Hocus Pocus is a common enough term in our American version of the English language so as to be generally known to most of us. It means something akin to magic or make believe or trick, with the usual understanding being that it is not true, but, in addition, it really doesn’t matter much one way or the other whether it is true or not, because it’s not of great importance. It’s a trivial matter, insignificant, designed to evoke a smile or laughter. So it’s not of great moment, nor worth getting excited about.
The term HOCUS POCUS seems to derive from medieval England during the religious turmoil surrounding the separation of the church of England from the Roman Catholic church. Much ill will and hard feeling accompanied this rupture, and “hocus pocus” was a linguistic emergent of this raucous era. It was an instance of the victimization occurring during this tumultuous era when the abuse of things religious became rampant, and, from the Catholic point of view, it was especially the Catholic church doctrine on the Eucharist that came under attack. It is, of course, one of the seven sacraments Catholics cherish as centerpieces of their religious belief and practice.
But more likely than the other sacraments, the eucharist was especially subjected to ridicule during this era. And the centerpiece of the attacks made on it was the sacrifice of the mass. Catholics have traditionally venerated the eucharist, probably more so than any of the other sacraments. Regular attendance at mass, especially on Sundays, drew more Catholics than any other sacramental event, and reception of the eucharist has been a centerpiece of this practice over the centuries, though, admittedly, it has varied in frequency at different periods of church history. And the pivotal reason for Catholic veneration of and reverence for the eucharist is the strong faith belief that the bread and wine featured at each mass was changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Catholics, of course, base this conviction on the bible with its accounts of Jesus’ institution of the eucharist at what is often referred to as The Last Supper (Mt 26.26, ff., Mk 14.22, ff., Lk 22.14, ff.).
Only a priest can celebrate mass, and only he can pronounce the formula, called the words of institution or consecration, during the course of the mass, which effect this change of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is the sacramental centerpiece of the eucharist within the mass. The words uttered by the priest are the versions found in the gospels, as spoken by Jesus Himself, and they are venerated as sacred. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, when the mass was celebrated in the Latin language (the Roman rite), the words for the consecration of the bread, repeated by the priest, were: “Hoc est enim corpus meum.” This means: “For this is my body”, that is, the Body of Christ. Of course, it is a faith belief that this statement is true.
To opponents of Catholicism, and there were many at this time, such faith in the veracity of this formula was lacking, and this constituted the groundwork for rejecting what would obviously seem ludicrous and beyond belief. So this formula, in its Latin version, became the occasion for ridicule, as, for instance, by taking the words: hoc est enim corpus meum, and, employing word play, transposing it into: hocus pocus, a twisted English version of the Latin, as it sounded to a non-believer, especially if he or she knew no Latin. So hocus pocus derived either from ignorance of Latin, or else from deliberate misreading of the words.
In this way hocus pocus entered the English language as a synonym for foolishness, make-believe, or trickiness. While all this happened several hundred years ago, during an historical period that has disappeared, the English language has been “enriched” with a new phrase that fits nicely into the intriguing arena of fun, jokes, tricks and magic. This is a far cry from the venerable origins of this sacramental formula: hoc est enim corpus meum. It is a descent from the sacred to the ridiculous.
This Sunday Catholics celebrate the liturgical festival of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ). The English-speaking portions of the Catholic world have this variant (hocus pocus) in their language that the Latin original would hardly recognize. And the comical phrase, hocus pocus, is a far cry from its sacred origins. Fortunately, the passage of time has emptied this derivative of the mean-spiritedness and ridicule that surrounded it originally, and which is now likely unknown. The only salvageable emergent from it is a new phrase in the english language that enlarges our vocabulary for the “fun” or humorous, light-hearted side of our conversation.
Is it appropriate, then, to say that “all is well that ends well”?