Justin Martyr and Corpus Christi: Witnessing the Faith to the Greater Community

The early Church faced many of the problems we encounter today – a culture that urges us to focus on self, a society often hostile to the Christian faith and even confusion amongst Christians regarding the doctrine of the faith.  These issues occasioned a new type of Christian literature called “apologetics,” which sought to explain, defend and promote the faith.  The first noted writer of this type was Saint Justin, who lived in the second century and whose memorial we observe today.

In his writings, Justin sought to coordinate the great currents of thought of his day with the faith.  He took the theories of the Greeks, such as Plato, and applied them to Christ as the Word of God (cf. Fides et Ratio, 36-41).  He also attempted to introduce into the pagan intellectual world the idea of revelation.  The concept was as novel then as it is now – that God could be heard above the shouts and cries of man’s own efforts.

What we know about Justin has to be pieced together from various sources and writers.  We are told that he was a Roman citizen.  If this be true then Justin probably came from a “good” family.  Roman citizenship in those days was a treasured item.  Saint Paul was able to use his citizenship to invoke a privilege that exempted him from trial from anyone other than the emperor.  Justin was living after Saint Paul but certainly before this privilege had been diluted by being extended to just about everybody.

We are also informed that Justin studied in Greece.  This is another reason for us to assume that he came from a family that was fairly well off.  All the “best people” at that time studied in Athens.  While in Greece, the young Justin would have studied logic, philosophy, literature and come into contact into many of the leading currents of thought that swept the Mediterranean world.  He would have also run headlong into the predominant pagan humanistic literature of the day.  Plato and the other great philosophers of antiquity would have been the “heady” drink of Justin the student.

But he was also impressed by the conduct of Christians standing fearless in the face of persecution and death that he wanted to learn more about them.  After his conversion, in a discussion with the man who would eventually sentence him to death, Justin made it quite clear that, as a believer, he had a duty to spread the faith, and if the reward for such activity was death, then he was not only prepared, but glad to accept it.

The function of witness is indispensible to the faith and our missionary task.  Nonbelievers cannot know and understand the substance and practice of the faith unless someone shares with them what Christians believe and how we worship.

In his First Apologetic, addressed to the pagan Emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin explains what Christians back then did when they celebrated Mass: they gathered each Sunday for readings from the Scriptures, a sermon, prayers of petition, a collection for the needy, a Eucharistic Prayer, a Sign of Peace, a great Amen, and Holy Communion, followed by Communion calls to people who were sick and homebound (Chapter 67).  If this sounds familiar, it is because although much has changed in Western culture, the Mass remains the Mass.  In explaining the Eucharist, Justin wrote:

For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.  (Chapter 66)

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1345, we find the basic lines of the order of the Eucharistic celebration at the time of Saint Justin, Martyr.  The Catechism notes how similar it is to our celebration today, “preserved throughout the generations down to our own day” (CCC 1346).

How appropriate that on Sunday we will celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in the Solemnity known as Corpus Christi.  It is a time to reflect on what the Eucharist means to us.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, the beginning and the end, as Jesus is truly present.  In worthily receiving Holy Communion, we become conformed to Jesus Christ.  No longer divided, we become one with him and in him.  This enables us, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to live according to his teaching of love and truth and to participate in his work of salvation.

This faith in the Real Presence has led to many other outstanding visible signs of Catholic piety.  On Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which the Church celebrates tomorrow, people in parishes around the world will join in Eucharistic processions through the streets.  The format is simple but devout. The priest carries the Blessed Sacrament along a designated route where the faithful gather to reverence the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and thank God for this great gift.  It is very important when we celebrate our faith that we do it publicly, openly, especially during this time of the New Evangelization.  During Eucharistic processions, we pay homage to our Lord as well as strengthen our own Catholic faith and witness it to the greater community.

The popularity of Corpus Christi, with its joyful hymns and public processions, encouraged further development of other Eucharistic devotions.  When we are in church, we genuflect.  At times, the Blessed Sacrament is removed from the tabernacle in which it is ordinarily kept and placed upon the altar for adoration. These periods of exposition are sometimes extended into holy hours or, occasionally, a Forty Hours Devotion.  However, the opportunity for adoration of the Eucharist is available to us every day in our parishes.  The Lord awaits us in the tabernacle to hear our prayers, receive our loving reverence and recognize his presence in our lives.  All we need to do is pause long enough to recognize this extraordinary gift.