There is something mesmerizing about watching a communion line at the weekend liturgy, especially if you are close enough to hear the Eucharistic minister repeat continuously “Body of Christ,” and another, “Blood of Christ,” and the communicants’ response to both, “Amen.” Person after person extends a hand for the Eucharist, and grasps the cup. Body of Christ . . . Blood of Christ . . . Amen . . . Amen. Christ the bread, Christ the wine, Christ in each person, Christ forever in the Church – all the Body of Christ.
It is no wonder that each year we celebrate Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the celebration of Christ’s continuing presence in the bread, in the wine, in the Church, in each believer. As essential to our faith as this mystery is, it was not until the 13h century that the feast of Corpus Christi was established, and then with some difficulty. We owe the feast to a young French nun, St. Juliana of Liège, who had a recurring vision of a full moon with one large dark spot in it. She believed that the moon represented the life of the Church on earth, and the dark spot represented the absence of a liturgical feast in honor of Christ’s Body and Blood. Although the institution of the Eucharist was celebrated on Holy Thursday, Juliana thought that the Body and Blood of Christ should be celebrated more solemnly and specifically than it was at the Last Supper, when the Church was generally preoccupied with the washing of the feet and the remembrance of the passion. Many years passed before Juliana shared her vision with her confessor who, luckily, had many friends among the prominent clergy of the day. With their assistance, promotion of a feast in honor of the Body and Blood of Christ was begun. Eventually the Bishop of Liège, on his deathbed in 1246, wrote a letter to all clergy establishing a feast of Corpus Christi within the Diocese. The feast of Corpus Christi was included in the universal liturgical calendar in 1264 by Pope Urban IV, who happened to be the former Archdeacon of Liège.
For Sisters of St. Mary, this history of the feast has particular significance. Josephine Kemen, who later became Mother Emily, foundress of the North American Provinces, used to travel to Liège from her home in Germany to attend the Corpus Christi celebrations. One year she shared her desire to enter the convent with a Jesuit priest there who then referred her to the Sisters of St. Mary in Namur. And so, it is all connected: Juliana of Liège, the feast of Corpus Christi, Josephine Kemen, the Sisters of St. Mary – all the Body of Christ, nourished with the Body and Blood of Christ, transformed by the Body and Blood of Christ . . . then, now, forever. The words with which the Bishop of Liège closed his letter establishing the feast of Corpus Christi could not have been better chosen. He quoted Mathew’s gospel: “And behold I am with you always, to the end of time.”
-Sr. Regina Murphy, SSMN
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