Corpus Christi, the Same for All Time

    We are all aware, too well aware, of how quickly things change. Last-year’s cell phone is already an antique, and a ten-year-old computer is virtually prehistoric. We’re told, and believe, that the computer just purchased is obsolete before we’re out of the store. Once, when I was teaching in Saskatoon, I was walking to class with a psychology professor who was complaining that students were using outdated material in their essays: “Things have advanced,” he said, “during the last decade, and anything earlier than that is for our purposes useless.” I didn’t tell him that my lecture that day was based on a biography of Saint Martin of Tours that had been written in A.D. 397, 1,621 years ago. For the Church, with its allegiance to the historical career of Jesus and a commitment to Tradition, functions in centuries, in millennia rather than in years, months, days . . . hours as we are required to do nowadays.

    A good instance of what I mean is the feast of Corpus Christi (The Body [and Blood] of Christ). Established in the mid-thirteenth century, a mere 750 years ago, it soon became popular throughout the Christian world, owing in no small part to processions that became more and more elaborate with the passage of time, somewhat as the Santa Claus parade seems to be bigger and bigger every year. We know that in 1475, in the city of York (England) the feast was celebrated with remarkable pageantry. Houses along the route were hung with counterpanes from the upper windows, and the road was strewn with flowers. Guilds, composed of various trades and occupations, joined in with banners and garlands. The procession took place in stages, with stops along the way where “mystery plays” were performed by the various guilds: bakers, blacksmiths, barbers and so on. That year in York, there were forty-eight such presentations. Eleven were based on events from the Old Testament, starting with the fall of the angels and then moving on to the creation of the world and so on. Eight were on the nativity and nearly all the rest on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with the climax being a portrayal of the Last Judgement. It is estimated that the performance time for the whole series would have been something like fifteen hours. Highly poetic language interpreted and complemented the words taken directly from the Bible. For instance, the presentation of the sacrifice of Isaac—when Abraham in obedience to a command from God prepared to offer his son on an altar—evokes the crucifixion. At the crucial moment Isaac speaks the words of Jesus on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” His dialogue also echoes the words of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: “I shall not complain again, for to do his will is my reward.” And Abraham, as he lifts his hand to slay his son, prays: “Jesus, on me have that pity I have most in mind.” The play concludes with a statement from the commentator: “The deed that you see here performed is given as an example of what Jesus did who, for the salvation of all mankind, was sacrificed on the cross.”

    One of the plays presented the Last Supper, especially appropriate for the feast of Corpus Christi. At first glance it seems strange that the institution of the Eucharist is not described. I’m not sure why it was omitted, but it probably was felt that the words of Jesus, as having been incorporated into the text of the Mass, were regarded as too sacred to be pronounced by an actor on a stage. There is, however, a speech in which Jesus identifies himself as the true paschal lamb: the paschal lamb, used in the Jewish Seder supper, has been done away with, for a new law has been established. Now, “whosoever eats of it must be washed clean; for whoever accepts the new law must be clean and chaste of heart.”[1] We have here an echo of Saint Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 11: “Any one who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” The plays were so popular that they continued even after the Reformation, being finally stamped out only in the 1570s.

    What can we learn today from this bit of Catholic history? Two things.

    Their faith is the same as ours despite the many ways that society has altered over the centuries. Imagine a time machine that could transport us back to 1475 or them forward to 2018. However strange most things would appear in moving either way, nevertheless both of us would feel completely at home in the differing modes of celebrating the feast. For, whether in the fifteenth century or the twenty-first, the creed we honour, as they did, is the one that the Apostles preached, the martyrs witnessed and the Church has ever proclaimed.

    But, you may ask, what about those remarkable alterations between their dramatic and exuberant way of celebrating the feast as compared to our prosaic, all-too-ordinary observance? Things have changed, but the paradox is that change is required in order for the thing to continue intact. G. K. Chesterton used a clever image to convey this fact, namely, that if you want something to remain as it is you have to keep changing it. His example is a post that is painted white. To maintain it white you have to re-paint it; otherwise it soon becomes weathered, that is to say, anything but white. The same phenomenon can be see in a school. The student body always looks the same—young boys and girls—because there is a complete turn-over every few years. You wouldn’t want to visit an elementary school and find it full of fifty year olds, i.e., the same crowd that had started there forty-five years earlier. And thus, the externals of the liturgy alter over the years or, in this case, the centuries, but only so as to make the essential mystery available to people in a new time and place, in a society different from the past. For instance, we have no guilds of tradesmen today, and their modern equivalent—labour unions—are unlikely to be mounting a passion play on the front steps of the church. But so what? It’s up to us to discover what elements of today’s Canada can be adapted to express better the age-old truths of the faith. One obvious example occurs every time you attend Mass, viz., the use of a microphone that sends the preacher’s words booming through the church with a volume unequalled since the voice of God thundered from Mount Sinai. And change we must as Cardinal Newman noted: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” But he follows this principle with the essential purpose of such developments: “[We] change . . . in order to remain the same.”[2]

    [1] Of Moses’s law I make an end,/of some part, but not all./My commandment shall otherwise be known

    with them that men shall wisely speak./But the paschal lamb that is here dispensed with,/which Jews use great and small,/ever forward now I it forbid/from Christ’ folk, whatever befall./In that place shall be set/a new law between us./But who thereof shall eat/behooves to be washed clean./For that new law, who so shall hear,/in heart must be clean and chaste.

    [2] J. H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, I.1.7.