On his pilgrimage to Rome in 1263 Peter, a priest from Bohemia, stopped in the ancient Etruscan-Roman city of Bolsena. He celebrated Mass at the lakeside church of Santa Cristina. Peter had been doubting transubstantiation, doubting the reality of Christ’s presence in Eucharist: was He really there, given as food for sinners, in the bread and wine? Elevating the host, Peter felt it change, becoming flesh, dripping—blood!—on to the altar cloth.
His faith changed, Peter reported the miracle to the Pope Urban IV, then resident in nearby Orvieto. Orvieto raised its spectacular duomo (cathedral) in celebration of the miracle, placing the stained altar cloth in a special chapel. The Pope commissioned St. Thomas Aquinas, also temporarily resident in Orvieto, to write a liturgy of celebration for Corpus Domini (Corpus Christi), the feast of the body of Christ.
The feast is celebrated in May, here in Orvieto still with great civic display and procession, honoring the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But the feast of the body of Christ is also appropriate to note now, in Advent, when we look toward the Incarnation, the word taking on flesh. The Bolsena miracle can carry several meanings, denominational lenses adjusting Christians’ perception of it. But at least one concern of this pilgrim priest—how can I know God is with us?—resonates with us now, in the season anticipating Emmanuael.
Back in Orvieto, we consider our pilgrimage. It seems fitting for Advent to have done a devotion in the body, recognizing its capacity and frailty, its ability to appreciate sights, smells, cold, light in the world God created. We followed a path, we look for wisdom, we wait in hope. As a verse of the Advent hymn draws us to pray:
O come, Thou Wisdom, from on high,
and order all things far and nigh;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go