This Sunday we celebrate a special feast day—a solemnity, actually, which ranks above the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time that would normally fall on this Sunday. It’s the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, also known as Corpus Christi.
Not many people know that this feast is due to the initiative of a woman in the 13th century, St. Juliana of Cornillon. Or, rather, it’s due to the initiative of God, who inspired Juliana, who then acted on this inspiration. Juliana loved to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. While at prayer she had visions in which she saw the full moon, brightly glowing except for one dark strip inside. She came to understand the moon represented the liturgy of the Church, which gave glory to God. But the dark area indicated something missing—a feast celebrating Jesus in the Eucharist.
Eventually, the bishop instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the diocese. Later, after Juliana’s death, a priest of the diocese became bishop elsewhere, then cardinal, then Pope Urban IV. He is the one who instituted the feast for the entire Church.
As I read about the beginnings of the feast, I wondered why it wasn’t called the feast of the Holy Eucharist or the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. It seemed significant that it is called Corpus Christi (which literally means Body of Christ, or as it’s now put in English, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ).
I think the Gospel reading for Mass could give some insight into the name of this feast. We hear the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, as told in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 9.
When the apostles see that the crowd has no food, they encourage Jesus to send the people away to find some. Jesus says, “You yourselves give them something to eat.” This, of course, seems ridiculous to the apostles—the disproportion between the tiny bit of food they have (five loaves and two fish) and the needs of the crowd (of thousands and thousands of people, is so huge! Jesus’ suggestion that they provide the food seems preposterous! And what Jesus does next is even more so. The disciples are told to get the people to sit down in groups, and then Jesus takes the loves and fish, looks up to heaven and blesses them, then breaks them and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. In case you haven’t read it yet (spoiler!) everyone eats their fill and they have twelve baskets of leftovers!
It struck me that when Jesus says, “you yourselves give them something to eat,” he is telling the apostles to do something that he is already planning to do himself—not here with this crowd, but later, at the Last Supper, when he gives us the great gift we celebrate today. Jesus himself gives us something to eat—himself! He gives us his Body and Blood as food.
There is something very fundamental and important about this fact. Jesus gave himself, his body and blood, for us—first by dying on the cross and then sacramentally in this gift of the Eucharist, each time we offer the sacrifice of the Mass. It’s so amazing, it’s hard to hold on to, but this annual feast is one way to take time to thank Jesus for the gift of himself.
One of the reasons I was asked to write this newsletter article for Corpus Christi is because I’ve written a few things on the Eucharist—most recently a booklet called The Mass Explained and a revised edition of the booklet The Mass Explained for Kids.
However, the time-travel adventures I wrote for little kids, The Gospel Time Trekkers, are also very much connected to the Eucharist. In each of the series’ six volumes, three siblings travel back to the time of Jesus, where they meet various Gospel characters and have adventures. At the end of each book, they return to our time and the book ends when they go to Mass on Sunday and come to a deeper understanding of some aspect of the Mass, based on what they have learned and experienced in their adventure back in time.
The second book, Braving the Storm, finds the children meeting the boy who had the five loaves and two fish. (The small but interesting detail that they were provided by a boy is only found in the Gospel According to John. The other Gospels just say that the apostles have this food.) At the end of my book, when the children go to Mass, it is the feast of Corpus Christi and the priest gives a homily on the miracle that occurs each time we celebrate the Eucharist.
In celebrating this feast of Corpus Christi, we not only grow in love and gratitude for this wonderful gift, we also grow in our ability and willingness to give of ourselves for the sake of others, following Jesus’ example in giving us himself, body, blood, soul, and divinity in this sacrament of his love.
by Sr Maria Grace Dateno
Image Credit: Giovanni Lanfranco, Miracle of the Bread and Fish