“Abide with Me”

The Last Supper, 1648 - Philippe de Champaigne

One of the most beautiful Corpus Christi celebrations that I have experienced is from my student days and is held at Genzano, a small Italian hill town that is south of Rome and about a half-hour drive beyond Castel Gandolfo, the traditional summer residence of the popes.  In a tradition that goes back to 1778, one of the principal streets of this community is covered with flower petals depicting artful designs and religious scenes that give the impression of a carpet of tapestries.  People work with great care and skill during the Infiorata (flower festival) to cover the entire roadway so that on this Solemnity of the Body and Blood of our Lord, the Blessed Sacrament can be carried from one church to another along this “avenue of flowers,” a fitting carpet for the Eucharistic procession.

While perhaps without as much exuberance, Corpus Christi processions take place in Catholic parishes all over the world.  In fact, one of the ancient and outstanding visible signs of Catholic piety is devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the public manifestation of faith in this unique and abiding presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The faith of the Church in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist goes back to the words of Jesus himself, as recorded in the Gospel of Saint John. In the Eucharistic discourse after the multiplication of the loaves, our Lord contrasted ordinary bread with a bread that is not of this world, but which contains eternal life for those who eat it. He said, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:48, 51).

What Jesus offers us is his continuing, enduring presence every time we celebrate Mass.  No mere metaphor, the bread really and truly becomes his Body and the wine really and truly becomes his Blood. The way in which Jesus is present in the Eucharist cannot be explained in physical terms, because it transcends the ordinary necessities of space and measurement.

The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates in a formal way what we practice instinctively every time we enter a church. We kneel, or bow, or stand reverently for a minute before entering the pew because we acknowledge the presence of the Risen Christ in the Eucharist reserved in the tabernacle. The consecrated Host must be adored because he is God. Thus the place where the Blessed Sacrament is kept is by its nature a place of worship.

The presence of the Blessed Sacrament in every one of our parishes is also an invitation to prayer. Arriving early for Mass to spend a few minutes in quiet preparation has the spiritual effect of helping make our hearts “an avenue for the Lord” every bit as beautiful as the flowers of Genzano.  Another fruitful practice is to stay awhile after Mass or take time out as you are running errands and stop in a church to sit quietly with Our Lord.  To have an opportunity to spend some time with Jesus, to offer a prayer of thanksgiving, to share what is on your mind, to simply be with him, is to be reminded that Our Lord abides with us always.