The solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ emerged as a feast in medieval Europe through the urging of St. Julianna of Cornillon, a Belgian mystic and prioress who had visions that directed her to strive to establish a feast in which greater devotion was focused on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Because of her own caution as to the significance of her visions, and the ecclesial and political intrigues which she suffered, it would take many decades before the feast became established throughout the church, ultimately with the guidance of the papal theologian St. Thomas Aquinas.
The feast focused from the beginning on the Eucharist as “the very sacrifice of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus which he instituted to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until his return in glory. Thus he entrusted to his Church this memorial of his death and Resurrection. It is a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet, in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 282). The real presence is the central theological dimension of this feast, but the catechism notes numerous other elements of eucharistic theology in the feast, like memorial, sign of unity, bond of charity, paschal banquet and eschatological pledge of future glory.
The biblical readings attest to each of these elements of the eucharistic feast. In the words of institution Paul hands on to us, we receive the words of Jesus, who interprets his own sacrificial death on our behalf and speaks of the real presence when he breaks the bread and says: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And in the last phrase, Paul notes Christ’s instruction to participate in the supper as a memorial, making present perpetually Christ’s sacrifice, as we eat the bread and drink the wine “in remembrance.” For participation in the body and blood of Christ is a remembrance of Christ’s death “until he comes.”
“Until he comes” alerts us to the eschatological dimension of this feast, in which we gain a foretaste of the heavenly food, the messianic banquet, already prefigured in the person of the priest Melchizedek, “king of righteousness.” In Genesis 14, Melchizedek feeds Abram with the heavenly food; in Psalm 110, a messianic psalm, Melchizedek points forward to the establishment of God’s kingdom by the coming messiah. By the time Jesus was born, Melchizedek was already a focus of theological speculation in Judaism, especially in the Dead Sea Scrolls, concerning his role in the messianic kingdom to come. For Christians, as seen in Chapters 7 to 9 of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is the one who has fulfilled and will fulfill all the promises embedded in the figure of Melchizedek. Here we find a sense of the eschatological, of what God is still to do when Christ returns.
But in Melchizedek’s feeding of Abram, God’s constant care for the needs of his people is also denoted, the presence of God with us, as a sign of unity and a bond of charity. In Luke Jesus is himself present, feeding the crowd in which all ate and were filled. In this miracle, in the presence of Jesus with the people, we sense the eschatological reality of the paschal banquet yet to come and the sense of memorial presence, as Jesus instructs his disciples to carry out this same act on his behalf. Jesus guides his disciples to participate in the work with him, “You give them something to eat,” making Jesus present whenever his disciples feed the people physically and spiritually.
In discerning our communion with our brothers and sisters in the faith, we find Christ’s real presence. In our loving communion with all those who need food, we find Christ’s real presence. As we wait in hope for the heavenly banquet, we anticipate the real presence, when God will be all in all. All of these, faith, hope and love, are present when we participate in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist.