Corpus Christi

One of the traps into which religion can fall is that it often makes the thing into the thing signified. There is “God” — theological debates, Del Parson paintings, doctrinal pronouncements, even the scriptures — and there is “God above God,” the noumenal thing that is never quite the phenomenal thing. 

So it often is with the sacrament. In 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced Corpus Christi to the liturgical calendar, a day on which to commemorate the Eucharist and particularly the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. In medieval times, the host was processed through the town in a golden pyx. Onlookers knelt down in reverence as the procession passed. This still happens in Catholic countries today.

Thus the trap is set: bread and wine (the thing) can too easily become the thing signified (the Corpus Christi) and it is no wonder that in England the festival fell foul of the iconoclasm of the Reformation.

We can rescue Corpus Christi from this iconoclasm, however. I believe in transubstantiation, that is I believe that the communal meal of the sacrament becomes the body of Christ. When Jesus proclaimed that “this is my body, this is my blood” he meant as much the meal enjoyed by his disciples as he was referring to his own flesh.

It works like this: The ritual partaking of the festal meal with friends and family, even strangers, regardless of status, is the real “remembrance” of Jesus’ body. As the Book of Common Prayer states, “The Lord is here,” but not in the bread and wine, but in the bread and wine partaken by the faithful. This is the miracle of transubstantiation. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes all of this clear: In chapter 11 he tells us that bread is Christ’s body, in chapter 12 he tells us that this body is the community of Christians.

And this meal means more than the gaunt Eucharists of today. Corpus Christi was a time of great revelry, where Corpus Christi guilds organised grand carnivals and mystery plays. Many historians believe that such plays helped develop drama in England. On one Corpus Christi day in York in 1415, fifty-four plays were staged.

Contemporary Mormon revelry can often seem less exotic than all of this, but the ward social and roadshow, complete with potluck dinner, are delightfully low-brow assertions of Mormon sociality, and hearken back to the work of Corpus Christi guilds. Family reunion picnics, post-priesthood-session ice cream socials, and cultural hall wedding receptions are further symbols of social communion. When it extends to the Bishop’s storehouse too and excludes no-one, the vision of Zion is near.

This is the body of Christ.



Mormon Lectionary Project

Corpus Christi

Genesis 14:18-201 Corinthians 10:16-17John 6:51-58; Moroni 4-5

The Collect: Father, who in the Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Son’s Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the communion of his Body and Blood that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption of all humankind. Amen.


  1. “When it extends to the Bishop’s storehouse too and excludes no-one, the vision of Zion is near.”

    This helps contextualize why I have always felt my most sacred calling (more-so than any time spent in the temple) was when I was the cook at the bishop’s storehouse, fixing lunch for upwards of 30 people during the week, plus any hungry who wandered in. It truly felt sanctified.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Love this, Ronan. And I love the Episcopalian post-communion that tells the congregants that they are now the body of Christ. Thanks for bringing out a Mormon parallel.

  3. wonderful — lots to think about here

  4. Nicely done, Ronan. I tend to skew toward Luther’s position on transubstantiation, but I’m not dogmatic about it. The real presence of Christ in the eucharist is a beautiful doctrine, and the more Catholic and conservative protestant versions, incidentally, with their insistence on material, here-and-now presence rather than a spiritual, metaphorical presence have a sort of Mormon materialist ring to them, but I think there are a range of non-mutually exclusive ways to understand that doctrine without going full Catholic. I think the vision you law out here is one of those ways that has great value for the way it instructs us to “live together in love” as section 42 says.

    Similar to your and Jason’s past posts on re-examining the distance between the traditional doctrine of the trinity and the Mormon doctrine of the Godhead, I think there is also a case to be made for a form of the “mere real presence” that is consistent with Mormonism. I mean, if a “body” is really nothing more than a tabernacle for a spirit (which, by the way, also makes it a synonym for “temple,” consistent with Jesus’ saying that “this temple” would be destroyed and that he would raise it in three days, and also with Paul’s teaching that the saints are “the temple of God”), then it seems to me that any tabernacle where God’s spirit dwells can be properly called Jesus’s body. (That idea could have interesting implications for the way we understand the temple and it’s liturgy, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). The promise of the Sacrament of the Lord’s supper in our own liturgy is that if we eat and drink in remembrance, witnessing our willingness to follow him, his spirit will be with us. So if we do that, then his Spirit is really present in the meal eaten by the saints, and the meal eaten by saints is therefore “his body” because it is a tabernacle for his spirit.

  5. I definitely follow Tyndale/Luther on transubstantiation.

  6. (And I think Ronan’s post here finds the bridge between the two, between the Catholic conception and the reformed interpretation — what better Mormon project as part of the Restoration than identifying that bridge?)

  7. One final thing: it is chilling to contemplate the number of people who have been persecuted, tortured, and killed, often by burning at the stake, precisely based on differences in interpreting John 6. It’s largely what the Lollard pits were all about — the “correct” interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 6:51-58.

  8. “it is chilling to contemplate the number of people who have been persecuted, tortured, and killed, often by burning at the stake, precisely based on differences in interpreting John 6.”

