The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is celebrated by Catholic, Anglican and some Lutheran & Orthodox churches. It is a celebration of the presence of God among us – a celebration of God become man, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, and Jesus victory over the cross with the Resurrection.
Adoration of the Eucharist has been a church tradition since the seventh century, at least. The cathedral church in Lugo, Spain sponsored continuous adoration (at all hours of the day) prior to 711 A.D. Juliana of Liege (1193-1252) was among those Christians in the thirteenth century, who, responding to the rising popularity of Eucharistic adoration, petitioned the church to reserve either a day in the year or a Sunday dedicated to the commemoration of the presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist (c.f. Mt 28:20, I Cor 11:23-28). The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ has remained on the liturgical calendar in the Catholic, Anglican, and some Lutheran and Orthodox churches ever since.
Jesus’ victory over the cross gave birth to the Church, fifty days later, on Pentecost. We hear in Acts that the disciples were engaged in the public work of liturgy (the Eucharist) from the very beginning of the church’s history: they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42). According to John Paul II, the “breaking of the bread” refers, of course, to the Eucharist. John Paul further tells us, “at every celebration of the Eucharist, we are spiritually brought back to the events of the evening of Holy Thursday, to the Last Supper and to what followed it.”
On this day, the Church commemorates Jesus’ new covenant with humankind, affirmed and sealed through his death and resurrection. Jesus promised to remain with us until the end of the age (Mt 28:20). Yet – as Jesus is person, the word made flesh (John 1:14), Emmanuel (“God is with us,” Mt 1:23), and the one who set his tent among us (John 1:14, c.f. Amos 9:11) – it is not an affirmation of the Christian faith to speak of Jesus’ spiritual presence. He is present among us as person, or through our own ministry on his behalf (John 4:34-38; Phil 4:13; Heb 13:20-21), or He is present as the Word (Jn 1:14; Lk 24:32).
How then, do we know that Jesus keeps his promise to remain with us until the end of the age? In the context of the liturgy, and only in the context of liturgy, can we speak of the presence of God among us in person. Jesus is made present in the Eucharist, as he himself promised, under the appearance of bread and wine (Jn 6:35; Jn 6:48-51; Luke 22:19; Mt 26:26; Lk 24:28-32). in the Eucharist.
The shedding of Christ’s blood is immediately pre-figured in two different events during the Passion, events which are both symbolic and real. First, at the Last Supper, Jesus says this cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you (Luke 22:19). Second, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke tells us that Jesus was in such agony and he prayed so fervently that his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground (Lk 22:44). John the Evangelist shows us that these two events anticipate the cross itself – “one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:31-37).
The redemptive work of Jesus on the cross is often referred to as “the Paschal Mystery” by theologians. This refers to the entire drama of Holy Week. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the agony in the Garden, the arrest and trial of Jesus, his torture at the hands of the Romans, his crucifixion, his entombment, and his triumphal resurrection on Sunday morning. All of these events are symbolic of the kingship of Jesus, his divine origin, his redemptive mission, and the fulfillment of the Scriptural expectation that he would, in fact, conquer death.
John Paul tells us “that the Church, while pointing to Christ in the mystery of his passion, also reveals her own mystery: Ecclesia de Eucharistia (the Church of the Eucharist). By the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost the Church was born and set out upon the pathways of the world, yet a decisive moment in her taking shape was certainly the institution of the Eucharist in the Upper Room. Her foundation and wellspring is the whole Triduum paschale, but this is as it were gathered up, foreshadowed and “concentrated’ for ever in the gift of the Eucharist. In this gift Jesus Christ entrusted to his Church the perennial making present of the paschal mystery. With it he brought about a mysterious “oneness in time” between that Triduum and the passage of the centuries.”