My most memorable celebration of today's great solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ was at the Abbey of Monte Cassino, the day after my ordination as a deacon. I ineptly performed the deacon's duties under the watchful eye of a well-experienced 14-year old master of ceremonies from the Abbey school. He was not impressed.
My second-most memorable feast of Corpus Christi was also in Italy, just weeks before I became pastor of Christ the Redeemer parish in 2007. This time I was in the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto, where this feastday is celebrated with a Eucharistic procession that is also a medieval pageant. The bishop carries the Blessed Sacrament through the city accompanied not only by rows of seminarians and clergy, but also by festively-costumed knights and ladies from a bygone era.
There are drums and trumpets and brightly-coloured banners held high as the long procession winds through the town.
But I have to tell you something: though I called it a "memorable" feast, I remember fairly little about these dramatic aspects--I had to look at some pictures to bring back the memories. What comes immediately to mind when I think about the procession is this: when it reached the local prison, it came to a halt and the bishop went in to the jail with the monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament.
The pageantry stopped while the bishop acted on the words of Jesus "I was in prison and you visited me."
That detour through the doors of the jail taught a truth about the Eucharist greater than even the most devout procession through the streets could teach. The Eucharist may be celebrated in church, but it is about life--life in all its dimensions and with all its problems.
We do not adore Jesus from a distance, and he does not meet us from a faraway place. Like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, he embraces us in the Eucharist with passion and affection.
I might even dare to say that the greatest challenge a Catholic faces is to allow the gift of the Eucharist to transform the hidden places in our heart--the "prisons" we don't want the Lord to enter.
If any aspect our lives--worries at work, temptations, problems at home--is closed off from our weekly reception of Holy Communion, we risk spiritual malnutrition. Mass becomes too much like the drums and trumpets heralding the Eucharistic procession in Orvieto.
The first reading today tells us to have high expectations when we receive the Bread of Life. Moses reminds the Israelites that the God who fed them manna also freed them from slavery, led them through the desert and protected them from the poison of snakes and scorpions.
Are we to believe that the manna of the New Covenant--food for our souls--is less powerful than the manna that God sent his people in the desert? Don't we too live in a desert, thirsting for peace amidst the increasing turmoil of modern life?
And no-one can deny that the snakes and scorpions that threaten us today--the breakdown of social values, the spread of pornography, the rise of persecution of Christians--are as toxic as the poisonous serpents that threatened the Chosen People during the Exodus.
We live the Exodus when we try to escape the captivity of the Egyptians of our day: the political Pharaohs who scorn consciences and morality, the oppressors who demand an amount of work that our bodies and spirits were never meant to produce. And if we hope to make it through the desert alive, we desperately need the manna from heaven that God provides us in the Eucharist.
The Israelites ate manna for forty years in the desert. After a while I imagine it was easy for them to wolf it down without much thought--without recalling that this was God's gift from them, a miraculous food that appeared just when they faced starvation.
We can make the mistake with the bread that comes down from heaven if we fail to reflect on what we receive and why we receive It.
In our second reading today, Paul asks "is the blessing cup not a sharing in the Bread of Christ? Is the bread we break not a sharing in the Body of Christ?"
These are rhetorical questions. St. Paul knows the answers and so do we. Jesus speaks even more plainly t us in the Gospel when he says that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink. Both he and St. Paul are talking about spiritual truths, not poetic images.
We receive the Eucharist because we need to be fed. We are weakened by our journey through the wilderness; the trials of life sap our energy and leave us hungry for peace and hope. Or we find success to be dry, leaving us thirsty for meaning despite worldly success.
And of course we trek through the desert of sin, that place where nothing grows, and we become aware of our need for the living water that brings life.
The Eucharist, if received worthily, will feed our deepest hungers. It can penetrate the darkest corners of our existence. It is true food and real drink, ample provision for the long haul of life. It offers freedom from slavery, an answer to despair, and antidote to the poison of sin.
Here and now, those who receive the Eucharist abide in the Lord, and the Lord abides in them--a presence no less real than what we call the Real Presence in the tabernacle, though of course different. And in the end, of course, the Body and Blood of Christ brings us to eternal life and resurrection on the last day.
Our feast of Corpus Christi today doesn't boast drummers or trumpeters or knights in armour escorting our Lord through the streets. But as we celebrate this sacred banquet in which Christ is received, our spirits should be no less joyful and festive--and equally ready to throw open the prison gates of our hearts to his merciful love.