Many people are processing through our city streets these days. Some of these processions are violent and ominous, while others are peaceful. Whatever the merits of these public demonstrations, we cannot deny that there is something religious about them. Whether taking to the streets or bending the knee, these corporate actions claim a just and solemn aim.
I cannot help but see these ceremonial processions in light of that greater and humbler one that Christians have made during Pentecost for nearly a thousand years. Every sixty days after Easter—every Thursday after Trinity Sunday—Christians throughout the world join Corpus Christi processions on the Feast of Corpus Christi. Carl Emil Doepler’s sumptuously romantic late-nineteenth-century oil painting Corpus Christi Procession depicts townspeople kneeling in public worship as priests and acolytes pour out of church into the city streets, adorned in divine gold and red and white, holding high the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It’s a procession like no other.
Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem and solemn journey to Golgotha both belong to this pentecostal procession. Just as God smashed the Tower of Babel as so much false unity secured by human pride, so does the Holy Spirit raise up the Church to process in union with Jesus Christ, our Justification and our Peace. In Doepler’s reds we see both the burning fire of Pentecost and the Blood of Christ. In his gold hues we see Christ’s Divinity.
The Corpus Christi Procession has humble but venerable roots. It began with the visions of the twelfth-century Norbertine canoness and mystic Saint Juliana of Liege. Orphaned at age five, Juliana entered the Norbertine Order at age thirteen. She worked with lepers, and had a great devotion to the Eucharist. At sixteen she started having Eucharistic visions. In one recurrent vision, she saw the Church as a brilliant moon, marred because it lacked a feast solely dedicated to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In other visions, she saw Christ himself asking for a universal feast for the Eucharist—the source and summit of the Church. She told her sisters of her visions, and eventually told her confessor, Canon John of Lausaunne.
Thanks to John of Lausaunne, word of Juliana's visions spread to Dominicans in Paris, and then to Rome, where Pope Urban IV commissioned several theologians to draft Corpus Christi liturgies. St. Thomas Aquinas's draft was allegedly so sublime that legend has it St. Bonaventure burned his own attempt in front of St. Thomas, exclaiming that he wanted nothing to stand between this most transcendent Corpus Christi liturgy and the Church's embrace of it.
Urban IV made Corpus Christi a universal feast of the Church in 1264, proclaiming in a new way the Church’s holy and public confession that the Eucharist is Christ's Body and Blood. The Eucharist would no longer be hidden solely within the confines of the Church; rather, the saving benefits of Christ’s sacrifice would be poured out into the streets, our Lord's healing and elevating grace communicated directly to the faithful for the benefit of all. Like iron plunging into fire, people would now process through the streets with the Body of Christ. St. Juliana’s vision became a reality.
Eight centuries later, Catholics still process on public streets with Jesus himself in Pentecost. We begin around the altar, united in Christ's presence, and then form a procession of public worship that bears witness to this presence of God in the world—though not apart from the world. We end by kneeling before the Eucharist, in a foretaste of the end of time when every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. As Benedict XVI remarked in a 2008 homily, it “culminates in the final moment of the Eucharistic Blessing when we all prostrate ourselves before the One who stooped down to us and gave his life for us.”
The Corpus Christi Procession reveals a different way of walking in the world. It teaches us how to gather, and walk, and kneel in a manner that frees us from fear. Coming as it does in the midst of Pentecost, the Eucharist is God-with-us in our journey, showing us that he alone is the way out of that procession which “progresses” toward self-destruction. As Benedict observes in the same homily, “‘progress’ does not suffice. . . . On the contrary, if one loses the way one risks coming to a precipice . . . rapidly distancing oneself from the goal.”
We are religious by nature. This is irrepressible. Our way of walking and kneeling in the world will always be religious too—whether kneeling before idols or before the one true God. Yet there is but one remedy for the idolatry of bad religion: kneeling before God and walking with him. The Corpus Christi Procession is true freedom from idolatry. It teaches us, as Benedict concludes, that “those who bow to Jesus cannot and must not prostrate themselves before any earthly authority, however powerful.”
God will not leave us alone in Babylon. On the contrary, he invites us to step back from the precipice for a different kind of pilgrimage.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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