Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Newsletter by Yisca Harani, June 2020
Translation from the Hebrew: Monty Rosman and Adi Hirsh
Each year for over 800 years, on the first Thursday after Pentecost, the Catholic church has been celebrating a feast called "the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ" or, as in Latin "Corpus Christi" (Body of Christ) and "Corpus Domini" (Body of the Lord).
Of all the Catholic numerous, colorful and photogenic feasts, Corpus Christi is definitely
among the most prominent.
Throughout the world the processional route is decorated with stunning carpets of fresh flowers, on which tread lavish processions of priests bearing the Monstrance (the vessel containing the Holy Sacrament).
In some places the processions include some unusual practices, such as “the devil’s leap” over babies in Castrillo de Murcia near Burgos in Spain.
Thus the Catholic Church concludes the 90 days long Easter period
(the 40 days of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday, and 50 more days from Easter Resurrection Sunday until Pentecost marking the descent of the Holy Spirit).
For various reasons, the Catholic Church has added one more 'ripple' to the waves of Easter feasts, when in 1264 Pope Urban the 4th has declared a new feast glorifying the Holy Sacraments – Corpus Christi.
This is a feast that is unique to the Catholic world, one that emphasizes the sanctity of the Bread and the Wine, once they have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit on the altar during Mass.
Why, then, does the Church need another feast, in the wake of such an intensive period of time, dedicated to The Body and the Blood of Christ, and precisely when we have already left behind the peak of Easter. It may seem redundant after His words "this is my body" during the Last Supper, His death on the cross, His resurrection, and the meal at Emmaus -where it was made clear that one recognizes Christ by breaking the bread.
The key to understanding it, is the context of that particular period in time:
The spread of heretic movements in the 12th c -13th c. ('heretics' are Christians who differed on the dogma of the established Church), who called for a more spiritual perception of Jesus as opposed to the significance accorded to His material flesh.
These heretics, regarded those church rituals that emphasized the tangible - as a fatal mistake. The church, in response, has ascribed even more weight to its claims on the substance of the flesh and radicalized its ceremonies even further.
From here on, the church’s theology clearly claimed that on the altar, the bread shall become flesh and the wine shall become blood ("Transubstantiation"). That claim necessitated a ritual that would turn the Transubstantiation into something both audible and visible. For example, a special vessel called "Monstrance" (also known as an "Ostensorium") was put into use for exhibiting the Blessed Sacrament for adoration.
What until then was a mere tradition has now become a doctrine.
The 'heretics' kept surfacing and the Protestants challenged this belief of the Holy Bread turning into the Real Flesh of Jesus. In response to the Protestant Revolution, the festivities were further enhanced and intensified by the Catholic church!
As can be seen in the following photos, the Monstrance, the vessel that holds the Holy Bread, became lavish and ornate, and was ceremonially carried throughout cities, towns, villages and fields in sumptuous processions:
From this period of contra-reformation (the 16th century) onwards, all Catholic kings would participate in the ceremony and proclaim their loyalty to the Catholic Church.
In the following picture we can see Emperor Franz Josef kneeling publicly in front of the Monstrance containing the Holy Sacrament.
Carrying the monstrance with the blessed sacrament out of the church, in an outdoors procession, during the Corpus Christi celebration, was a way of "publicizing the miracle". According to the church, whoever stared at the sacrament long enough and with enough devotion ("Eucharistic meditation")- could see within it some blood stains, or even Jesus Himself. The 'Adoration of the Host' became a religious practice, both in parish churches as well as in monasteries.
It was during that period that blood libels started to develop. At first the libels consisted of descriptions of the theft and desecration of the holy sacrament, stabbing it until it bled. A certain case of 'proved' blood stains in 1263 ('The Miracle of Bolsena'), may have prompted the Pope to institute the feast of Corpus Christi.
The aforementioned Pope, Urban the 4th, recruited Thomas Aquinas (1225 - 1274), one of the greatest minds in both that age and the entire history of the church, to compose for feast - hymns that will reflect this theology. And indeed, Thomas, the Dominican monk, a philosopher and master of writing, has composed for this feast several hymns that are sung to this day, of which the "Pange Lingua" is one of the most famous. Please note how at the ’Tantum Ergo’ part of the hymn, it is said that all of the senses of man are bewildered (meaning that what looks like bread, tastes like bread, feels like bread – is not bread but the Body of Christ), and that only faith is the key, for what we are dealing with here is most sublime, sought after mystery.
Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o'er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.
In the hymn called 'Adoro te Devote', Thomas visits once again the theme of the bewilderment of the senses and writes: (listen to the link from 1:00) link
Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur, Not to sight, or taste, or touch be credit
sed auditu solo tuto creditur; hearing only do we trust secure;
This next hymn might sound slightly more familiar to you: The bread of the angels –
'Panis Angelicus'. (Taken from the hymn Sacris Solemnis in this link)
One wonders how would have Thomas Aquinas reacted if he could hear his own Latin hymns sung in Arabic. Here’s a video of the Arab community of Beit Hanina, in northern Jerusalem, celebrating Corpus Christi. The monstrance is shown in the 8th minute, and the Procession from the 11th.
The pelican of Corpus Christi
On that same hymn, in the 6th part (listen to the link, starting from 3:30), Thomas writes
about Jesus and describes Him as a pelican with Whose blood the sinner is saved:
Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine, Good and loving pelican, Jesus my Lord! me immundum munda tuo sanguine; Unclean I am, but cleanse me in Thy Blood; cuius una stilla salvum facere Of which a single drop, for sinners spilt, totum mundum quit ab omni scelere Is ransom for a world’s entire guilt" ----------------------------------------------------------------------
It is rooted in a myth dating to the Middle Ages, whereby the pelican resurrects its dead fledglings by stabbing itself and letting its own blood drip on them. One possible explanation to the origins of that myth is that when the pelican is feeding its fledglings, it appears as if they are eating the parent bird’s own flesh.
