The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ (frequently referred to as Corpus Christi) is celebrated, in many places around the world, on the second Sunday after Pentecost. In Rome, the Holy Father will celebrate Mass at the Basilica of St. John Lateran then a procession will begin.
Pope Francis will travel with the Blessed Sacrament a little over a mile down the Via Merulana to the Basilica of St. Mary Major where benediction will take place. Similar processions will take place in parishes around the globe as we observe Corpus Christi.
The procession is a reminder to us of a journey or pilgrimage. Pilgrimages to particular holy places or shrines are popular in some cultures. The great Marian shrines of Lourdes, Guadalupe and Fatima are examples.
The Camino di Santiago is another one that is quite popular. In this case the pilgrims travel on foot, horse or bicycle from different parts of Europe to the small city of Santiago in the western most part of Spain to venerate the remains of St. James. Whatever the pilgrimage, the “journey” or “way” is an important element. People dedicate time to reflect on life as they travel to their destination or goal.
The Corpus Christi processions likewise provide such an opportunity. In this case, there is a vivid reminder that we do not walk on the road of life alone. We walk together and we walk with the Lord. He is ever present to us on the journey of life whose goal is heaven.
Regardless of whether we participate in a procession on Sunday, the image provides an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life and God’s presence in our lives. The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ celebrates the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist under the forms of bread and wine. This is a mystery. Ordinary bread and wine, two of the most basic forms of nourishment, become the spiritual food for eternal life.
We are all familiar with the eucharistic institution accounts that are remembered every time we celebrate Mass. Sunday’s Gospel, however, is not one of these accounts but comes from the “Bread of Life discourse” in the Gospel according to John.
Jesus speaks of himself as the “living bread that came down from heaven.” The “bread from heaven” echoes the experience of the Israelites when God provided manna as they traveled through the desert on their way to the “land of milk and honey” or “promised land.”
The first reading from the liturgy from the Book of Deuteronomy has Moses exhorting the people to “remember.” He calls the Israelites to remember God’s saving deeds, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, directing and guiding them through the desert for 40 years and providing them with manna so that they might realize “that not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord.”
Jesus is the “word made flesh” who came down from heaven. Now he describes himself as the “living bread.” The allusion to the manna is real but something even more wonderful is happening here. The manna assisted the Israelites on their journey to the promised land. When they arrived the manna ceases.
The food that Jesus provides is one that is offered as food for the journey to eternal life. The food for eternal life is Jesus himself for he says: “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Quarreling began among those hearing Jesus speak like this, thinking it is outrageous. Jesus responds, however, in even more emphatic terms regarding his body and blood. “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” Jesus is truly present in the food for eternal life, the Eucharist.
Every human being is on a journey. The journey is life. The destination or goal is heaven. On this journey we do not travel alone for Christ is with us. He never leaves us forsaken or alone.
As we travel on this journey, Jesus leads us for he is the “Way and the Truth and the Life.” As we travel on this journey, Jesus feeds us for he is the “living bread that came down from heaven.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.