"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The ambiguity of Corpus Christi

For an American Catholic, the phrase Corpus Christi is wonderfully ambiguous, inviting one to slip a great truth through the interstices of the banal. Today I want to take up the invitation.

For most Americans, the phrase first and foremost designates a muggy seaport city lying smack within Hurricane Alley. But as I learned when I lived in Texas, the city is well-loved nonetheless—so much so that the U.S. Navy, which has an air station there, has proudly named an attack submarine after it. Yet it is a delicious irony that the dwindling minority of Americans who know Latin also know that the phrase means "the body of Christ." In Catholic theology, that phrase too is ambiguous.

The Feast of Corpus Christi, first instituted in the thirteenth century for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, was meant to accommodate and encourage Eucharistic devotion within the context of the liturgy. The Corpus Christi to be celebrated was thus, in the first instance, the body and blood of the risen Christ truly present in the Eucharist. There was a very good reason for that.

Many Catholics in the Middle Ages had become more inclined to adore the Eucharist from a distance than to actually receive it. Understandable, since one didn't have to go to confession and reform one's life in order to adore as distinct from receive. But it was thought that, by setting aside a high Mass celebrating the specific theme of the Real Presence, one might induce at least some people to associate more firmly the Eucharist as sacrificial offering with the reserved sacramental species as the body and blood of the risen Christ. That would, in theory at least, make them likelier to experience reception of the Eucharist as life-giving. Centuries later during the Counter-Reformation, the feast became still more important as an occasion to reassert the Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation against the various alternatives proposed by the Reformers, from "consubstantiation" to outright denial of the Real Presence in favor of seeing the Eucharist as a memorial alone. The issue was so polemically charged that public Corpus Christi processions were unthinkable in countries ruled by Protestants when not criminalized outright. There are still many places in the West where such processions are considered rude. And I don't have to tell you what would happen to them in predominantly Muslim countries.

In the nature of the case, the issue of the Real Presence remains vitally important. I've never found a plausible way to downplay the fact that, in John 6, Jesus refuses to accommodate hearers who can't quite swallow such statements of his as:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. (verse 51)
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. (verse 54)
Surely, both "the Jews" and "the disciples" seemed to think, such talk cannot be taken literally; but Jesus pointedly declines the opportunity to turn it into a metaphor that could be easily accepted and almost as easily forgotten. He is reported to have said instead:
Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
After the Resurrection, the Eleven did indeed see "the Son of Man ascending to where he was before." And the very existence of the tradition set down in John's Gospel indicates that the Apostles and the early Church took Jesus's statements about eating his flesh and drinking his blood quite literally. It was that which convinced me that conservative Protestants who insisted that I take the Bible "literally" meant only that I should agree with their view of what the original authors intended, which was not at all the same as the ancient and traditional view. In this case especially, I just couldn't believe that true Christianity had been forgotten sometime between the death of the Apostle John and the death of the Emperor Constantine, only to be recovered by Martin Luther and his friends.

The other meaning of Corpus Christi in theology is, of course, the Church as "body of Christ." That's not a later Catholic invention; it's right there in St. Paul, who takes it literally enough to speak, in Ephesians, of marriage as a metaphor of it. The connection between the sacramental and ecclesiological meanings is not only not accidental but most intimate. By eating Christ's risen body and drinking his blood in faith, we collectively become what we eat, i.e. Christ's body, albeit in still another mode; spouses sacramentally enact that reality in turn. But the ecclesiological meaning of the phrase too seems to be lost on many Christians, including many Catholics, who persist in thinking of the Church primarily as an institution and secondarily as the corps of celibates designated to run that institution. Impoverished understandings of the Eucharist and of marriage go hand in hand with that.

We've long had a theology of the Eucharist. Recently, John Paul the Great inaugurated the "theology of the body." What we need now is an ecclesiology of the body, as I've adumbrated before. Of course I've got to find a publisher first. I've been told so far that my choices will be very limited.
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