Virtual Corpus Christi, corporeal computer

Corpus Christi online

We have had Easter online, Pentecost online, Trinity Sunday online, and now here we are at the celebration of the physical reality of Christ’s presence…….still mediated through a television or a computer screen. It does not feel the same, and this is a feast where the lack of Communion really stings, a digital celebration of the unavailable Eucharist.

God presiding over an early Eucharist
One of the older ‘added’ feasts

I vaguely thought that Corpus Christi was a Counter-Reformation feast, but in fact it’s much older, dating from the thirteenth century and pushed for by Thomas Aquinas.  In some countries it’s a public holiday, in others a holy day of obligation;  those against the Pope got rid of it in England at the Reformation, but for two hundred years it had been the date when the mystery plays were performed in York.  Nowadays if it isn’t a holy day of obligation, it is transferred to the next Sunday, which is why it’s the Sunday after Trinity Sunday, and why we are celebrating it this week before we pick up Ordinary Time again.

Melchisedek at altar
Melchisedek and Abram, brass altar piece, 1181
Fun local customs for Corpus Christi
another version of a liturgical procession

There are various local customs attached.  There always used to be Corpus Christi processions with the Sacrament when I was little, and there still are in some countries, as well as parts of the US.  There are various fascinating and baffling local customs associated with the feast in different countries, though some seem to have slipped over from other dates.  The baby jumping in Castile sounds to me to have links with the devil figure in the St Nicholas celebrations in Eastern Europe and the Krampus in Austria.  I am intrigued by the Catalan dancing egg, but I’m not sure where it comes from.  But this is obviously a significant and beloved feast, with lots of attached traditions and fun, like May Day.

Corpus Christi and Adoration
Melchisedek Athos icon
Athos icon of Melchisedek

Liturgically, it is the celebration of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, simply a chance to celebrate the fact of the Lord being still here bodily in the form of consecrated bread and wine.  It is the feast of his presence.  In my church we are lucky enough to have Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for a substantial amount of time, and I have always felt that Corpus Christi is the festival which specially celebrates this.  It celebrates the physical reality of God in an almost shocking way: the Lord is still here and he looks like this.  Our flat screens will feel even more unreal and two-dimensional than ever.

Celebrating the Body, when bodies are in danger

This year, our physical evidence of religion feels totally housebound.  We will have no processions; we will have Masses only via computer;  there is currently in the UK a chink of hope that churches might soon open for private prayer, but I don’t know whether that is going to mean we can go back to having Adoration.  Social distancing would not be a problem, but doorways are always bottlenecks, people touch pews, and our priests are mostly elderly and vulnerable, so this will all need to be worked out carefully.

Digital problems

My family has had trouble even accessing Mass on line (except the big, professional ones, which leave their recordings up).  We aren’t allowed to watch them live, as we don’t have a television licence (or a television), but when we try to watch a local Mass, or one from a place we know, it quite often goes wrong.  It makes me laugh when we find our recording stopped on the grounds that it is ‘adult content’, but this is a glitch we can’t get past (it seems to cut in just before the sermon).  And we are good with tech and have access to children who are even better, so there must be a lot of people out there having even more trouble.

The desire for Communion

Intellectually, I know that weekly Communion is a very modern phenomenon for the laity (it used to be very much more restricted); I know that you can’t have weekly Masses even online in large parts of the world.  Our current pain should make us much more sympathetic and empathetic to those who have to live like this, and I think for the laity it does; but it’s difficult for those who still can get to Mass to feel it as much.  And as the laity, especially the invisible female laity, we have no say in how any of this develops, we simply have to do as we are told about not going to church, not participating in Mass except digitally, not having communion.

Psalms for Corpus Christi

However, some of you are lucky enough to be going back to church already, so you will be celebrating Corpus Christi on Sunday.  The readings for the feast vary across the three years of the Lectionary cycle, but they are all good psalms : Year A, Ps 147; Year B, Ps 115/116 (The cup of salvation); and Year C, Ps 109/110 (A priest like Melchisedek of old). 

Melchisedek bringing forth bread and wine
Psalm 147 for Year A

The psalm for Year A is a four-square solid little psalm, which we sing almost in its entirety (there is one other stanza, about the Lord hurling hailstones).  It has a very brief Response, but it’s the first line of the psalm, and feels like an arrow prayer, so it works.  The whole psalm is a joyful celebration of God’s goodness and protection, simple and direct, so it’s a simple happy tune which runs into the Response each time without a pause.  The Response should just emerge each time like a flower, or a firework if you’re feeling more explosive (but in a good way).

An alternative to the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’

I’d like to offer one other suggestion for the feast of Corpus Christi.  We have been encouraged to use the ‘Act of Spiritual Communion’ Prayer, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t find it works for me. The language is too alien, and I am uncomfortable with addressing the Lord as ‘my Jesus’.  Here is a possible alternative, which is one of the prayers for the priest before Communion  (just after the Lamb of God) out of the previous version of the Missal.  I’ve loved it for years; I committed it to memory years ago, because it expressed exactly what I wanted to say, and I now find it helps more than anything else to bridge the awful gap in the middle of digital Masses, when we can see someone else receiving Communion, but know that we can’t.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God / by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit / your death brought life to the world./ By your holy body and blood / free me from all my sins and from every evil. / Keep me faithful to your teaching, / and never let me be parted from you.

That prayer is still there in the new version of the Mass, but it’s much more wordy and less elegant, so I stick with the old version.  It couldn’t be more appropriate for Corpus Christi, with its specific references to the body and blood, and I find it very comforting.  It makes me feel part of the Body of Christ in a way that nearly everything else doesn’t, at the moment.  If we are all there, not to be parted from him, we are all together, even if we can’t see or touch each other; and he will keep us safe.

separated from the feast, but still there, and still listening

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

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