Behold the Salvation of the World
by Fr Aidan Nichols O.P.
Children once hushed their games and traders suspended their business
the Corpus Christi procession passed by. It is time, says Fr Aidan Nichols,
to revive the tradition as an icon for the re-conversion of England
The greatest act of our Creator was that he made himself one of his own
creatures, for us to be reconciled with him. And the greatest act of the
incarnate Lord was his giving himself to his disciples as the Blessed
Sacrament, so that his Incarnation and reconciliation of the human race with
the Father by his Death and Resurrection might be accessible to human beings
through all succeeding time.
How extraordinary that the infinite God, the foundation of all existence and
all thought, should have entered his own creation as one of his own
creatures, to let grace be poured out on us from within our human
experience, thus bringing us to share his superabundant life of glory. None
of the ancient philosophers ever grasped this truth that God could be so
divinely free in relation to the world that, without surrendering his
infinite difference from it, he could enter the world as a finite being and
become its true centre from within history and not just from without.
And how in the style of this same God that, as the incarnate Word, Jesus
Christ, he should have made the saving climax of his involvement with us
(his life-giving Death and Resurrection, which sum up all that Jesus was and
did and spoke as man) endlessly available to us through this Sacrament on
the night before he died. In this Sacrament he would continue to give
himself to pour out himself, as the celebrant pours wine into the chalice,
to distribute himself as the Host is distributed to countless disciples. We
can tell that the Eucharistic Lord is the same as the Creator Lord because
in this Sacrament we see the hallmark of God as Christ revealed him to be
sheer self-giving. That is his metier.
The feast in whose radiant shadow we bask at this time of year Corpus
Christi would not have been possible without a woman. Or, to be precise,
without two women. Ave, verum corpus as we sing in the
Eucharistic antiphon natum ex Maria virgine: "Hail
the true Body, born of
Mary the Virgin." Without our blessed Lady, no Christ, no Christianity.
"Give your answer quickly, Lady," St Bernard in one of his meditations cries
out to the Virgin of the Annunciation: "The salvation of the whole world
turns on your response."
But if Mary is the Mother of the Church, we owe today's feast more
specifically to one daughter of the Church, Juliana of Liége, a laywoman of
holy life in 13th-century Flanders that region which is the crossroads of
the European West, to which we in England also belong.
The criticism is superficial when some say our Church is "patriarchal",
meaning thereby "unbalanced in favour of the male gender", when so many of
the great initiatives in the spiritual life of the Church have come from
These were women who renewed in their own persons that deeper receptivity to
the Word to which Our Lady gave perfect expression. In the patristic and
mediaeval periods it was common to symbolise the Church as the moon
reflecting light to the earth from the Sun Jesus Christ, and Juliana was led
to see this moon as partially eclipsed because the minds and hearts of the
faithful were not concentrated on the meaning of the Blessed Sacrament.
Each Holy Week, on Maundy Thursday, the faithful remembered its institution,
but always against the background of Our Lord¹s imminent betrayal and death.
At the Eucharist of Holy Thursday, as at the original Last Supper described
by the Gospel according to St John, it is night. The night of human sin,
human malice, human infidelity: that eve of Good Friday englobes the lot.
What Juliana saw was needed was a celebration in the light in the glory,
happiness and joy of the Easter experience, so as to give thanks for this
Sacrament as the abiding presence in the Church of the victorious Lamb, the
Lamb who in the Resurrection has conquered not only sin but also death and
the divisive effects of time. He now draws men and women to himself along
all of history's ways, all earth's roads whether the urban highways of
great cities or the winding lanes of village and countryside.
Nowhere was this invitation answered with more alacrity than in England.
When in 1314 the Council of Vienne confirmed the Bull of Pope Urban IV
extending this feast from Liége to Latin Christendom at large, King Edward
II was present to add his voice. English evidence is among the earliest for
the observance of, not least, the procession of Corpus Christi. The ground
had been well-prepared, for the early Middle Ages in England provide
generous testimony to the love of our forebears for this Sacrament.
In 1222 the provincial Council of Oxford declared: "Let the laity be
frequently reminded that whenever they see the Body of the Lord carried out,
they should immediately kneel down as to their Creator and Redeemer, and
with hands joined humbly pray until he has gone past."
What did they pray? That important testimony to 13th-century English
spirituality the Ancrene Riwle tells us: "In the Mass,
when the priest
elevates God's Body, say these verses standing: 'Behold the salvation of the
world, the Word of the Father, a true Victim, living Flesh, whole Godhead,
very Man,' and then fall down with the greeting: 'Hail, principle of our
creation. Hail, price of our redemption. Hail, food for travellers on our
pilgrimage. Hail, reward of our expectation.'"
Up until the very outbreak of the 16th-century Reformation, foreign
observers noted the peculiar devotion of the English to a Sacrament
popularly designated "Our Lord", "the good Lord", or "Our Creator".
And just as on Holy Saturday a church with its tabernacle empty and bare
becomes a house only and no longer a home, so something went out of the
common life of these islands with the abandonment of that cult. There was an
absence where a presence should have been.
At Llanasaph in north Wales the custom of putting herbs and flowers by the
doors of houses on Corpus Christi Eve continued into modern times, though no
local could say why. And in London members of the Worshipful Company of
Skinners (originally the "Fraternity of Corpus Christi of Skinners") walked
from Dowgate Hill to Watling Street as the boys they supported at Christ's
Hospital strewed green herbs before them though they no longer had with
them the One who is source and goal of all the world¹s generosity, the Giver
whose alms poured out from the Cross paid for humanity's salvation.
Does it seem now almost incredible that children once hushed their games,
traders suspended their business, and gentlemen and ladies reined in their
horses and dismounted at the well-known sound of that bell which told that
our Lord in his Eucharistic Body was passing by going as in the days of
his earthly life to visit Peter¹s mother-in-law or the centurion¹s servant,
who were sick? Did people then really stop and kneel to repeat words of
faith and adoration, whereas now One stands among them who they do not know?
Let the processions of Corpus Christi (and they exist again, and grow in
number) be an icon of the re-conversion of England, so that in one Church -
a Church of spiritual motherhood with Mary and pastoral authority with
Peter, all legitimate traditions of our separated brethren being safeguarded
- we may together renew our country's Christian life. Let it show the
revelation whose fulcrum is the Cross and Resurrection to be the true
account of all humanity's hopes and strivings, the place where all the
pathways of the human heart find journey's end.
Fr Aidan Nichols OP is based at Blackfriars, Cambridge
This article first appeared in the May 20 2005 issue of The Catholic Herald.
Copyright ©; The Catholic Herald 2005
Version: 18th July 2009