Body of Christ: history of celebration

Jesus’ Final Meal with His Disciples (Mark 14:12-25)

12 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 He sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city and a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him. 14 Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 15 Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. Make the preparations for us there.” 16 The disciples then went off, entered the city, and found it just as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover.

17 When it was evening, he came with the Twelve. 18 And as they reclined at table and were eating, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him, one by one, “Surely it is not I?” 20 He said to them, “One of the Twelve, the one who dips with me into the dish. 21 For the Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.” 22 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many. 25 Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” 26 Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

The Solemnity. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ – is more popularly known as Corpus Christi, Latin for the “Body of Christ.” From one perspective, every Sunday is a feast of the Eucharist, because by participating in the Mass, and in receiving Communion, we are honoring and celebrating the Eucharist. Still, the celebration of Corpus Christi has its own history.

In the Catholic Church in the West, Corpus Christi is celebrated as a solemnity on the Sunday following the Most Holy Trinity Sunday (the Sunday following Pentecost) since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. At its core the solemnity is a celebration of the Tradition and belief in the Eucharist as the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. For millennia, such a theme was part of the celebration of Holy Thursday, but then there are other important themes that are part of that celebration (models of Christian service, priestly ordination, and more). And, all this occurs in the shadow of Good Friday. The multiplicity of themes and the shadow of Good Friday and the Passion do not lead the Eucharistic celebration of Holy Thursday to be a joyful celebration.

Saint Juliana of Liège, O.Praem, (Premonstratensian Order; also known as the Norbertines) was the one who became the spark leading to a joyous celebration of Corpus Christi. For her devotion, life, and efforts, she is known as the “Apostle of the Blessed Sacrament.” Juliana and her twin sister, Agnes, were born in a village near Liège. They were orphaned at age five and placed in a newly founded hospice at Mont-Cornillon, outside of Liège. The Norbertine canonry oversaw the care and rearing of the two girls, who were initially placed on a small farm next to the canonry. Juliana, after entering the Order at the age of 13, worked for many years in its leprosarium. Agnes seems to have died young.

Liège was already a center for devotion to the Eucharist. So, from her early youth, Juliana had great veneration for the Eucharist and longed for a special feast day in its honor. In 1208 at age 16, she began having visions of a full moon having one dark spot. Her vision presented the moon in its full splendor, crossed diametrically by a dark stripe. In time she came to understand that the moon symbolized the life of the Church on earth, the opaque line, on the other hand, represented the absence of a liturgical feast in honor of Christ’s Body and Blood. Not having any way to bring about such a feast, she kept her thoughts to herself, except for sharing them with Blessed Eve of Liège, who lived in a cell adjacent to the Basilica of St. Martin, and a few other trusted sisters in her monastery. The vision was repeated for the next 20 years, but she maintained it as a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the Bishop of Liège, Robert de Thorete. Eventually the celebration of Corpus Christi became part of the annual celebrations in the diocese.

Becoming a Universal Celebration. The archdeacon of the diocese, Jacques Pantaléon of Troyes was also won over to the cause of the Feast of Corpus Christi during his time in the Diocese of Liège. He eventually became Pope Urban IV in 1264. He instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Pentecost as a feast for the entire Latin Rite, by the papal bull Transiturus de hoc mundo. While Juliana prepared prayers and music for the feast, Pope Urban also requested that St. Thomas Aquinas write an office (special prayers) and hymns for the feast. It is from these offices that we have the most well-known Eucharistic songs: Tantum Ergo, Pange Lingua, and O Salutaris Hostia.

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