Corpus Christi processions have a surprising connection to Old Testament processions with the Ark of the Covenant.
The feast of Corpus Christi features a long-standing tradition of processing through the streets of a local city with a consecrated Eucharistic host held aloft in a gold monstrance. This tradition dates back to the early Middle Ages and continues to be held throughout the world.
What’s fascinating about this tradition is how it is symbolically connected to the Old Testament.
The St. Andrew Daily Missal provides a succinct summary of this remarkable connection.
[During the Corpus Christi procession] we remember how the Israelites revered the Ark of the Covenant, which was the Presence of God among them. When they carried out their victorious marches, the Ark went before, born by the Levites in the midst of a cloud of incense, accompanied by the sound of musical instruments and of the songs and shouts of the multitude.
The Catholic Encyclopedia explains how the Ark was carried during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert.
Whenever, during the desert life, the camp was to set forward, Aaron and his sons went into the tabernacle of the covenant and the Holy of Holies, took down the veil that hung before the door, wrapped up the Ark of the Testimony in it, covered it in dugong skins, then with a violet cloth, and put in the bars (Numbers 4:5=6). When the people pitched their tents to sojourn for some time in a place, everything was set again in its customary order. During the journeys the Ark went before the people; and when it was lifted up they said: “Arise, O Lord, and let Thy enemies be scattered, and let them that hate Thee flee from before Thy face!” And when it was set down, they said: “Return, O Lord, to the multitude of the host of Israel!” Numbers 10:33-36). Thus did the Ark preside over all the journeys and stations of Israel during all their wandering life in the wilderness.
In a similar way, Mary was often depicted as a “tabernacle,” as Pope Benedict XVI reiterated in a homily on the feast of the Assumption.
Mary is the Ark of the Covenant because she welcomed Jesus within her; she welcomed within her the living Word, the whole content of God’s will, of God’s truth; she welcomed within her the One who is the new and eternal Covenant, which culminated in the offering of his Body and his Blood: a body and blood received through Mary.
Therefore Christian piety rightly turns to Our Lady in the litanies in her honor, invoking her as Foederis Arca, that is, “the Ark of the Covenant,” the Ark of God’s presence, the Ark of the Covenant of love which God desired to establish with the whole of humanity, in Christ, once and for all.
While Corpus Christi processions may appear to be a medieval invention, they are in fact biblically based and are in line with the Israelites processing with the Ark.