The Feast of God
One of the most iconic images of the Catholic Church has to be St Peter’s in Rome and the square in front of it. When a news article needs a photo to accompany a story on the Church, that’s the picture they use. So even if you’ve never been to Rome, we can all imagine that scene: the façade of the basilica, with the colonnade surrounding the square, drawing you in with the two great ‘maternal arms of Mother Church’ as their architect Bernini called them. And forming the welcoming committee, the friendly face of the Church, are the saints — 140 statues of them on top of the colonnade, all facing inwards, welcoming visitors to the square into their company. All, that is, except one.
As you enter the square, the first saint on your left isn’t paying any attention to what’s going on there. He has his back to the basilica, and is looking out over the city of Rome. That saint’s name is Norbert. And the reason he’s not interested in what’s going on behind him is that he’s holding up a monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament and showing it to the world. Before you even step foot in St Peter’s, it’s been made pretty clear: this is what it’s all about. If you want to know what the focus is of the Church’s life, here’s the summary. Or rather, not what, but who. It’s all about Jesus Christ, who gives himself to us under the appearance of bread.
It’s at this point we realise we also have to admit something quite shocking: the French have got it right. They call Corpus Christi Fête-Dieu — the feast of God. It says something about what an important day it is. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost — all of these days celebrate the most important events in salvation history. But Corpus Christi celebrates one of the greatest mysteries in salvation history. We couldn’t celebrate those feasts — at least not properly, not in the way that we do — without the Mass. Corpus Christi is the celebration of what makes every other feast day possible, what makes it possible to encounter the Word made Flesh when we come to Church at Christmas. This is what makes us able to meet the risen Christ ourselves on Easter Sunday. Corpus Christi is the celebration of our own encounter with Christ, not in some vague and abstract way, but in a real, objective, and simple way. Christ makes himself present, under the appearance of bread, and gives himself to us.
At the Last Supper, shortly after giving his Body and Blood to his disciples for the first time, Jesus said to them, ‘No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.’ (John 15:15) This is one of the most important things that Christ ever revealed to us. God calls us friends, he calls us into a relationship with him not of slavery, but — and we wouldn’t dare to say it unless he had said it first — a relationship of equals.
Human beings are not purely spiritual beings like angels. We struggle to form purely spiritual relationships with other people. It’s unlikely that your best friend is someone you’ve never met in person. It’s through this gift of his Body that Christ opens up the possibility of a real, human relationship with him. We don’t have to imagine that he’s there, we don’t have to convince ourselves that he is close to us. We know it, we can be sure of it, because of this sacrament.
Just as this feast comes as a high point after so many other great feasts of the Church’s year, so this sacrament is the high point of all the sacraments. The feast of Corpus Christi couldn’t take place if Christmas and Easter had never happened, and similarly, we would never receive Holy Communion if we hadn’t first been baptised, if we didn’t have access to confession, if there were no men ordained as priests to celebrate the Mass. But, of all the sacraments, Holy Communion is the greatest because, as St Thomas Aquinas pointed out, the other sacraments all use some kind of instrument to do God’s work. When we baptise a person, the water doesn’t become God. When we are confirmed, the chrism isn’t turned into the Holy Spirit. But in the Eucharist, Christ is not working through bread and wine. Those material things are turned into him. Holy Communion is actually him himself. God works through all of the the sacraments, but only the Eucharist actually is God.
That encounter with Christ that each of us undergoes when we receive Holy Communion is hidden and private — so hidden that most of what he does in that moment is unseen even to ourselves. But the effects are not to be hidden. We can’t touch God and remain untouched by him. That image of St Peter’s in Rome is an image of what we are called to. We enter the church, we receive God, we enjoy the company of all those saints, but like St Norbert, our task is then to show Christ to the world, to draw them into his friendship as well.
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