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As is so often the case, we have a medieval woman to thank for the feast of Corpus Christi. Juliana of Liège, was born in the early 1190s in Liège, Belgium. In that fine European city, there were groups of women dedicated to Eucharistic worship. They lived together, devoted to prayer and to charitable works.
Juliana developed a special veneration for the Blessed Sacrament. Like all such faithful people, she took great comfort from the celebration of Maundy Thursday, or the Feast of the Institution of the Eucharist. But, as we often observe here, she noted that the Maundy Thursday celebration had many layers, including the washing of the disciples feet, and the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. As a true devotee of the Eucharist, Juliana longed for a feast day outside of Lent in its honour. This desire was enhanced by a vision of the Church under the appearance of the full moon with one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a singular focus in the Church’s year. She had this vision many times over the next 20 years but she kept it a secret. When she eventually relayed it to her confessor, he relayed it to the bishop.
At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so Bishop Robert ordered in 1246 a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held in the diocese each year thereafter on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. The first such celebration occurred at St Martin's Church, Liège, in the city that same year.
The rest is history. The feast of Corpus Christi became rather a rallying point for the different Christian perspectives on the Eucharist. The feast was intended to celebrate the true presence of Christ in the bread and the wine of Communion. As it grew in importance, the elements were paraded around churches, and then around whole cities, in an ever more devoted display of faith. At the High Mass of the day, the bread itself, placed in an elaborate holder called a monstrance, was used to bless the assembled congregation.
But as the debates of the Reformation took hold, many considered such displays of the Eucharist to be idolatrous. For those who considered the Holy Communion to be no more than a memorial of Christ’s death and passion, it was too great a leap to believe that Christ himself could be present in the bread and the wine. By 1548, the Church of England had abolished the Feast altogether, although traditional Catholic worshippers would still celebrate it in secret. The 39 Articles of the Church of England specifically forbade the ‘carrying around’ of the Eucharist for people to ‘gaze upon’.
And so, for centuries within the Anglican Church, the feast of Corpus Christi has always felt a little bit ‘naughty’. To celebrate it with full pomp and show stands directly in opposition to the intentions of the Reformers of the church – and it continues to be a topic that divides opinion among priests and people of the church.
For my part, I think this feast still has value. It is an opportunity for us to focus entirely upon the meaning of the service we do together every week – but without the possible distraction of focusing on other texts or issues. It is an opportunity for each of us to ask ‘what does the Eucharist mean to me?’ What is the Service for?! What is its fundamental purpose? Why do we do it, and why should we continue doing it?
Surprisingly, one of the most profound answers that I've found to these questions comes from an atheist. The philosopher Alain de Botton has written a description of what he calls 'the Mass', which is well worth hearing. (It’s part of his book "Religion for Athiests: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion"). He argues that Atheists need to learn from the Church. He praises the Mass for the way that it brings people together in community around a meal.
de Botton points out that with declining church attendance we have seen an exponential rise in restaurants. But, he says, restaurants fail to "introduce patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which people chronically segregate themselves”. The focus is on the food and the decor, and on the people we’ve chosen to meet. It is never on opportunities for extending and deepening connections across the whole community.
In contrast, de Botton says of the Mass that... “Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values"
The Mass, says de Botton, "should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of joyful immersion in a collective spirit - an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres"
Of course, the Holy Communion is much more than a gathering of disparate souls into one body. But it is at least that. For me, it is also the chance to focus, for a while, on something other than myself, my needs, my desires. It is a chance to be drawn outwards from my fragile ego, and into the life of the Eternal Trinity. It is an opportunity to be fed, spiritually, by the source of all life, so that I may be empowered and inspired to live my life for God and for others.
What does the Eucharist mean to you?
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