Today we mark the feast of Corpus Christi, or to give it its full title the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It is an important feast in the Liturgical Calendar and it gives us the opportunity to reflect in more detail on the marvellous mystery of the Eucharist that is celebrated each day in Catholic Churches throughout the world.
Of course, you would be right to think that the most appropriate day to celebrate the Blessed Eucharist is Maundy Thursday. And on that day earlier in the year we thought quite a lot about the theology of the Eucharist. However, the Church gives us this additional feast in the course of the year to reflect once again on the Eucharist so as to give us the opportunity to deepen our thinking on this most vital sacrament.
And perhaps that is exactly where we should start by realising that Eucharist is a sacrament and considering briefly just what a sacrament actually is. When we were children in our catechism classes we were taught that a sacrament is ‘an outward sign of inward grace’ and this indeed remains an excellent definition of just what a sacrament is.
The Catholic Church and our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church believe that the sacraments are one of the most important ways that God communicates his divine grace to us, the people of his flock. We believe that each of the sacraments was instituted by Jesus Christ and while God certainly transmits his grace to us by many different and various means we can be absolutely certain that whenever a proper sacrament is celebrated it becomes a real and effective channel of divine grace.
We are bodily creatures, we exist within our human bodies and we perceive the world through our five senses. That definition, that a sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace, is important because it tells us that the sacraments are signs which are perceivable by our senses.
Each sacrament has a particular sign such as flowing water for baptism, the outstretched hand of the priest for reconciliation, anointing for confirmation, ordination and the sacrament of the sick, the exchange of vows for marriage and the bread and wine for the Eucharist. We can recognise these signs and know that when they are accompanied by the correct words spoken by the proper minister they each constitute a sacrament.
Some Churches do not believe over much in sacraments. It was a point of great debate at the Reformation and commonly Protestant Churches recognise only two, namely Baptism and Eucharist. But in the Catholic Church we definitely recognise the importance of the sacraments and indeed we could be called a sacramental Church. We understand in a profound way the value of these concrete signs as ways of connecting ourselves to the sacred.
Lesser signs are also important and we call them sacramentals; these include actions such as blessing oneself with Holy Water, receiving other blessings, the conferral of ministries, the making of sacred vows and indeed also exorcisms. Religious customs such as saying the Grace Before Meals as a family can also be regarded as sacramentals.
There are many other pious actions that help us to connect with the sacred such as the wearing of medals or scapulars or the occasions when we bless ourselves as we pass a Church. These sacramentals and other signs do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the same way as full-blown sacraments do, but nevertheless they are always able to bring us into closer relationship with God.
The Eucharist is perhaps the sacrament that we come into contact with most often and through it we become the recipients of divine grace. Our attendance at the Eucharist is the principal means by which we stay close to God in our lives, it is the best way we know to give him true worship. By reverently receiving our Lord in the Eucharist we feed the life of the Spirit that is within us.
At mass we are once again connected to the Last Supper and we share in that wonderful meal in which Christ made present in a unique way what he was to achieve by his death and resurrection. When we go to mass it is as if we were sitting around the table of the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles. This is why it is such a holy and important occasion.
While we are talking about the Eucharist, it might be good for us to stress the proper etiquette for attending mass and receiving Holy Communion. When we go to mass it is important to participate by singing the hymns and saying the responses, listening attentively to the sermon as well as using the time for private prayer as well as we can.
We should also show great respect when it comes to the Eucharistic Prayer. This is not the time to suddenly realise that you need to go to the toilet or decide to root around in your handbag for something. No, the Eucharistic Prayer is the time to show deep and prayerful reverence and to acknowledge the miracle that is taking place on the altar.
It might be good to say a word here about receiving Holy Communion. There are two ways of doing so. The first is by joining our hands and reverently putting out our tongue so that the priest can place the host on it. The second is by resting the left hand on top of the right hand and holding it out so that the priest can place the host reverently on your hand. Please do not grab the host or stand with one hand in your pocket while casually holding the other out to receive the host. This is the Lord Jesus who is coming into your life at that moment and so it is appropriate to show deep respect.
When the priest or minister says, ‘The Body of Christ’ the proper response is ‘Amen’. Also before stepping up to receive Holy Communion it is appropriate to make a sign of reverence. A few people genuflect but most simply bow reverently and then step forward to receive the Eucharist.
These things might seem very simple and unimportant but, if you remember, I started out by saying that we are bodily creatures and this means that the things we do affect the way we think and similarly the way we think is often betrayed by our physical actions.
If a person, for example, waltzes up to receive Holy Communion with their hands in their pockets and chewing gum then it will be obvious to everyone that this person does not recognise the fact that they are receiving the Lord Jesus into their lives. This would not be appropriate.
Receiving the Eucharist is the most important thing that we do all week. Going to mass is coming to an encounter with the Living Lord. Our attendance at mass therefore ought to be a profound spiritual experience and we shouldn’t jeopardise this marvellous opportunity by being inattentive or irreverent.
It is obvious to me that our parishioners do have a good understanding of the proper way to worship God and indeed it is true that the level of reverence and respect for the Eucharist is high in this Church. But it doesn’t do any harm to remind ourselves of the proper etiquette so that we get the most that we can from the liturgy, which is after all one of God’s most wonderful gifts to us.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket