Sunday, June 6th, 2021

‘Panes offerunt Deo’: a Sermon for Corpus Christi

The priests of the Lord offer incense and loaves to God: therefore they shall be holy to their God, and shall not defile his name (Leviticus 21, vi).

Today I must mention a happy liturgical occurrence. While the world observes the feast of Corpus Christi, today is also the feast of St Norbert (n 1075), who died on this date in 1134. Quite simply, his life was marked by a special love of the Mass and of the Holy Eucharist. After he renounced his benefices and dispensed with most all of his material goods, he nevertheless kept a portable altar on which to say Mass during his travels. Later, during Mass at the cathedral of Würzburg, he cured the possessed and healed a blind woman while offering Holy Mass. And it was during the consecration of the cathedral church of Magdeburg that a riot broke out in the city: but St Norbert calmly finished his Mass while the rest of the clergy fled.[1] Later still, he combated and healed a Eucharistic heresy that had taken root in the same city. It happened that a number hosts had been stolen by the people, and they had plans to profane them. But on account of his preaching, the heresy was defeated, and the Hosts were returned.[2] 

In a word, St Norbert’s life is situated in the context of a general ecclesial reform of the twelfth century—a reform connected to the Church’s eucharistic piety—and I say all of this by way of introduction to the offertory antiphon of today’s Mass. It was the priest, Thomas of Aquino, who chose the text and placed it where it is. As the elements are prepared on the altar, the Church sings: Sacerdotes Domini incensum et panes offerunt Deo. By this, we are meant for a moment to have in our minds the image of the priests at work in the old Temple. How noble and solemn must have been the ancient worship of Israel!

But in the same moment, we are meant to realize that the Temple was simply a prefigurement and preparation. Yes, the priests of the true God offered incense and bread; and today our incense and bread show that we reside in the great continuity of the Father’s plan.—Yet it is a continuity at its perfection. Those centuries of incense and loaves were a dress rehearsal for this.

St Thomas chose this text exquisitely: because by looking back to Leviticus 21, we see what Christ is about today. And what he is about today is caring for us through his faithful priests, however hidden their work may be. For our text tells us that the offering of gifts is key to holiness and fidelity: ‘therefore they shall be holy to their God, and shall not defile his name.’ This is consoling news. Because if all of us—priest and people alike—turned out attention more and more to the Most Blessed Sacrament, then indeed we should expect to reap a plentiful spiritual harvest.

In light of that, it ought to be easy for us to dispense with worry and the polemics and trouble of our times—our times which probably resemble the twelfth and thirteen centuries more than we realize. But as was true for St Norbert, so for us. He did not live to see this feast day instituted; his Order adopted the feast just under a century after his death. But that detail hardly matters now: the love of his priestly heart was ahead of his times.

Because in truth, no particular century has a monopoly on the ability to love the Most Holy Eucharist. Yes we have troubles and impediments all our own; but so did the saints. You may say that this or that nation or century or religious order had a robust eucharistic piety; but you may not say that, by the very fact, we may not. The point is what we shall love. And besides, we have the saints to help us. Christ has dwindled his infinity, in the language of Fr Hopkins, into these morsels of bread-become-his-Body; so today we marvel in a particular way. Ours is not to fear, but to marvel. O res mirabilis! as the Panis Angelicus sings. O res mirabilis!    



[1] Cf The Spirituality of the Premonstratensians: in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, François Petit O Præm, trans Victor Szczurek O Præm, Arouca Press: 2020; p 286.   

[2] Cf Geudens, F.M. (1911). ‘St. Norbert’ in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved June 6, 2021 from New Advent:

{Art Credit: The Citizens of Antwerp bring back to Saint Norbert the Monstrance and other Sacred Vessels that they had hidden from Tankelin (1630), Cornelis de Vos; Antwerp, Royal Museum of Fine Arts.}

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