Sermon on the Feast of Corpus Christi

by a Dominican Friar

“He that eateth me, the same also shall live by me.”

The beloved apostle, St John, tells us that the Son of God came into the world to undo the works of the devil. The first of the works effected by the devil in this world was death. When he persuaded our first parents to eat of the forbidden fruit, he brought death into the world. They had already been warned by God that on the day that they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they should die the death, and so it was. On that very day, Adam and Eve died spiritually, by losing the grace of God, and they began the long process of dying corporeally. And they also left death, the work of the devil, as a legacy that would be inherited by all their children. Each of us is born into the world without a spiritual life. If God has blessed us with Christian parents, we receive life soon after birth through the sacrament of baptism; but how many people in the world do not receive this blessing of sacramental rebirth! The majority of human beings in the world, today, come to the age of reason and responsibility with original sin still upon their souls. And with regard to bodily life, each of us — whether Christian or not — is, so to speak, dying from the day that he is born. Just as the sun begins to descend as soon as it has reached the highest point in the sky, so with us also: no sooner do we reach the full vigour of youth, than we begin the slow decline toward the grave.

Our Lord came into the world to undo the works of the devil. Therefore, He came into the world to undo death. This is why He says, in the parable of the Good Shepherd, “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance”. He alone can do this, because He alone among all men can say, “I am the life”. 

Since death came into the world by a food, the fruit of the forbidden tree which human beings ate on the advice of the devil, it was very fitting that life should return to the world by a food which human beings would eat on the advice of the Son of God. Listen to the words of St Gregory of Nyssa, one of the fathers of the Church, and the brother of St Basil:

“Those who have been led by an enemy to take poison, take some other potion to neutralise the power which would cause death. As the deadly thing was taken into the inmost places of the sufferer, so must be that which brings relief, so that its power may spread through the whole body. Thus we, having tasted that which ruined our nature, require something which will restore and put right what was disordered. We require, as an antidote, a saving medicine which will drive out the poison. And what is this medicine? None other than that Body which had been shown to be stronger than death, and which was the beginning of our life. For, says the Apostle, a little leaven leavens the whole lump. In the same way, that Body which God had willed should be put to death, when it is within our body, changes and transfers us wholly to itself.”

Those are the words of St Gregory. More simply, we can also say that, since we sustain our bodily life in this world by means of food and drink, it was very fitting that our Lord should use the same means to communicate His new life to us.

And that is what He has done. By a truly divine ingenuity, Jesus gives us divine life, and an antidote to the poison of original sin, by means of food and drink. How He must have desired to institute this sacrament! As He went to Jerusalem for the Passover, year by year, in obedience to the Law of Moses, and saw the people eating their paschal lambs, which were merely figurative, and which could therefore do nothing to save them, He must have greatly wished for the coming of the day when He would give His disciples His own body and blood under the appearances of bread and wine. This is not my imagination: He revealed it Himself as He sat at table with the apostles on the night before His Passion. “With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you before I suffer.” It is an Aramaic idiom: “with desire I have desired” is a way of saying “how greatly have I desired!” And why did our Lord so greatly desire to eat this pasch with the disciples? Surely, because it is now that He will give them the Blessed Sacrament for the first time.

Spiritual life is not like bodily life. Bodily life, as I said before, begins to decline when it has reached its perfection. Spiritual life increases without ceasing, if we co-operate with God’s grace. More than this, the spiritual writers tell us that the more this divine life grows within a soul, the more quickly this life will grow in the future. They make an analogy with a stone that is falling to earth. When a stone falls toward the ground from high in the air, it does not fall at a constant speed; rather, the nearer it comes to the earth, the more its speed increases. In the same way, when a Christian co-operates faithfully with the grace of God, the divine life within him does not increase at a constant speed; rather, the more this soul approaches God, the more quickly the soul accelerates towards him. Therefore, each day’s Holy Communion will benefit him more than the one before, and the union of love between God and the soul will grow ever closer. As one spiritual writer says, while bodily life decreases when it has reached its peak, spiritual life goes on increasing, and the saints attain their full stature on the eve of their eternal youth.

Yet Holy Communion is given to us for the life of our body as well. So the Lord said, teaching in the synagogue at Caphernaum, “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” We see here a promise made both for the body and for the soul. Whoever receives this wonderful sacrament has everlasting life already — that is the promise for the soul, since the worthy communicant receives divine grace in his soul. And Jesus will raise him up at the last day — this is the promise for the body. When a person has received the body of Christ inside himself, Christ looks upon that person as pertaining to His own body. Our Lord regards the flesh of a worthy communicant as being, as it were, His own flesh. And this is a new and special reason why He will raise up that flesh on the last day.

Thanks be to God, therefore, for this feast of the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacrament of life. May all those faithful Catholics who are deprived of Holy Communion at the moment very soon be able to receive it again. I finish with the words of St Thomas, who wrote today’s office and Mass in obedience to Pope Urban IV: 

Bone pastor, panis vere
Jesu nostri miserere,
Tu nos pasce, nos tuere,
Tu nos bona fac videre
In terra viventium.

(Good shepherd, true Bread,
Jesus, have mercy on us,
Do Thou feed us and protect us,
Do Thou make us to see good things
In the land of the living.)