Sunday, June 11, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto, the Miracle at Bolsena, and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Everything over these past two weeks in Orvieto has been leading to this day, June 10th, when the entire Orvietani community celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi (Domini). They don't celebrate it, though, like anyone else. Because it was right here, in this small, enchanting village where this feast originated. It all started with the Miracle at Bolsena.

Before I jump to the story of the miracle, a little about Bolsena. When Rome defeated the Etruscans here in 264 BCE, when it was known as Velzna, the Romans "exiled" all of the residents to an area called Volsinii Nova, 21 kilometers (13 miles) away. This became the town of Bolsena. 

In 1263, a German priest - Peter of Prague - stopped at Bolsena while he was on a pilgrimage to Rome. He is described as being a pious priest, but was struggling with believing that Christ as actually present in the consecrated Host (or bread) of Holy Communion. This is a Roman Catholic theological belief - transubstantiation - that teaches that at the time the priest consecrates the bread and the wine with the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper ("This is my body...This is my blood."), the elements of communion are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. 

(As an aside, the words "hocus pocus" are believed to be a perversion of this blessing from the Latin Catholic mass, Hoc est corpus meum, or "This is my body." But back to the story and to Father Peter!!)

Tapestry of Peter of Prague consecrating the Host

While he was celebrating mass in the church in Bolsena, named for the martyr St. Christina, he had barely spoken these words of consecration when blood started to drip from the consecrated Host and trickle on his hands and then onto the altar and the corporal. [The corporal is a square of white linen cloth onto which the containers for wine (chalice) and bread (paten) are placed during celebration of the mass.] Peter was immediately confused by this. At first, he tried to hide the blood. But, then, he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was residing. 

The Pope listened to his account, absolved Peter of any potential wrongdoing, then sent representatives to investigate. When he received the results of the investigation, the Pope ordered that the Host and the linen cloth bearing the bloodstains be brought to Orvieto. These relics were placed in the cathedral, in a special reliquary, and to this day - on this day - are brought out and reverently exhibited in the cathedral and then during a massive procession that winds through the streets of Orvieto. 

Exactly one year after the miracle, in August 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini, as it's also called). After today's celebration, these relics will be returned to the Chapel of the Miracle in the duomo at Orvieto. The altar where all of this happened is still preserved at St. Christina Church in Bolsena. 

This is THE major festival each year in Orvieto. It's not only a significant religious day, celebrated with a special mass using the Aquinas liturgy that is broadcast on speakers throughout the village, but one that involves the entire community. Volunteers dress in beautiful medieval costume, carrying colorful banners that represent the four districts, or quarters, of Orvieto: Corsica, Serancia, Olmo and Santa Maria della Stella. Children, women and men are dressed as peasants, carrying their wares for sale. Representatives of the medieval guilds also dress in costume, holding aloft the many banners representing the different guilds of the time - artists, olive oil makers, carpenters, and farmers, to name just a few. Volunteers dress as members of the Knights Templar and the Swiss Guard, along with others dressed in ancient military garb, carry their jousting lances and represent the defenders of the church, the government, and the people. 

Dignitaries from the Comune de Orvieto (City of Orvieto) and from communities across Umbria dress in their official garb and walk in procession. The municipal band marches and plays melodies from the ancient liturgy written for this feast day by Dr. Thomas Aquinas. There are a series of ancient tapestries carried that tell the story of the Miracle at Bolsena. It is a spectacular sight - the ultimate Renaissance festival!!

All of this, though, is overshadowed by the relic - the cloth - as it is carried by priests, accompanied by the bishop and the many other priests, nuns and seminarians who process throughout the streets of this medieval hill town and are greeted by its residents with cheers and flowers along the way.

There is nothing quite like being in Orvieto on THIS day - the day remembering the Miracle at Bolsena and reminding us under our own slightly different Lutheran theology, that each week, as we participate in the mystery of Holy Communion, somehow Christ's body and blood are in, with and under the bread and wine, and God is truly with us.  

Happy Feast Day of Corpus Christi!!

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