15 June 2017

Celebrating Corpus Christi
with the Body of Christ

The Corpus Christi procession in Cambridge in 2015 (Photograph: Martin Bond and Saint Bene’t’s Church)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Dublin for two days, completing the final parts of my academic work at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and Trinity College Dublin. Today I have been with students whose MTh dissertations I have supervised and who have had their viva voce examinations; tomorrow, I attend my last Court of Examiners for TCD.

Because things are running late today, I am missing the Solemn Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral this evening that marks the Feast of Corpus Christ, which 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 features in the calendar of the Church of England on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and this day is being celebrated in many English churches and cathedrals today. For example, there is a Solemn Eucharist in Lichfield Cathedral at 5.30 this evening, with the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, as the celebrant and preacher.

There is a Corpus Christi procession in Cambridge this evening, starting with the Sung Eucharist at St Bene’t’s Church at 7 p.m. and passing Corpus Christi College, Fitzbillies and the Fitzwilliam Museum as it processes to Little Saint Mary’s for Benediction, followed by refreshments. The preacher in Cambridge this evening is the Right Revd Graeme Knowles, a former Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and before that Bishop of Sodor and Man.

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 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.

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). But 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. Yet, in the Roman Catholic Church, the feast of Corpus Christi is one of the five occasions in a year when a bishop must not to be away from his diocese unless for a grave and urgent reason.

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)

Corpus Christi does not commemorate any one 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.

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 is not just a celebration for Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics. 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 celebration 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).

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