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Corpus Christi

In the United States, Sunday, June 18, is the feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It is one of the Church’s two great feasts of the Holy Eucharist. On Holy Thursday, we remember the institution of the sacrament at the Last Supper. On Corpus Christi we celebrate and adore Jesus’ abiding presence in the sacrament. He remains with us in all the tabernacles of the world, everywhere the sacrament is reserved. That is the meaning of the red vigil lamp that burns before the altar of repose. The Word was made flesh, and He has made His dwelling among us. What remains at the end of the liturgy is no longer bread, no longer wine, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not vanish with the dismissal. He lives, He abides.

The feast day is medieval in origin, but the Church observed the reality from its earliest days. Around 150 A.D., St. Justin noted that the deacons took the reserved sacrament to the sick and homebound immediately after Mass. A century later in Alexandria, St. Dionysius the Great attests to the same practice of visiting the sick with the sacrament.

In those early centuries, which were times of on-and-off persecution, many Christians received Communion daily. This was the Fathers’ common interpretation of the “daily bread” Jesus instructed us to request in the Lord’s Prayer. But it seems that most Communions were received not in the context of the Mass, but rather in the home, taken from the sacrament reserved from the community’s last Mass. Around 200, Tertullian gives cautious counsel for administering self-Communion and for reserving the sacrament in the home. St. Hippolytus, in the Apostolic Tradition, adds a homey touch, advising the use of a secure container that will keep mice out. It’s easy to see why the Church eventually phased out practices such as private reservation and self-Communion, as they lend themselves easily to profanation and abuse.

We do not know much more about the methods the early Church used to reserve the body of Christ, but the fact of reservation is quite clear. Nowhere do the Fathers instruct Christians to bake fresh bread for the purpose of administering Communion to themselves. Only the consecrated elements will do.

The earliest repositories for the sacrament were called “pastophoria” in Greek. Thus, in the Apostolic Constitutions we read: “After all the faithful of both sexes have received Communion the deacons gather what is left over and carry it to the Pastophorion.” The great biblical scholar St. Jerome wrote: “The sacred place, where the body of Christ is kept, who is the true bridegroom of the Church and of our soul, is called Thalamus or Pastophorion.” What did these early tabernacles look like? The trend back then was to fashion them in the shape of a dove.

In a biography of St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in the latter part of the fourth century, we read that he ordered a dove to be made of pure gold, and in it deposited a part of the body of the Lord, and suspended it above the sacred table, i. e. above the altar. In the lives of several of the early popes contained in the Liber Pontificalis, compiled in the sixth century, mention is made of the manufacture of such doves and of their presentation to several churches in Rome. In the life of Pope Silvester I (314-335) we read that the emperor Constantine (306-337) donated a dove made of pure gold to the basilica of St. Peter.

By the time we get to St. Paulinus in the early fifth century, we find descriptions of niches built into the church to hold the sacrament. There is an oral tradition in Milan that St. Ambrose required new converts to spend the days before their baptism in constant vigil before the reserved Blessed Sacrament. In Spain it is said that Christians have kept vigil before the sacrament for well over a millennium, to make reparation for the fourth-century Priscillian heresy.

I pulled these descriptions from the good online history of eucharistic reservation at Catholic Culture. The Anglican monk Gregory Dix wrote a fascinating book on the subject, A Detection of Aumbries, but it’s long out of print and very hard to find. Fr. Benedict Groeschel and James Monti wrote an excellent history of eucharistic devotion, In the Presence of Our Lord: The History, Theology, and Psychology of Eucharistic Devotion. If you haven’t already read it, you should do so immediately. I wrote a book on the origins of Corpus Christi called Praying In The Presence of Our Lord with St. Thomas Aquinas. If you’d like some background on the Fathers’ teaching on the real presence, check the archives of this blog, especially this little number. My book The Mass of the Early Christians gives you a superabundance of detail, from the very documents of the ancient Church.

Now, go and enjoy the day. My ancestors in Sicily celebrate Corpus Christi with rich desserts. Lots of chocolate. I believe that pleases Our Lord.