heaven, for the journey through this life to the Promised Land, which is eternal life. But it was more than physical food.
At the Last Supper, he clarified that this food, which is his own person, satisfies a much deeper hunger than physical hunger. More than anything else in this life, what we crave is love and friendship; and we know intuitively and from experience that to satisfy that hunger, love and friendship must be unconditional and endless. So when Jesus says, “This is my Body, which will be given up for you” – or, more directly, “This bread and this wine I am for you” – his words are unmistakably words of love and unconditional and endless friendship. .
What else do we mean (if we really mean it) when we tell someone we love them? Out of love for us, Jesus therefore becomes in the Eucharist our bread of life, sharing his own divine life with us, his friends. Now normally, of course, the food we eat becomes a part of us. But in the Eucharist it is reversed: we are part of what we eat. So Saint Augustine can say that he, Jesus, gives us his body to make us his Body, the Church. The bread and the wine are changed into Christ himself: but the equally profound mystery of the Eucharist is that we too are changed, individually and together. We become members of his Body, participants in his life, united to him one to another. The ultimate point of the Eucharist, which is the ultimate point of life itself, is therefore friendship, with God and with each other. Thomas Aquinas points out that it is the most natural thing in the world for friends to want to share their lives, to want to be together.
He sums it all up with his usual conciseness and clarity: “What is quite characteristic of friendship is to live with one’s friends… and that is why Christ, who promised us his bodily presence … did not want to deprive us of this presence during our pilgrimage. , but by his body and his blood unites us to him in this sacrament… Thus this sacrament is the sign of the greatest love and the greatest hope, because it is the intimate union 4 with Christ.2 The Eucharist is the primordial act of love by which Christ himself, God made man, shares his life with us, his friends. It is, in other words, the sacrament of friendship.
But, as Saint Thomas adds, it is also the sacrament of hope. Hope looks forward to a future, as yet unrealized, where we will experience fully what we now know only partially, namely the transformation of our lives and of all of creation that will realize all that we have hoped for and desired in this world. life. Again, all of this is summed up by Saint Thomas in one of the prayers he composed for the feast, O Sacrum ConviviumO Holy Banquet: It is indeed a holy banquet, in which Christ himself is made our food: the memory of his passion is repeated, grace fills the mind and heart, and we are given the assurance of the glory that will one day be ours.