This Sunday we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ or “Corpus Christi” as it is often popularly named.

Since medieval times, when doctrinally unacceptable explanations were occasionally flourishing, the church has seen it helpful to proclaim and celebrate our correct beliefs regarding the Eucharist each year. Sunday’s feast also often marks an occasion for a solemn outdoor procession with the Blessed Sacrament to proclaim our Catholic faith in a public fashion.

It is important, however, for us as Catholics to remember the close theological bond between the sacramental actions of the Mass and the enduring presence of the dying and rising Christ in his consecrated presence under the appearance of bread.

The church teaches that the Mass is essentially composed of Word and Sacrament. By that we mean that the Word of God is always proclaimed immediately after we have acknowledged our human sinfulness and our need for divine mercy. The passages chosen for each day proclaim anew what God has done throughout history to forgive and redeem his people. The response of the entire congregation gathered around the altar at every Mass should be one of profound gratitude.

In one sense, if there is no response of grateful joy, we should stop right there, put on our coats and go home. Only out of a spirit of gratitude do we dare proceed with the Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving!”

At that moment we cannot help but recall the great tradition which has been handed on to us, as St. Paul reminds us so forcefully (1 Cor 11:23-26). As I have become accustomed to say it, “the night before he died, Jesus took his whole life in his hands under the appearance of bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it (himself) away!”

He became the Bread … and the Bread became his very enduring sacramental Presence. We feel compelled to recall that history and that truth at every Mass. We call it the Institution Narrative.

The Scriptures use many titles for the person and mission of Jesus: the New Adam, the anointed Son of David, the eschatological Son of Man who was also the Son of God. He was also remembered as the great Prophet. The Gospel of Luke, in particular, invokes that tradition when describing the life and ministry of Jesus.

Prophets were not remembered for having predicted the future so much as for having announced God’s deepest saving work, active in our world before anyone else noticed. Their words spoke of divine punishment or comfort, judgment or salvation according to the need of the moment. They were specially commissioned men and women, God’s spokespersons to a people in need of direction or encouragement.

Prophets also engaged in actions which illustrated their respective messages, and provided even greater clarity for their mission. The singular uniqueness of a prophetic action, however, was found in Israel’s conviction that the prophet’s action in some fashion initiated the work God was about to do.

People were horrified, for example, when Ezekiel imitated the actions of a citizen who packed his meager belongings and marched off into exile (Ez 12:3-16) because they understood the action inaugurated the tragedy of their 70 years of exile in Babylon. They were stunned and angry. Earlier, the prophet Jeremiah had done something similar by wearing a wooden yoke of slavery to signal that he was providing his own opening phase of that same exile (Jer 27 and 28)!

This may seem like wandering far from reflections on the Eucharist, but it provides the graphic background for understanding the gestures of Jesus at the Last Supper as his disciples would have witnessed them.

On that most holy evening, Jesus, knowing that his betrayal and death was imminent, took the unleavened pita bread of the Passover, broke it and said, “This is my body, which is given over for you.” From the standpoint of prophetic history, Jesus himself initiated his own passion, gave it meaning and explained it to his closest disciples … and ultimately to us so many centuries later.

Because of that ancient prophetic tradition as witnessed in the Scriptures, we Catholics believe the bread actually becomes the entire Person of Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity. We believe he remains present in our midst as long as the outer appearance of bread endures.   

In the words of medieval scholastic philosophy, the inner reality, or “substance” as they called it, is Christ the Lord, but the visible characteristics or “accidents” are those of bread. We Catholics have called the change “transubstantiation,” namely, the wondrous transformation from the reality of bread into the fullness of Christ’s sacramental presence!

We venerate his presence in the Blessed Sacrament; but we also always remember that he is present because of the eucharistic sacrifice which extends his presence to every gathering of Catholic Christians throughout time and space.

All this comes to mind as we prepare for Sunday’s celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of the Lord.