This image of the feeding Pelican has become acceptable worldwide, regardless of continent, culture and church affiliation. In Cambridge, England there's a college called "Corpus Christi" (established in the 14th century). Although England completely separated from the Roman Catholic church, Corpus Christi college has retained its name, including the symbol of the pelican with drops of blood dripping on its fledglings. Here are some pictures of the pelican that I took while I was there:
The pelican in Jerusalem:
If I were to catalog the representations of the pelican as a Christian icon, the number of images would reach thousands. Here, however, I’ll focus on Jerusalem, the city where, to quote Thomas Aquinas, the 'true pelican' has spilt His blood.
So far in my search in Jerusalem, I have discovered pelican representations in at least twenty churches and chapels. Here we see it in the Catholic part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as part of the Golgotha Mosaic and on the embossment at the 'Franks Chapel'.
We can also find it on the Catholic liturgical vestments:
The pelican imagery is also used by the Eastern Churches in the Holy Sepulchre church:
Here, in an Armenian floor mosaic, and on an Orthodox wooden door:
(where are they in reality? A riddle for those who enjoy a discovering challenge)
Even the Protestants have not relinquished the pelican: here are two examples of rock chiseling - at the entrance to the Lutheran "Augusta Victoria" hospital,
and in YMCA compound in west Jerusalem:
Ornithology, the scientific study of birds and their behavior, teaches us that the pelican does not really feed its fledglings with its own blood. As the photograph of the feeding pelican shows, it allows the fledglings to eat out of a pouch located at the base of its beak. The fish it has caught are stored, partially digested, in this pouch.
So where does the image of blood as food derive from?
The Flamingo in the Room of the Last Supper
The Room of the Last Supper in Jerusalem has a different identification:
Jesus is portrayed not as a pelican, but as a flamingo!
In the Holy Land, The oldest known representation of a bird feeding its young in a way that relates to Jesus can be found in the room of the Last Supper.
On the marble capital of a column dating to the Crusader period there is the image of a bird, its head protruding at the top of the column. The head has a hooked beak – the beak of a flamingo!
Two birds on either side (its offspring?) are leaning forward, puncturing its chest with their own beaks. These beaks, too, do not resemble a Pelican's beak, but rather a flamingo's.
At the bottom of this capital we see carvings of masks or unidentified figures that seem to represent a negative imagery.
And the moral is:
The sacrificial offering of the principal bird figure gives life to those who accept it, enabling them to overcome all evil.
Is it not the same message as Jesus’s sacrifice as it is fulfilled at the Last Supper?
But the 'sacrificial offering' of the flamingo is indeed more bloody... Ornithologists help us understand that the pink or reddish color of flamingos comes from carotenoids in their diet of animal and plant plankton. But this color is pale in comparison to the liquid with which the chicks are fed:
Both the male and the female feed their chicks with a red liquid, produced in the glands. This red milk contains fat, protein, and red and white blood cells.
It seems that the sight of flamingo birds had stirred peoples' imagination. The feeding with a red liquid, secreted from its beak directly to the fledgling's beak, inspired the pelican myth.
An added confusion between the two species, the Pelican and the Flamingo, was of little concern to the medieval mind. The Pelican and the Flamingo were merged. Looking at these pictures, you might understand the logic…
Clearly Thomas Aquinas was familiar with this myth, and therefore incorporated it in his hymn!
A curious anecdote:
In the year 1900, biologist Prof. Karl Landsteiner (a Jewish convert to Christianity…) discovered the existence of blood types, and later on the Rh blood group system, and was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology and Medicine.The special medal given to loyal blood donors bears on one side Landsteiner’s portrait. Guess what appears on the other side?Here's the answer…
(my thanks to Jacob, who took this picture of the medal given to his father).
The feast of Corpus Christi and the singing of Hallelujah in Genzano -
a personal experience:
In the year 2019 I was able to observe the delightfully colorful, joyous festivities of Corpus Christi feast in a town called Genzano, in the Casteli Romani area, about an hour from Rome. With a group of visitors from the Western Galilee, led by Rachel Grossman, we had the privilege of a very special and personal glimpse into the preparations and celebrations …
By accident we arrived in town the evening before the holiday, and were very disappointed to discover that the famous ornaments were not yet ready. The road leading from the church at the top of the mountain down to the Cathedral, where the procession with the parish priest and the county Bishop carrying the Monstrance was to pass, was not yet decorated with flowers. Although the road itself has already been fenced off and closed for traffic, there were only some chalk markings in place – the floral decorations would only be put up the night before the procession.
To compensate in some measure for our disappointment, we met the town’s delightful priest Father Marco, at the church at the top of the mountain. Helped by our translator (also named Marco) and armed with smiles and curiosity, we managed to have a very pleasant conversation, and concluded our day by singing the Hallelujah together…
The decision to change our itinerary and return the next day turned out to be a resounding success, and the visit was a very moving experience. These few pictures show the beauty of this feast.
Father Marco, who did not forget us, opened the gate with a big smile to welcome me, the group's representative, just before the parade was about to set out.
The Monstrance containing the Holy Sacrament was being carried all over town, held by Father Marco and his entourage, until it reached its final destination in the cathedral and was placed on the altar.
The religious parade ended with flowers strewn all over town, and with the local celebrating in the food and drink stalls and gift shops.
In these days of Corpus Christi of the year 2020, my thoughts go to the lovely Father Marco from Genzano and to the Hallelujah that we sang with him in the church. We, the Jewish visitors from the land of the Real Pelican, Jesus.