The church celebrates the feast of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, which is two months after the Holy Thursday. Some dioceses postpone it to the Sunday after the Feast of the Holy Trinity for full participation of the faithful. When we commemorate Holy Eucharist’s institution on Holy Thursday, we also reenact and reflect the washing of the feet, institution of the priesthood, and remembrance of the agony of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. So a separate feast was necessary to give enough focus to the Body and Blood of Christ. Our Lord asked to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi through the visions to St. Juliana in Belgium from 1208 for 20 years. Church approved this feast in Liège, Belgium in 1246 and later in the universal church in 1264.
(John 6:51) “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever. The bread I shall give is my own flesh and I will give it for the life of the world.” (52) The Jews started arguing among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (53) So Jesus replied, “I am telling you the truth, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (54) Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (55) My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. (56) He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, lives in me and I in him. (57) Just as the Father, who is life, sent me and I have life from the Father, so he who eats me will have life from me. (58) This is the bread which came down from heaven, unlike what your ancestors ate and still died, he who eats this bread will live forever.” (59) Jesus said all this in Capernaum when he taught them in the synagogue.
The background of this gospel passage will help us understand better the segment we reflect today. Jesus fed a multitude of 5,000 men and an equivalent number of women and children with the miraculous multiplication of five loaves of barley bread and two fish. Because of this, people considered Jesus as a prophet and wanted to make him king. However, he withdrew from there (John 6:1-15). The same crowd searched and found Jesus on the next day. He told them: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because of the signs you saw, but because you ate bread to your satisfaction. You must work, not for perishable food, but for the lasting food which gives eternal life. This is the food that the Son of Man will give you, for the Father’s seal has been put on him.” (John 6: 26-27). Thus, Jesus introduced his body and blood for the spiritual nourishment, comparing it with the material food that he served through the multiplication of the bread and the manna that God gave to the Israelites for 40 years in the desert.
(51) I am the living bread which has come down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever. The bread I shall give is my own flesh and I will give it for the life of the world.
“I am” is God’s name that He revealed to Moses when he asked for God’s name at Mount Sinai (Exodus 3:13-14). John the Evangelist presents Jesus, the “I am” incarnate, using the same name seven times clarifying who “I am” is.
All the above seven attributes give a glimpse of who Jesus is for us. Here we are focusing on the first of the above, “I am the living bread.”
The living bread
The bread is necessary for humans to sustain their physical lives. Jesus came down from heaven as spiritual bread to nourish our souls. The souls cannot survive without this life-giving bread.
We make bread from the plants or trees using their leaves, stems, roots, seeds, or nuts. Besides, we nourish ourselves by eating the fruits, fish, and meat of animals and birds. The food production involves a partial or full sacrifice of the life of plants or animals. Likewise, our spiritual food requires the sacrifice and death of Jesus. By his self-sacrifice, Jesus became our living and life-giving bread for our souls.
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” That bread is not just the physical bread that we make or buy from market, but the supernatural bread, the Holy Eucharist. God fed Israelites with manna daily in the desert for forty years for their physical survival until they reached the promised land. Jesus is nourishing Christians with another supernatural bread, his body and blood, until we reach heaven, the next and perfect promised land.
Bread that came down from heaven
The listeners of Jesus knew the bread from heaven, the manna God supplied daily from above for 40 years in the desert. God told Moses: “Now I am going to rain down bread from heaven for you.” (Exodus 16:4). “In the evening quails came up and covered the camp. And in the morning, all the place around the camp was wet with dew. When the dew lifted, there was on the surface of the desert a thin crust like hoarfrost. The people of Israel on seeing it said to one another, ‘What is it?’ for they did not know what it was. Moses told them, ‘It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat.’” (Exodus 16:13-15). Jesus is the new bread and flesh that came down from heaven to sustain our spiritual life and he continues nourishing us with the Holy Eucharist which is his own body and blood.
As per God’s instruction, Moses asked Aaron to put a full omer (measure) of manna in a jar and place it in front of the Lord’s covenant in the tabernacle (Exodus 16:33-34). Thus, the Israelites kept manna in a jar close to the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. In its place, we keep the new manna, the Holy Eucharist, in a tabernacle in the church sanctuary.
Whoever eats this bread will live forever.
Eternal life requires eating the living bread, which is the body and the blood of Jesus. The physical food can keep our life only until death. Whereas the bread that Jesus gives is for the nourishment of our eternal soul. The following verses emphasize this.
(52) The Jews started arguing among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
The Jews, who could not understand what Jesus meant, argued, asking how he could give his flesh to eat while he was alive. It was beyond human reasoning. The Jewish groups differed in their opinions on what Jesus said. That led them to quarrel among themselves. Eating the flesh of a human or of any live creature was unlawful for Jews. Some might have taken it in a literal and others in a metaphorical sense. But they could not understand what Jesus meant by this strange statement.
(53) Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.”
Amen, amen, I say to you.
