The Sacred Liturgy is rich in ritual and ceremony, and that is fitting. It is the meeting of heaven and earth. It is humanity’s encounter with God that happens in no other on earth. In the Mass earthly bonds are transcended, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is re-presented. We are there by privilege only, and allowed to join our prayer with the Son to the Father in the Holy Spirit. It is an understatement to say that there is cosmic drama in the Liturgy.
But Catholic worship, like the Incarnation itself, is a union of the material and the immaterial, time and timelessness. The natural is put at the service of the supernatural. In other words, Catholic worship is most definitely earthy.
At Mass and in the celebration of the Sacraments the Church uses water and oils, as well as salt and fire and incense. Water is poured and sprinkled. Bodies are anointed with oils. Candles light up sanctuaries and symbolize new life and hope. The smoke of incense fills churches, and rises upward toward heaven with our prayers. Bread and wine are offered, and through the miracle of transubstantiation changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at each Mass.
But we should not be surprised at the close association of Catholic worship with the material world. Jesus came to save our souls and our bodies. He came to redeem the world-all of it. He became man to bring all creation back into the proper relationship with its Creator.
As human beings we are both immaterial and material. We have an immaterial soul, but that soul, since our conception in the womb, is united with our material body into a whole being. And even though separated temporarily at death, that same body-soul union is our ultimate configuration for eternity after the resurrection of the dead, when the Lord Jesus comes at the end of time.
Why God has chosen that configuration of body and soul during our earthly life, and then finally for eternity is ultimately a mystery. But we do know that what the Creator has created, both the material and the immaterial, is good, even if presently afflicted by the results of original sin. We know too that it is the divine plan that all creation be made new and reconciled to the Creator. This truth is at the very core of the meaning of the mystery of the Incarnation, when infinity became incarnate. This truth is also at the very core of the mission of the Catholic Church to go out into the world with the message of the Gospel, to be an instrument of Christ’s redemption of creation.
The intimate association of the Sacred Liturgy with the material world, coupled with the notion of the Catholic duty to go out into creation as heralds of the Good News, is at the root of the Church’s use of processions in Catholic worship and piety in general, but most especially the Corpus Christi procession.
In his book The Thought of Pope Benedict XVI, Aidan Nichols O.P. writes that one of the gestures in the Sacred Liturgy discussed at some length by his holiness is that of procession. Benedict, he writes, tells us that our expression of our relationship to God calls for “this celebratory walking along together in the community of the faithful, together with the God in whom we believe.” Nichols elaborates on this as to the Corpus Christi procession.
It is an occasion when we go into the streets with our Savior, he says. We “invite the crucified and risen Lord to take possession of our streets and squares…In this way the Liturgy moves beyond the church walls, embracing heaven and earth, present and future. In the Corpus Christi procession, the link of faith with the earth is represented by the act of walking, of treading the ground, our ground. Except on this day we do not manhandle the earth, with the hands that so often exploit and violate it; rather do we carry the Creator himself over the ground, he who willed to give himself in the wheat-grain and the vine-fruit.”
In June of 2012, speaking to pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict praised the ancient tradition of the Corpus Christi procession, which dates back to the 13th century. Citing Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Mysterium Fidei, he said that the “Catholic Church professes worship of the Eucharist not only during Mass, but also outside of its celebration, preserving with the utmost diligence the consecrated hosts, presented them for the solemn veneration of the Christian faithful, carrying them in procession with the joy of the Christian crowd.’”
In addition, because it is Christ Himself with whom we travel, the Corpus Christi procession is the bringer of the peace of the triumphant Christ to the world, which, as St. Paul says, is groaning as it is being reborn from the fallen to the redeemed. Christ’s peace, says Benedict, is the fruit of the cross and the Resurrection. It is freely given to us, but His gift of peace is “a consignment.” “This peace which Christ purchased with his blood…is for all,” and must be taken out into the world.
That duty to go out is at the heart of the Corpus Christi procession. We go forth with Christ in the spirit of peace. We proceed out from the sacred space of our churches into the streets and along the roads with Jesus: He who is both infinite and incarnate; He who is eternal but who has entered into time and history to redeem mankind and all creation. We walk and join with Him as He sanctifies creation and offers Himself to our neighbors, to those bystanders who watch us, to believers and non-believers, to the gentle and peaceful as well as the violent. To all!
And it is a walk of faith.
Benedict, says Nichols, “encourages people not to look anxiously over their shoulders and see if everything is in keeping with the latest theological theory, but to walk on joyfully in the procession of the redeemed. For after all: ‘True liturgy sings with the Angels, and is hushed with the awaiting deep places of the world. And so true liturgy redeems the earth.’ ”
So on the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ this year at my parish, St. Patrick Cathedral in downtown Ft. Worth, Texas, the congregation will walk out of the cathedral in procession behind the pastor. He will carry the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance, walking under a beautiful canopy held up by altar servers, and behind a cohort of members of the Fourth Degree of the Knights of Columbus. We will sing and pray as we go down Throckmorton Street by the phone company, by a motel and a city park, then down Jennings Street in front of the municipal courts building and city hall, then beside assorted parking lots and back into the cathedral for the final showing and prayers of Benediction.
What better way to celebrate the redemption of creation than walking with the Creator and Redeemer Himself out and about in the midst of that very creation which is being redeemed? Best place in the cosmos.