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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Scared to go out? : the Ascension

Ascension and the end of Eastertide
Ascending Christ
here’s a wonderfully dynamic Ascension, with Jesus almost crowdsurfing, treading on the apostles’ heads and moving outside the frame

The feast of the Ascension has changed even during my lifetime.  It used to happen on the Thursday of the sixth week after Easter, and it was a Holiday of Obligation; now the feast is often (in some countries always) transferred to the following Sunday.  You could argue that this is to make it more important rather than less so, but you need to be sure what your church is planning before you commit to singing either the Ascension psalm (46/47), or the psalm for Seventh Sunday (26/27) because your parish celebrated the Ascension on Thursday.  Both are up on the website.  Whether you celebrate it on the Thursday or the Sunday, the Ascension is a great feast; but our emotions are mixed.

Triumphant departure

I wrote about the psalm for Ascension a couple of years ago, but I want to discuss it again, because it was only a brief discussion (and there aren’t any pictures in it). I still agree with what I said about the psalm and the First Reading.  Psalm 46/47 is a brilliant triumphal psalm following the account of the Ascension, celebrating as the Lord returns to take his place at the Father’s right hand after his victory over sin and death. So huge rejoicing, trumpets and fireworks. The trumpets sound at every iteration of the Response, so the mood is of unalloyed jubilation. 

with the angels standing by to close the beautiful starry curtains

It is all about the greatness of God and the joy at the return of the triumphant King (all your Tolkien bells should be ringing here).   It’s difficult to imagine this psalm in a pre-Christian setting, but it’s worth trying : it must have been even more about earthly triumph and splendour, with the King taking charge of the Kingdom here on earth, as the apostles keep hopefully suggesting.  But for us now the Lord has gone, and we are left ‘staring into the sky’, and wondering what to do next, – because we are still here.

Seeing someone off
Jesus moving calmly to sit at God’s right hand

It’s always hard when someone leaves. Even if you decide not to hang around at the station or airport, the moment when you finish waving to the traveller, turn and go, is always a downer. You have to start getting on with ordinary things (which may have been piling up in the interim), now that your guest/child/parent has gone; you may even need to change out of the person that you were (host/parent/child), into a different person who deals with the other aspects of your life. It’s much easier being the person who leaves; the emotions are less complicated.

Jesus floating blissfully up to heaven

  They may be sad to go, but they also look forward to where they are going, especially if they are returning in triumph, as Jesus indubitably is.  And while that person is there, obviously you concentrate on them and their feelings, you try to mirror their joy and excitement, leaving your feelings to be dealt with later.

After the Resurrection…

We can clearly see this happening in the First Reading, which is the same in all three years of the Liturgical Cycle, unlike some of the other readings.  It’s the very beginning of Acts that we are given, rather than the near-ending of Mark or Luke, and this is significant in itself, because we’re moving to a new reality; starting again with a new narrative.  The apostles have not been doing very much in the interim, everyone would have been exhausted as well as frightened; there is very little of the Gospels still to read after the death of Jesus and the hesitant attempts to put the Resurrection down in words that are faithful and can be understood. 

…but before Pentecost

The men and women of Jesus’ inner circle are sad and terrified after the Crucifixion, and they spend most of their time huddled together in the Upper Room, trying not to draw attention to themselves.  Then the news comes of the Resurrection (brought to them by the women, whose testimony they discount), but slowly they begin to allow themselves to be convinced, as Jesus comes in mysteriously through locked doors at meal times, and talks and eats with them, answering questions and encouraging them to touch him.  They don’t seem to go out much, except when they have to (the women to wash the body, Mark 16, the couple who have to go to Emmaus, Luke 24, a fishing expedition for food and to pretend everything is normal, John 21).

Waiting to see the way ahead

Jesus has told them that although he is going away, someone else is coming, to comfort and strengthen them, and in Luke’s account (which precedes the doings in Acts), he specifically tells them to’stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high’ (24.49). 

I particularly like the feet and the footprints in this one, Jesus literally heading into the sunset

For his departure, he leads them out of Jerusalem, to a hill in Galilee near Bethany, where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, comfortingly familiar territory, and there he disappears gently from their sight.  So they go back to Jerusalem, back to the Upper Room; and they wait.

Life in lockdown, before and after the Ascension

I could have written all that using the new vocabulary which has become so current, describing the apostles as self-isolating within their household, only socialising within their little group, only going out for essential travel and shopping for food, and it would have amounted to the same thing.  For his Ascension, Jesus takes them out for a walk to a hill which is ‘within a Sabbath’s journey'(Acts 1.12) of the city, which makes it sound even more like a permitted exercise period.  This year in particular the situation of the disciples sounds uncannily like our own.  They are afraid, and so are we.  They are trying to protect each other and avoid danger for any vulnerable members of the group, and so are we.  They didn’t know what was going to happen next, and neither do we; but they had Jesus’ promise, and so do we.

Waiting for the Comforter

We know much more than they did about the coming of the Holy Spirit, because we know that Pentecost is just around the corner, and that after it, these timid people will be back in the Temple blessing God (Luke 24.53), and carrying out all the wonderful things which Jesus predicts of them in the last few verses of the synoptic Gospels.  We still don’t know when we will be allowed back in our temples, and many families are in dire need of the Comforter, but we know he is on his way.

Montauban ascension
here’s a lovely almost cartoon Ascension, showing both ends of the process. Those goldfish are actually cherubim

© 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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