Growing up in a Catholic family, a Catholic school, and a Catholic neighborhood, I do not remember ever being told that the feast of Corpus Christi is a pretty big deal. No one need tell me; rather, it was shown to me, to the entire parish, through celebration. Every year after Mass we would have a procession. The celebrant, in his solemn vestments, would lead the parishioners, holding the Eucharist in the monstrance high above his head. The point impressed itself clearly upon my imagination: Jesus led His flock, my working class Italian neighborhood included, even if only around the block.
The wonder of this feast in my childhood was the Mystery of the Real Presence, that little wafer host becoming the biggest thing there is—namely, the Body and Blood of Christ. More often now, I wonder at how few seem to remember, know, or acknowledge this Mystery.
If the Real Presence, the crux of the Corpus Christi feast, is slipping quickly out of mind, it follows from a significant slip out of sight. Visible, tangible, sensible signs are one of the greatest gifts of our Faith. Signs are part of our living tradition, citing joy for what has been given to us and calling us to look to the future that God has prepared. Think miracles. The liquifying of St. Gennaro’s blood this past March was immediately met not only with celebration by the people of Naples, of whom the saint is patron, but with an exhortation by Pope Francis to sanctity. All signs pointing to the glory of God are wonderful, but they need not be miraculous in themselves. We ordinary Catholics have our own ways of pointing to the manifestation of the Kingdom of God—we are, after all, the Mystical Body of Christ.
Up there with the Real Presence in the Eucharist, one of my favorite facets of Corpus Christi is the history of its celebration. The feast took to the streets long before my home parish started our procession. Anglophiles and history buffs will enjoy as much as I do the particular pageant tradition of medieval England. Every year on this feast day, the walled city of York would revel in the historical manifestation of God’s glory with a cycle of plays that told (often by silly puns and slapstick humor) the entirety of Salvation History. The guilds, groups of craft and tradesmen, were each responsible for a different story—the shipwrights performed the Building of the Ark, the bakers depicted the Last Supper. Twelve plays were put on each year, with the whole polity of York processing from wagon to wagon to see “not fiction, but the holy realities which from [their] childhood [they] learned to venerate.”
The tongue-in-cheek tone of the York plays has always struck me. Rather than make mockery of God’s Revelation throughout human history, they marry the silliness of human folly to the gravity of Divine Providence, thus raising an interesting point. Why, in the Middle Ages, were these ordinary Englishmen so comfortable with their faith? On the other hand, why did the entire city stop what it was doing to watch plays about Noah bickering with his wife?
In short, because they knew just how big a deal the Faith is and was, which they made clear through their signs and celebrations.
In big, dramatic displays and small, provincial ones, the Faithful have been taking our Faith to the streets since Day One. Less than two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost, which remembers the Apostles coming out from fear and trembling and boldly proclaiming the Faith. It can be done in words, it can be done in deeds—it can be done in both, through signs, through celebrations, both in Mass and in mirth.
I said earlier that in my childhood the wonder of Corpus Christi was the Real Presence. Perhaps I misspoke; the delight of Corpus Christi was the Real Presence. The delight of the Mass was that every Sunday (in fact, every day) Jesus Christ the Son of God made a point of visiting my little parish, a tiny church tucked away on a South Philly corner. Once a year, we made a point of throwing Him a parade.
The medieval York plays told the story of human folly making life hellish and God, in His infinite Love and Mercy, fixing it. Celebrations of this kind, celebrations of this truth, have dwindled over the years. Every year the participation in my parish procession gets smaller and smaller, but, at least, there is a procession. Today is the feast of Corpus Christi in many dioceses; we need to celebrate. We need to remember that Christ is with is in a very real way, every day on altars across the world. We need to remember that we are His body, His hands, His footmen, and we need to take to the streets. We need to celebrate our Faith, cherish it, rejoice in it. We need, moreover, to bring our salvation to light in our lives, so that just maybe the world might rejoice in it with us. It is, after all, the biggest and best deal there is.