The faithful use “Amen” at the end of prayers, psalms, blessings, or curses to express the participants’ affirmation. Jesus used it at the beginning of his own statements to give emphasis or to call his listeners’ attention. He used amen twice to give added importance to what follows in his speech. In John’s gospel, Jesus used this doubled “Amen, Amen” 25 times followed by important messages.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
While the Jews were disputing on what Jesus meant by eating his flesh, he emphasized his statement using “amen, amen” and “unless you eat.” This reminds us of the first Passover meal that Israelites ate in Egypt. During that Passover, they slaughtered a Passover lamb, collected its blood in a basin, and applied the blood to the lintel and two doorposts using a bunch of hyssops (Exodus 12:22). In the New Testament, Jesus perfected this by offering himself as the Passover victim, applied his blood on the cross, to save the firstborn children of God who would join his church.
The Old Testament Passover had a second part; that was eating the roasted meat of the Passover lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). Likewise, when we take part in the Holy Mass, we join the sacrifice of Jesus and we complete its second part by consuming his body, the Holy Eucharist. That is the bread necessary for our spiritual life and the required nourishment for our heavenly journey.
The flesh of the Son of Man
The Bible uses “Son of man” and “Son of God” only for Jesus. Since Jesus is God and man, both could apply to him. The difference is that the son of man refers to the humanity of Jesus Christ. Jesus uses it here because he was referring to eating his flesh that is part of his human entity.
Drink his blood
From creation until the Great Flood, humans and animals were vegetarians (Gen. 1:29-30). God changed the rule after the flood, allowing people to eat meat and vegetables (Gen. 9:3). However, God restricted them by saying, “Only flesh with its lifeblood still in it you shall not eat.” (Gen. 9:4). God told the Israelites, “For the blood of every creature contains its life and, therefore, I have said to the people of Israel: You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of all creatures is within its blood; whoever eats it shall be ostracized.” (Lev. 17:14). Priests offered the blood of the sacrificed animals to God in the Temple as a ransom for the lives of Israelites.
Since Torah prohibits consumption of blood, the Israelites felt it scandalous when Jesus asked them to drink his blood. But Jesus had a different meaning when he offered his blood to drink. Through his precious blood, Jesus offers his life to the humans. So, when we drink the blood of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, he makes his dwelling within us as the temple of God.
Israelites used blood to make a covenant. At Mount Sinai, when God made a covenant with the Israelites, “Moses then took the blood and sprinkled it on the people saying, ‘Here is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.’” (Exodus 24:8). At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and said, “Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:27-28). So, when we partake in the cup of Jesus during the Holy Mass, we are renewing our covenant with Jesus.
… You do not have life within you.
In the positive sense, when we eat the body of Jesus and drink his blood, we will have life within us. This life is the regaining of the spiritual life lost because of the original sin. It will lead us to eternal life.
Showbread of the Old Testament and Holy Eucharist in the Church tabernacle
The bread of presence or Showbread was a foreshadow of the Holy Eucharist in the tabernacles in our churches. This consisting of 12 loaves of unleavened bread representing the 12 tribes of Israel, made of fine flour. The priests arranged them in two piles on a table made of acacia wood and covered with pure gold. The Israelites called them “the bread of presence” because the priests placed them at the Lord’s presence in the Holy place of the tabernacle and later in the Temple. The priests kept the bread always on the table and replaced on every Sabbath day. When removed for replacement, Aaron and his sons ate the bread in the holy place (Lev. 24:5-9). Jesus pointed to this bread of presence and declared, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never be hungry, and whoever believes in me shall never be thirsty.” (John 6:35).
Origin of the Corpus Christi Feast
The feast of the Most Precious Body and Blood of Jesus, also known in Latin as “Corpus Christi” (The Body of Christ), was not a separate feast from the Holy Thursday until the 13th century. Corpus Christi feast is the celebration of the actual presence of Jesus Christ with his body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Holy Eucharist. A visionary nun St. Juliana and an Eucharistic miracle made the feast popular.
Visions to St. Juliana
Juliana (1193-1258 April 5) and her twin sister Agnes became orphans at five. Augustinian nuns of Mont Cornillon educated her in Belgium. She joined the convent at 13 and later became superior of the convent. She had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, and she wished for a special feast of the Holy Eucharist. When she was 16, she had a vision of the church under the appearance of a full moon with a black spot on it. Jesus revealed to her that the full moon stood for the ecclesiastical calendar and the black spot was the absence of the feast of the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus asked her to communicate to the church authorities to establish a feast of the Holy Eucharist. The visions that started in 1208 continued for 20 years. She shared her experience to the church authorities. Local Bishop Robert called a synod in 1246 and ordered a feast in his diocese in the following year. However, he died in the same year and the church celebrated the feast the next year.
The Eucharistic Miracle
Theologians had doubt and debate during the 13th century on the real presence of the Body and the Blood of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. Under its influence, a German priest Fr. Peter of Prague also had the same doubt. During his pilgrimage to Rome in 1263, while he celebrated Holy Mass at the Church of St. Christina in Bolsena, Italy, an Eucharistic miracle happened. While Fr. Peter recited the consecration prayers during the Holy Mass, blood flowed from the host onto the altar and corporal. Fr. Peter reported this to the then Pope Urban IV, who had moved from Rome to Orvieto. The pope assigned delegates to investigate the miracle and ordered to move the host and the blood-stained corporal to Orvieto. The church then placed the relics in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
Based on the visions of St. Juliana and the confirmation of its truth through the Eucharistic miracle at Bolsena, Pope Urban IV established the Corpus Christi Feast by his bull “Transiturus” on September 8, 1264. At the request of the pope, St. Thomas Aquinas composed beautiful hymns for the feast.