    Yes. As I’ve said before, that sort of thing is, to me, a far more compelling explanation for what Jesus meant when he said to Joseph Smith that “all their creeds are an abomination” than that they got some things wrong. What is really the abomination, here, believing something about God that isn’t quite right, or burning, torturing, and murdering fellow Christians because they believe something about God that you think isn’t quite right?

  9. “As the Book of Common Prayer states, “The Lord is here,” but not in the bread and wine, but in the bread and wine partaken by the faithful. This is the miracle of transubstantiation.”

    I really like this.

  10. Jason K. says:

    FWIW (and not to rehash the Eucharistic debates of the 16th century), I think that Mormonism comports best with the Calvinist idea of spiritual presence. “That they may have His Spirit to be with them” IS the real presence of a fully divine member of the godhead. I also have to admit, though, that the idea of transubstantiation–that we literally incorporate the body and blood of Christ–is stunningly beautiful and powerful.

  11. You know, the last phrase of the sacrament prayers is interesting. Does it refer to the Holy Ghost, or does it refer to the spirit of Christ? Is there even a difference in this context? If it refers to the Holy Ghost, why is it Holy Ghost called “his spirit,” referring to Jesus, rather than just “the Spirit,” or, since the prayer is addressed to the Father, “thy Spirit”? I don’t have the answers, but I find the questions fascinating. I suppose the easy answer is that since the Godhead are perfectly united as one God, in the end it doesn’t really matter whether we are referring to Jesus’ spirit or to the Holy Ghost, since he that has seen Jesus has seen the Father also, and it seems reasonable to assume that the same kind of unity exists between the Son and the Holy Ghost as exists between the Son and the Father. The wording does make me wonder, though.

  12. I would like to point out that Eucharistic processions do not only happen in Catholic countries. I live in the United States and I used to attend a parish that had Eucharistic processions on Corpus Christi. (In the United States, the solemnity is transferred to the nearest Sunday.) I miss that, I love Eucharistic processions. (I’m tempted to visit a parish this Sunday that will have one.)

    Also, the Eucharist is held in a monstrance in religious processions and in Eucharistic adoration. -They may have used a pyx during the Middle Ages, but today they use the monstrance.

  13. When the Lord Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper to “take ye and eat, this is my body”, the bread in his hands changed objectively into his body. The bread became his very own flesh because he declared it so. It was not transubstantiated because the apostles partook of it. To claim that this conversion also depends on the recepients consuming the bread as stated in the Protestant’s Book of Common Prayer is false, and rightly condemned by the Council of Trent.

    That the consecrated bread and wine contain the Real Presence of Jesus, his body, blood, soul, and full divinity, is a teaching believed by Catholics since apostolic times. It was only during the Protestant Reformation when this doctrine was denied, thus the Council of Trent affirmed the doctrine and condemned the heretics. If indeed the consecrated elements contain the Lord’s Real Presence, it is only right and just that his faithful bow down and worship them as they do the Lord. Does the Lord agree? Of course. The many Eucharistic miracles througout the ages are visible signs of his confirmation of this critical truth.

    In the Last Supper, the Lord fervently prayed for unity among his disciples, that they may be united with him and the Father (John 17). The first distinguishing mark of Catholicism is Unity, the only distinguishing mark of Protestantism is disunity. If the Protestants had truly succeeded in their efforts to “reform” the Church, there would be no Protestants. There would be only One Catholic Church, just like it was after God called St. Francis of Assissi to reform the Church.

  14. A Catholic priest all alone by himself can celebrate Mass for himself. This is why in the traditional Latin Mass, the priest does not face the people. He instead faces God at the altar. The Mass is an offering of sacrifice to Him. God is the focus of the Mass. The congregation may well be invisible, their presence is not needed.

    A Catholic priest celebrating Mass all by himself can effect the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord. (Provided of course he first satisfies all the necessary preconditions required to offer a valid Mass). Again, the congregation may well be invisible, their presence cannot effect transubstantiation.

    If the Lord Jesus were all alone by himself at the Last Supper, and declared that the bread is now his body, can any Protestant deny that it isn’t so because the apostles weren’t there to eat it? No, that would be truly absurd. Jesus can turn mere bread into his own flesh with or without his apostles.

    What did the Lord mean when he said “this do in remembrance of me”? It means we should eat his literal flesh and drink his literal blood in the Catholic Eucharist. Only a Catholic Eucharist can enable its fulfilment. You cannot fulfill that by eating the Protestant symbols of bread and orange juice in their community meals. We were not commanded to eat symbols.

    True communion means eating and drinking the Lord’s flesh and blood. By digesting his very body and blood, they become one with your own flesh and blood. By this way, the Lord becomes one with you. Eating mere symbols will not achieve that effect.

    Hence, a Catholic priest celebrating Mass by himself achieves communion with the Lord once he partakes of the Eucharist. He will be in communion with Christ himself and his Spouse, the flesh of his flesh, and the bones of his bones. He will achieve that even without a congregation to witness his Mass.

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