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CORPUS CHRISTI
from issue no. 05 - 2005

The victory that makes man happy


A feastday of thanksgiving for the triumph of Christ over death. This is Corpus Christi


by Joseph Ratzinger


Right, The Last Supper, the Altar of the Most Precious Blood, sculpture in wood by Tilman Riemenschneider, church of St. James Rothenberg

Right, The Last Supper, the Altar of the Most Precious Blood, sculpture in wood by Tilman Riemenschneider, church of St. James Rothenberg

What does Corpus Christi mean for me? My first recollection is of a feast -day, when the expression Thomas Aquinas coined in one of his Corpus Christi hymns was taken absolutely by the letter: “Quantum potes, tantum aude” - dare all you can and give Him due praise…
This also calls to mind a phrase of the martyr, Justin, already in the second century. In his presentation of the Christian liturgy he writes that the person presiding over it - the priest - must raise prayers “with all his might”1 and give thanks to heaven in the Eucharistic celebration. In Corpus Christi, the whole commnunity feels this call: dare all you can. I can still smell the perfume of the flowers and the young birches; the ornaments present in all the houses also belong to these memories, the banners, the singing. I can still hear the flutes of the village band which on this day sometimes dared more than they should. I can hear the bangs of the fireworks the children used to express their exuberant happiness to be alive. In the streets and the village this was how Jesus Christ was greeted, like a head of state, indeed, like the supreme head, like the Lord of the world. The uninterrupted presence of Christ was celebrated on this day, as if it were an official State visit, so to speak, that took in even the smallest village.
Corpus Christi also called our attention to questions raised by liturgical renewal and its theological elements. Is it right,- we wondered,- to celebrate the Eucharist once a year, like an official visit by the Lord of the world, and to celebrate with all those manifestations typical of joy triumphant? We would also be reminded that the Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper and that it was from these that it took the permanent connotations of its celebration. The symbols of the bread and wine, chosen by the Lord for this mystery, draw our attention to the act of receiving. So the correct way to give thanks for having instituted the Eucharist is by celebrating the Eucharist itself, in which we celebrate His death and resurrection and we are edified by Him to be living Church. Everything else seemed to be a real and proper misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Moreover, there was the alarmed resistance to all that smacked of triumphalism, which did not seem consonant with tha Christian conscience in regard to sin or the world’s tragic situation. Thus the Corpus Christi celebration became an embarrassment. An influential, two-volume manual of liturgical science published between 1963 and 1965 does not even mention Corpus Christi in presenting the liturgical year. Timidly it only dedicates a page to the argument, with the titie: “Eucharistic Devotions”; and attempts to waive the embarrassment with the rather abstruse proposal that the Corpus Christi procession be concluded with communion for the sick because this would be the only time when a procession, a parade with the Host, would have any functionai significance2.
The Councii of Trent had been much less rigid on this. It said that Corpus Christi’s aim was to encourage thanksgivinq and to keep the memory of the Lord alive in all3. Few words that pinpointed three motivations. Corpus Christi has to jolt man out of his forgetfuiness, it has to arouse a sense of gratitude in him and it serves the communion, the unifying force that comes to us by setting our sights on the one Lord. There would be much to say about this. For, have we not become atrociously incapable of thinking and forgetful in these very days of the computer, of seminars and agendas used even by children in Elementary school?
The psychologists tell us our rational conscience is just the surface of the soul but that we are so focussed on this, the foreground, that the background no longer makes itself felt. This fact undermines man’s state of health definitively because he no longer feels what is authentic, it is not he himself who lives anymore, but is riddled with all that is casual and superficial. This is tightly bonded with our relationship with time. Our relationship with time is forgetfulness We live for the moment. We even want to forget because we do not admit old age or death. But this desire for oblivion is reallv a lie which becomes an aggressive scream to the future, a scream that tries to interrupt time. But this romanticism of the future, which no longer wishes to be subject to time, is also a lie destroying man and the world. The only effective way to tame time is by forgiveness and thanksgiving which accept time as a gift and transform it into gratitude.
God the Father supports the body of Jesus Christ, a sculpture in wood by Tilman Riemenschneider, National Museum, Berlin

God the Father supports the body of Jesus Christ, a sculpture in wood by Tilman Riemenschneider, National Museum, Berlin

But let us go back to the Council of Trent, where and with no hesitation, the proposition is asserted that Christ’s victory be celebrated in Corpus Christi, his triumph over death. Just as our Bavarian tradition honored Christ as a very important “visitor of State”, this echoes the ancient Roman practice of honoring the victorious leader with a triumphal march on his homecoming. His military campaign was directed against death, which devours time and thus forces us into the realm of the lie which seeks to forget or interrupt time. Only if there is an answer to death can man be truly glad. But, if this response does exist, then it is the effective and valid invitation to joy, something which can truly constitute the fundamental reason of a feast. In essence, the Eucharist is the response to the problem of death, it is the encounter with love which is stronger than death. Corpus Christi is a response to this nucleus of the Eucharistic mystery. Once a year it establishes as entirely central that the focus be joy triumphant for this victory and it accompanies the victor in the triumphal procession through the streets. The solemnity of Corpus Christi is not, therefore, in contrast with the primacy of receiving, which finds its expression in the offering of bread and wine. Rather, it merely but completely highlights what receiving someone really means: it means giving the Lord the type of reception due a victor. Receiving Him means adoring Him; receiving him means, then, “Quantum potes, tantum aude”: dare all you can.
The Council of Trent concludes its exposition on Corpus Christi with a proposition that sounds offensive to our ecumenical ears and which has undoubtedly helped in no small way to discredit the feast in the eyes of our Protestant brethren. But if we purge these formulations of 16th century passions, something positive and great comes surprisingly to light. But first let us listen simply to what the text says. In the Conciliar text we read that Corpus Christi must represent the triumph of truth “to the extent that, in the face of such splendor and such exulting on the part of the whole Church, its adversaries... are either totally confused or they become wise again in the end, moved as they are by shame”4. lf we remove this text from the polemics, it means that the force with which the truth advances must be the joy with which it manifests itself. Unity is not asserted with polemics or even with academic theories but with the irradiation of the Easter joy; it leads to the core of the profession of faith: “Christ has risen”. It leads to the core of human existence which awaits this joy with every fiber of its being. So the Easter joy is characterized as the essentiai element of ecumenical and missionary spirit; because of it Christians should contend with each other, and because of it make themselves known in the world. Corpus Christi exists for this reason. And this is the most profound meaning of the couplet: “Quantum potes, tantum aude”; exploit all the splendor of beauty if it is a question of expressing the joy of all joys. Love is stronger than death; in Jesus Christ, God is among us.



NOTES
1. Justin, Apologia, 67,5
2. A. G. Martimort (editor), Handbuch der Liturgiewissenschaft , 1, Freiburg 1963, p. 489, note 15;
3. “Aequissimum est enim, sacros aliquos statutos esse dies, cum Christiani omnes singulari ac raraquadam significatione gratos ac memores testentur animos ergo communem Dominum et Redemptorem pro tam ineffabili et plane divino beneficio, quo mortis eius victoria et triumphus repraesentatur”. Decretum de sanctissimo Eucharistiae sacramento (Sessio XIII, 11.10.1551), cap. 5; DS 1644.
4. ... ut eius adversarii, in conspectu tanti splendoris et in tanta Ecclesiae laetitia positi, vel debilitati et fraeti tabescant, vel pudore affecti et confusi aliquando resipiscant”, Ibid. q





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