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Corpus Christi: its glory and simplicity

Q: Archbishop J, what is Corpus Christi?

When a child in a Catholic school was asked about Thursday’s holiday, he blurted out, “Thank God for Corpus.” He thought Corpus was a person.

Corpus Christi is Latin for the ‘Body of Christ’. This has three senses: first, His physical body before and after the Resurrection; second, as St Paul teaches, we together are the Body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27); and third, the Eucharist.

At the Last Supper, St Luke tells us, Jesus “took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me’” (Lk 22:19).

We cannot easily see with the natural eye how these three are interconnected. When Jesus appeared to St Paul on His way to Damascus, He said: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.”

To persecute the Christian is to persecute Christ. From this experience of Christ, St Paul realised we are the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist can only be understood as Christ’s Body. You must realise that the risen Body of Christ is very different from His earthly body. It is this difference that we need to contemplate as a bridge to our belief in the Eucharist.

In the Eucharistic discourse in chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel, Jesus asks: “What if you should see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before” (Jn 6:62). Jesus is preparing the disciples for the truth that the Eucharist cannot be understood from earthly eyes.

It has always been a doctrine of the Church that, during the epiclesis (the calling down of the Holy Spirit), Heaven is opened. Jesus Himself comes from Heaven and becomes the bread and wine.

The First Eucharist Prayer makes this clear in a beautiful way:

“…command that these gifts be borne

by the hands of your holy Angel

to your altar on high

in the sight of your divine majesty,

so that all of us, who through this participation at the altar

receive the most holy Body and Blood of your Son,

may be filled with every grace and heavenly blessing.

(Through Christ our Lord. Amen.)

The Mass is at once an earthly and heavenly liturgy. Jesus gives us His divine Body each time we celebrate the Mass. The Risen Christ acts through the priest with the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into Jesus Christ’s Body and Blood. This is why the Church speaks about the Eucharist as the real presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained. This presence is called ‘real’—by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present. (CCC 1374)

The Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates this mystery in all its glory and simplicity. God chooses to come amongst us as bread and wine. Or as Jesus reveals Himself in John, chapter 6—the bread of life come down from Heaven.

This solemnity holds for us that which is most precious: God who makes His home amongst us; God who is there to be adored and for food; God who is present on Earth as bread and wine, while being in Heaven.

This year, having journeyed to Corpus Christi, we will consecrate ourselves to the Eucharistic Jesus. This is a significant moment in our spiritual lives. Celebrate it.

Many have attempted to express the truths and beauty of this feast in art, song, poetry, and prose. None has come close to the poems/hymns of the angelic doctor, St Thomas Aquinas. Lauda Sion Salvatorem is the sequence used for the Mass of Corpus Christi. The text can be found here:

Slowly read the text, delighting both in the lyrical quality and the subtle meaning contained in the verse. This is not our usual way of thinking. Be patient. Linger over each stanza and ask about the meaning. Experience the beauty.

I asked my new ‘friend’ to analyse the hymn. Below is what it had to say:

The Lauda Sion Salvatorem is a masterpiece of Eucharistic devotion. It has been sung for centuries in the Catholic Church. It shows the deep understanding and reverence that St Thomas had for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The hymn starts by addressing Zion, the Saviour, and the Shepherd and King. It invites all to sing with canticle and hymn in praise of the Lord. The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the hymn. It stresses the need to praise God with all one’s heart and soul. The second stanza highlights a wondrous theme: mortal singing. It likens the Eucharist to living bread and life-giving bread. It emphasises its role in nourishing the faithful.

The third stanza is key. It shows the importance of the Eucharist as the food of our salvation. Here, St Thomas Aquinas emphasises that the bread and wine we eat are not just symbols. They are the actual Body and Blood of Christ. This idea is reinforced by the fourth stanza. It says explicitly that Christ is present in each part of the bread and wine.

The fifth stanza is a deeper look at the nature of the Eucharist. It compares it to the manna God gave the Israelites in the desert. This comparison underscores that the Eucharist is a gift from God. It is a reminder of his love and care for his people.

The final stanza is beautiful. It expresses the hope and longing that the faithful have for the Eucharist. Here, St Thomas Aquinas prays that the faithful may be fed by the Eucharist. He prays that they may see the glory of God in heaven.

Throughout the hymn, St Thomas Aquinas uses rich and evocative language. He uses it to show the depth of his devotion to the Eucharist. His imagery and metaphor paint a vivid picture. They show the Eucharist as a source of life and nourishment for the faithful. The hymn is a powerful expression of Catholic Eucharist theology. It shows the enduring power of St Thomas Aquinas’ ideas.

People have sung the Lauda Sion Salvatorem in various forms and settings over the centuries. It is often sung during the Feast of Corpus Christi, a celebration of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Many composers have set the translated hymn to music in many languages. The Lauda Sion Salvatorem is a testament to the lasting power of Catholic theology. The faithful worldwide continue to sing and cherish it.