Orvieto is a beautiful Italian hill-top settlement where all roads lead to the magnificent medieval Cathedral. The ‘treasure’ of this church is the corporal onto which the host was said to bleed during Mass at the nearby town of Bolsena in the year 1263.
In that Middle-Age era of scepticism and instability, reports of the miracle spread rapidly and widely as a message of hope and confidence in the reality of Jesus present in the form of bread and wine. What Christians knew to be true was verified again in their sight. The people were delighted.
The pope of the time was Urban IV. He had set up his home not in Rome, but in Orvieto. The Papal Palace is just beside the Duomo in the town, so it was probably only a couple of hours before the pope heard about the Bolsena miracle.
When he heard the wonderfully positive response of the people to the miracle, he too saw the event as a direct communication from God. The following year he proclaimed the feast we celebrate today: Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Eight hundred years later, on the other side of the world, we celebrate this feast that is the heart of our Catholic faith. Jesus is with us. We are never alone and therefore have no cause to ever feel lonely. While we may often feel alone, the pain of loneliness descends upon us only when we lose perspective and forget that Jesus is with us.
Jesus is available to us in every Mass in the most tangible and simple elements of bread and wine. The disciples of Jesus knew as they left the Last Supper, that something remarkable had happened at their table. They did not understand at the time why Jesus had told them to “do this in memory…”. But after his Resurrection three days later, and six weeks later filled with the Pentecost Spirit, they knew that Jesus had in reality gifted them with the fulness of Himself.
As they began to meet weekly ‘in memory of Him’, they did exactly as Jesus had instructed them. They took bread and broke it. They took the cup and proclaimed the blessing. They ate and drank what they knew to be His body and His blood. In doing this they realised that they were partaking of the food of life. This nourishment was the source and summit of their existence.
Within a few years, as the flailing Roman Empire desperately grasped at power, Christians were seen as a threat. Those who professed Jesus as their saviour, and who gathered for the Eucharist, were persecuted and often put to death. In the midst of this antagonism Christians became more committed to Jesus, and Christianity spread throughout the world.
God prevailed in the lives of this persecuted little group. Despite every opposition their community flourished throughout the Empire. Over the dark and difficult ages that followed, Christianity flourished. Twelve hundred years later St. Francis and St. Dominic proclaimed this life of Christ in ‘real presence’ in the Eucharist.
Forty years after the death of Francis and Dominic, just down the road from their home towns, the Bolsena miracle renewed human understanding of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
After the Reformation, when many began to see the Eucharist as simply a symbolic ritual, Catholics continued to know that in receiving communion, they were taking the reality and fullness of Jesus into their lives. Catholics showed their conviction in this reality by receiving communion only after much prayer and reflection. This was no token ritual for them, but a conscious and active participation of God in a person’s life. The natural response to such an overwhelming divine love is a personal conscious and active participation in the life of God.
It is significant that at the Last Supper, Jesus instructed his disciples to “remember”. “Do this in memory of me”. He would have known how easy it is for humans to forget what is essential and to become preoccupied with what is less necessary and even trivial.
Weekly participation in the celebration of the Eucharist has throughout Christian history been the central sign that one is seeking to live the life of Christ fully.Today, when we pass through the doors to enter a Catholic Church, we are expressing our desire to enter the life of Christ more fully. A Catholic church is not a ‘community venue’ but a holy place, consecrated to use only for prayer and worship.
When we enter a Catholic church we are silent and still. As we enter we bless ourselves with the waters of baptism. When we arrive at our seat we genuflect to the reality of Jesus present in the tabernacle. In the moments before Mass begins we remember our need for God. In every Mass we are reminded of God’s desperate desire to live with and in us in every moment.
As the Word of God is proclaimed we recall what we have missed during the week. We remember that we need to know God is with us in every moment of the week ahead. Without this active memory, we can never feel as though we are truly alive.
The most basic of elements, flour, water and grape are brought forward as bread and wine. Now the Eucharistic Prayer is prayed and the substance of these humble gifts becomes the reality of Jesus Christ.
This is an even more wondrous event than a miracle. A miracle happens only when God chooses. But God has given us the power to choose the time and place of each Mass. Jesus allows Himself to be given to us. God allows Himself to be consumed by us. In this moment we cannot doubt that Jesus is with us, for without own eyes we have seen Him make His home in our bodies.
When we recall that this is in fact what is happening, our healthy response is humility, gratitude and veneration.