Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ), also known as Corpus Domini, a celebration in the Roman Catholic church of the tradition and belief that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are literally present in the elements of bread and wine of the mass once the priest has said the words of institution – a doctrine known as transubstantiation. The feast is liturgically celebrated on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. At the end of mass on Corpus Christi in Catholic countries, there is often a procession of the elements, generally displayed in a monstrance.
The institution of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Christian calendar resulted from approximately forty years of effort on the part of Juliana of Liège, a 13th-century Norbertine canoness, also known as Juliana de Cornillon, born in 1191 or 1192 in Liège in Belgium, a city where there were several groups of women dedicated to Eucharistic worship. Guided by priests, they lived together, devoted to prayer and to charitable works. Juliana also petitioned Hugh of St-Cher, and Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liège. At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so in 1246 Bishop Robert ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held in the diocese each year thereafter on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Hugh of St-Cher traveled to Liège as Cardinal-Legate in 1251 and, finding that the feast was not being observed, reinstated it. In the following year, he established the feast for his whole jurisdiction (Germany, Dacia, Bohemia, and Moravia).
To be blunt, I find the doctrine of transubstantiation ludicrous, and I find the philosophical treatises concerning it even more so. The central question, “how do the elements look exactly the same after the words of institution as before yet have become the literal body and blood of Jesus?” requires a level of mental contortion that borders on the absurd. Theologians end up wondering if the bread and wine are in any sense physically changed, and even if the human digestive system works differently on them. I don’t have time for taking such ideas seriously, but some of the traditions surrounding the feast are of note.
By tradition, Catholics take part in a procession through the streets of a neighborhood near their parish following mass. The Eucharistic elements are placed in a monstrance and held high by a member of the clergy during the procession. After the procession, parishioners return to the church where the benediction takes place.
The whole notion of transubstantiation is abhorrent to the Protestant tradition and arguments against it figure prominently in Reformation theology. In one of his homilies Martin Luther wrote:
I am to no festival more hostile than this one [Corpus Christi], because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment . Because He never commanded us to carry on like this.. Therefore beware of such worship!
The celebration of Corpus Christi was abolished in England in 1548. In medieval times in many parts of Europe Corpus Christi was a time for the performance of mystery plays. The plays in York in northern England were performed on Corpus Christi day for about 200 years until the feast was suppressed. In many Catholic regions, especially in Europe and Latin America, the processions have taken on a festive air, sometimes including pageant giants or mystic beasts and saints.
In Catalonia, especially Barcelona, Corpus Christi is celebrated with the tradition of the dancing egg which may date from the 16th century. The contents of an egg are blown out, the holes sealed with wax, and the shell placed in the jet of a fountain where it “dances.”
There is a 16th century MS of a late Middle English song known as the Corpus Christi Carol that is rather mysterious. It tells of a wounded knight lying bleeding in a richly decorated chamber, grieved over by a lady – ending with the stanza:
& by þat beddis side þer stondith a ston,
“Corpus Christi” wretyn þer-on.
Lully, lulley, lully, lulley!
Þe fawcon hath born my mak away.
No one really knows what the carol represents, although a common hypothesis is that it is a reference to the Fisher King from the Grail legend.
The feast of Corpus Christi is not associated with foods but it did originate in Liège a city noted for its waffles. Also, communion wafers (Corpus Christi) were at one time made in similar fashion to waffles. However, gaufres de Liège are rich and sumptuous, made with a sweetened raised dough much like a brioche, not like plain, unleavened communion wafers.
Here’s a good video with detailed instructions and ingredients at the end: