07 June 2012

Celebrating Corpus Christi – not just for a few

Joos van Cleve, The Last Supper, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Patrick Comerford

Today is marked in the calendar of many Anglican churches as Corpus Christi.

Although it is not a feastday in the Calendar of the Church of Ireland, Corpus Christi is being celebrated in Christ Church Cathedral. Dublin, with a Solemn Eucharist this evening [Thursday 7 June 2012].

Corpus Christi features in the calendar of the Church of England on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and is being celebrated in many English churches and cathedrals today, with, for example, a Solemn Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral at 5.30 this evening.

Corpus Christi is also celebrated in Old Catholic and some Lutheran churches, although in many parts of the Roman Catholic Church, including Ireland, it has now been moved from the Thursday after Trinity Sunday to the following Sunday.

Corpus Christi does not commemorate any particular event in the life of Christ or in the history of the Church – but the same can be said too of Trinity Sunday (last Sunday) or the Feast of Christ the King (the Sunday before Advent). Instead, this day celebrates the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Corpus Christi first made an appearance in the Church Calendar at the suggestion of Saint Juliana of Liège, a 13th century Augustinian nun, when she suggested the feastday to her local bishop, Bishop Robert de Thorete of Liège and the Archdeacon of Liège, Jacques Pantaléon.

The bishop introduced the feastday to the calendar of his diocese in 1246, and the archdeacon subsequently introduced it to the calendar of the Western Church when he became Pope Urban IV in 1264, when he issued a papal bull, Transiturus de hoc mundo.

A liturgy for the feast was composed by the great Dominican theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, who also wrote the hymns Verbum Supernum Prodiens for Lauds and Pange Lingua for Vespers of Corpus Christi.

The last two verses of Pange Lingua are often sung as a separate Latin hymn, Tantum Ergo, while the last two verses of Verbum Supernum Prodiens are sometimes sung separately as O Salutaris Hostia.

This was the very first universal feast ever sanctioned by a Pope. Corpus Christi was retained in Lutheran calendars until about 1600, and continues to be celebrated in some Lutheran churches. In the calendar of the Church of England, Corpus Christi is known as The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi) and has the status of a Festival (Common Worship, p. 529).

The setting for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. this evening, sung by the Cathedral Choir, is the Mass for five voices by William Byrd (1540-1623), written around 1594. The Introit is Thomas Aquinas’ Pange Lingua and the Motet is Byrd’s O sacrum convivium

Corpus Christi in Trebizond and Cambridge

The Chronophage or “Time Eater” at Corpus Christi is accurate only once every five minutes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg says Mass in a corner of the public gardens in Trebizond to mark the Feast of Corpus Christi. After Mass, he holds a procession round the gardens, chanting Ave Verum, stops, preaches a short sermon in English, and says that Corpus Christi is a great Christian festival and holy day, “always kept in the Church of England.”

The survival of Corpus Christi in the Anglican tradition is also illustrated in the history of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Formally known as the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, this is the only Cambridge college founded by the townspeople of Cambridge: it was established in 1352 by the Guilds of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Today, Corpus Christi is best known to visitors to Cambridge for its clock, the Chronophage or “Time Eater,” which is accurate only once every five minutes. But the Old Court in Corpus is the oldest court in any Oxbridge college.

The chapel in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge ... designed by William Wilkins as a miniature replica of the chapel in King’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The new college acquired all the guild’s lands, ceremonies and revenues, including the annual Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Cambridge to Magdalene Bridge, during which the Eucharistic host was carried by a priest and several of the college’s treasures were carried by the Master and fellows, before returning to the college for an extravagant dinner.

The procession in Cambridge continued until the Reformation, but in 1535 William Sowode, who was Parker’s predecessor as Master (1523-1544), stopped this tradition. However, the college retains its pre-Reformation name and continues to have a grand dinner on the feast of Corpus Christi.

How do we understand ‘Real Presence’?

In recent days, there has been some discussion in The Irish Times about the differences between “Catholic” and “Protestant” teaching about the “real presence” in the Eucharist. Most of this discussion has lacked any theological insight, understanding or nuance, and has failed to take account of the “substantial agreement on the doctrine of the Eucharist” of thinking found in the ARCIC dialogue, or to take account of the convergence found in the most recent work of theologians, including George Hunsinger.

