Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi -- or, as it is more popularly known now, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In the United States, this feast will be celebrated on Sunday, but the Universal Church celebrates it the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. That's today. But enough about the logistics of this feast, let's get down to the meaning of this feast.
Corpus Christi. Sounds simple enough, even in Latin, but the reality is that this is anything but simple. It is about faith. It is about a gift so incredible that it is sometimes hard for us to wrap our little human minds around the greatness of God's goodness.
My grandfather was truly devoted to the Eucharist. He sat for hours before the tabernacle, attended several Masses every day, was visibly affected by Holy Communion. In the church where I was baptized, St. Margaret of Antioch in Pearl River, N.Y., there is a beautiful mosaic over the tabernacle. It was given by my family in honor of my grandparents. When it came time to think of something that could be given to the church in their name, the pastor was the one who suggested it be something related to the Eucharist because he had recognized my grandfather's deep, deep devotion.
I wish I could latch onto that devotion in a tangible way. Even when I sit before Jesus on those rare occasions when I make time to stop by the chapel, I am like a fidgety child -- not sure what I should be doing, but knowing that whatever I am doing is certainly not worthy of what is before me. And what is before me? Nothing less than Jesus himself. That is what we believe as Catholics. That Jesus absolutely meant exactly what he said at the Last Supper:
"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.' Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, 'This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.'" (Mk 14:22-24)
Yes, Lord, we believe, but even in our belief, even on our best days, are we living up to our end of the bargain? If we could fully comprehend the gift of the Eucharist, how could we not drop to both knees or prostrate ourselves before the altar every time we approached to receive Communion? Why would we want to be anywhere else other than there with Jesus every spare minute we had? I guess that would be the ideal, and we humans are often less than ideal. Even with the best intentions, even with the deepest belief, we often cannot rise to the level of what the Eucharist deserves.
The good news is that our God wants us to receive Him in Communion, even with our human imperfections. If we truly believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and we are free from serious sin, we are welcome at the table -- even when we recognize that the details of our devotion could use some work.
Last year, right around the time my daughter Olivia was receiving her First Communion, I saw something at church that stopped me cold and made me want to write more about this subject. Here's a snippet from my Life Lines column, which runs monthly in Catholic New York:
"One week, as we were sitting in church, we saw a teenager walk away from the priest with the host in her hand, carrying it back toward her pew instead of consuming it on the spot. She dropped it on the floor and just kept walking. Another woman went over, picked it up and brought it to the pastor. For me, that moment, where the Eucharist seemed to be worth less than a penny dropped on a sidewalk, was a stark and sad reminder of just how far we have to go in truly understanding this teaching that is the absolute core of our faith. Maybe we all need to go back to square one and learn the lesson like a 7-year-old: This is not like Jesus; this is Jesus. We hear it, we know it, but do we get it?"
We need to talk more about the Eucharist. We need to ensure that Catholics, young and old, understand the truth of this teaching, even if they struggle to grasp its significance fully. If we allow the Eucharist to become just one of many teachings and do not focus on it as the core teaching that it is, we have failed.
When I wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Catholic Catechism, I spent a lot of time on the subject of Eucharist. Here is a small sample of what my translation of the Catechism says on this matter:
"Everything in the life of the Church flows from the Eucharist and is directed toward it. 'The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life.' (1324)...The Catechism calls the Eucharist a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, and a paschal banquet, at which believers who consume Christ are filled with grace and receive a pledge of future glory. (1323)
"So to be sure you are clear on the depth of the Eucharist, Catholics believe the bread and wine offered at Mass truly become the body and blood of Jesus Christ through transubstantiation. They do not believe it is a symbol of the body and blood but that through the prayer of consecration prayed by the priest-celebrant, the bread and wine become Jesus." (p. 128)
Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi. Celebrate the gift of Jesus himself that is yours each and every time you walk into church. Share the good news with someone you know. (And, if you'd like to read the rest of my Life Lines column on this subject, click HERE.)