Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates sacramental sacrifice

Father John A. Kiley

The part of the Mass known today as the Psalm Response, recited in chorus with the congregation after the first reading, was formerly listed in missals as the Gradual. It received this practical title because it was sung by the choir while the priest or deacon was taking steps or going up steps (in Latin, gradi) to the pulpit to proclaim the Gospel. Pulpits in the days before microphones were located out in the midst of the congregation. St. James Church in Manville still has its original pulpit attacked to a pillar among the pews. On solemn feasts this procession from chair to pulpit became more elaborate with blessings, bows, incense and procession with a heavy book. More song verses were needed to occupy the time of the Gospel procession. These added verses were placed after the Alleluia and were given the Latin title sequencia, in English sequence, since they were a sequel that followed the customary song.

By the time of the Council of Trent in the 16th century, there were numerous sequences. Today the Roman Missal contains only five sequences for certain Masses, all of which may be used, or not, at the discretion of the celebrant: Easter (Victimae Paschali, The Paschal Victim), Pentecost (Veni, Sancte Spiritus, Come, Holy Spirit), Corpus Christi (Lauda Sion, Praise, O Zion), Our Lady of Sorrows (Stabat Mater, At the Cross), and Masses of Christian Burial (Dies Irae, Day of Wrath). When Pope Urban IV first established the Feast of Corpus Christi in the 13th century, he requested St. Thomas Aquinas to compose hymns for it to be used at the various hours of the Divine Office. This Sunday’s sequence, Lauda Sion, is one of the five impressive hymns St. Thomas composed in honor of the Blessed Sacrament. Adoro Te Devote and Pange Lingua are still quite popular.

St. Thomas Aquinas happily blended insightful theology with poetical talent, greatly assisted by the Latin language’s ability to express expansive ideas in brief phrases. In Latin, verse one of Lauda Sion requires eleven words; in English, seventeen words. Altogether there are twenty-four verses. St. Thomas first of all celebrates the excellence of the Eucharist observing that the Body and Blood of Christ can never be praised enough: Bring him all the praise you know, He is more than you bestow, Never can you reach his due. He carefully connects the celebration of Mass with the celebration of the Last Supper: What he did at supper seated, Christ ordained to be repeated, His memorial ne’er to cease. The Dominican friar insists upon the Real Presence: This the truth each Christian learns, Bread into his flesh he turns, To his precious blood the wine. He also stresses the wholeness of Christ in each consecrated Host: Whoso of this food partakes, Does not rend the Lord nor breaks; Christ is whole to all that taste.”

Aquinas too introduces the grim notion of the worthiness of those who receive Communion: “Bad and good the feast are sharing, Of what divers dooms preparing, Endless death, or endless life.” St. Thomas also understands the Eucharist to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy: “Truth the ancient types fulfilling, Isaac bound, a victim willing, Paschal lamb, its lifeblood spilling, manna to the fathers sent.” Finally Aquinas prays that Christ follow through on his Eucharistic promises: “Very bread, good shepherd, tend us, Jesus, of your love befriend us, You refresh us, you defend us, Your eternal goodness send us in the land of life to be.”

The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ were originally offered on Calvary centuries ago in expiation for mankind’s sins. In anticipation of that redeeming sacrifice Jesus had sacramentally shared his Body and Blood in the upper room under the guise of bread and wine. Today that same redemptive sacrifice is now offered once again under the appearance of bread and wine on Catholic altars around the world. The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ commemorates and celebrates the historic sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, the institution of Christi’s sacramental sacrifice in the Upper Room, and the continued Presence of the sacrificed and risen Christ made available to the Church through the Eucharist.