Anglicans generally and officially believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – is there any “presence” that is not “real”? But the specifics of that belief range from transubstantiation, to something akin to a belief in a “pneumatic” presence, from objective reality to pious silence.

Anglican teaching thinking about the Eucharist is best summarised in the Prayer of Humble Access:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. – (Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

The classic Anglican aphorism with regard to this debate is found in a poem by John Donne that is often attributed to Queen Elizabeth I:

His was the Word that spake it;
He took the bread and brake it;
and what that Word did make it;
I do believe and take it.

This, in many ways, also reflects Orthodox theology, which does not use the term “transubstantiation” to systematically describe how the Gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ. Instead, the Orthodox speak of the Eucharist as a “Sacred Mystery” use only the word “change.” That moment of transformation of change does not take place at one particular moment during the Liturgy, but is completed at the Epiclesis.

And that completion is affirmed by our “Amen” at the distribution and reception.

But when we say “Amen” to those words, “The Body of Christ,” at the distribution we are also saying “Amen” to the Church as the Body of Christ, as Corpus Christi: “He [Christ] is the of the body, the church” (Colossians 1: 18), “which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1: 23).

In the act of communion, the entire Church – past, present, and even future – is united in eternity. In Orthodox Eucharistic theology, although many separate Divine Liturgies may be celebrated, there is only one Bread and one Cup throughout all the world and throughout all time.

Corpus Christi in Dublin

Preaching at the Corpus Christi ecumenical protest service at the US embassy thirty years ago (Photograph: The Irish Times, 1982)

In the Church of Ireland in Dublin, a Chantry Guild of Corpus Christ attached to Saint Michan’s Church survived for deacdes after the Reformation , and was still in existence in the mid-17th century.

Thirty years ago, on Good Friday, 9 April 1982, I was involved in organising and preached at an ecumenical service outside the US Embassy in Dublin to protest against proposals to name a US nuclear submarine Corpus Christi. Those who took part included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Mennonties and Quakers. A few days earlier, nine of us, calling ourselves “Corpus Christ Witness” and writing from the Student Christian Movement (SCM) offices in Dublin, signed an open letter published in Irish newspapers condemning the proposal as blasphemous. We said that by giving that name to a “hunter killer” nuclear submarine, the world was faced “with the choice of which God we will serve: Jesus of Nazareth, who died that all might live, or the new ‘Christ,’ which lives that all may die.”

In the US, the choice of name was condemned by 259 Roman Catholic bishops, archbishops and cardinals, 25 Episcopalian bishops, and more than 250 religious orders, denominations, organisation and councils of churches, including the United Church of Christ, the National Assembly of Women Religious and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

A shared inheritance

Corpus Christi is not just a celebration for Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. Nor is it a celebration solely to coincide with the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin this year. It is part of the shared pre-Reformation heritage of the Church, and long pre-dates Tridentine teachings on the Eucharist and transubstantiation.

It is a reminder too that the Eucharist is supposed to be a regular elebration for the Church, and not just once a month, once a quarter or once a year. As someone reminded me recently, if Christ had meant us to celebrate the Eucharist only on special occasions, he would have used cake and champagne at the last Supper. But he used ordinary everyday bread and table wine.


Genesis 14: 18-20; Psalm 116: 10-17; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 6: 51-58 (Common Worship, page 563).


Lord Jesus Christ,
we thank you that in this wonderful sacrament
you have given us the memorial of your passion:
grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries
of your body and blood
that we may know within ourselves
and show forth in our lives
the fruits of your redemption;
for you are alive and reign with the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
(Common Worship, p. 407)

Post Communion Prayer:

All praise to you, our God and Father,
for you have fed us with the bread of heaven
and quenched our thirst from the true vine:
hear our prayer that, being grafted into Christ,
we may grow together in unity
and feast with him in the kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Common Worship, p. 407).

1 comment:

Paddy said...

Excellent post ... should put it on the college reading list!