Blog Template Theology of the Body: The Body of Christ

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Body of Christ


In the next few weeks, I will be traveling in a part of the world where it is very dangerous for a Christian to be. It's a place where people are starving, and so I am going with a small contingency of humanitarians to do something about it. I am a little nervous, but grateful for the opportunity to show and experience solidarity with people in need and with real Christians who are suffering bodily for our faith (I'm also grateful for the chance to travel with my saintly dad, who is going along to make sure that I come back safely). I would appreciate your prayers for safety and for healing in the place where I will be.

Since I'll be depending on our other contributors to keep the blog humming while I'm away, I've selected a longer post below to ponder. It's a beautiful sermon for the Feast of Corpus Christi. I'll be thinking about it as I travel. It's appropriate, because I am going to a place where there is no public Christian worship, and there is no bread. The two go together in the Church's worship. In their absence, there is no visible Church. Yes, the Holy Spirit is there nonetheless, bearing witness to Jesus, and the confession of His lifesaving Gospel is there, and the worship of the saints goes up from hidden places, but there the needy world cannot encounter the Church's open love for her Savior. There are saints, but they are waiting for the day when they can live the way saints live, singing and feasting and abandoning all to their Savior in the visible convocation which invites others to join them.

This sort of situation reminds me, of course, to be grateful beyond words for the riches that we enjoy in the places where this blog can be read. I trot off to Mass or at least Adoration every day of the week, and the absence of these great gifts for a few weeks will be very sad. More so, the absence of these gifts is a taste of what Hell might be like: in their absence, there is a land where there is no nourishment, no assembly of friends, no glad worship. But the reality is that such absence does not really typify Hell; it simply typifies our world, which waits and groans in exile for the coming of the real world and the real Kingdom. Those of us who can wait together for its arrival without fear of hunger or prison or torture are blessed with an easy way. So pray with me for those who must do their waiting in pain and in fear. And, in the interim, I give you a sermon of Corpus Christi.

Corpus et Sanguis Christi

A sermon

Down in yon forest there stands a hall; It's covered all over with purple and pall. All bells of paradise I heard them a-ring; And I love sweet Jesus above all thing. In that hall there stands a bed; It's covered all over with scarlet so red. All bells ... And I love ... And in that bed there lieth a knight, His wounds bleeding day and night. All bells ... And I love ... By that bed's side there kneeleth a maid; And she weepeth both night and day. All bells ... And I love ... And by that bed's side there standeth a stone, 'Corpus Christi' written thereon. All bells ... And I love ... Under the bed there runs a flood: The one half runs water, the other runs blood, All bells And I love ... And at the bed's foot there grows a thorn: Which ever blows blossom since he was born. All bells... And I love ..

These vivid and deeply moving words come – in various versions which I have conflated here – from 15th century England. The mystic meaning is clearly Eucharistic, not least of course because of the reference to the stone engraved with the word ‘Corpus Christi’. The ‘hall’ in the forest is the Church; the bed is the altar – and the reference here is to the traditional ‘English’ altar with its surrounding riddle posts and dorsal curtain. The bleeding knight is Christ, and the maid is Mary. There are allusions to the Holy Grail; and the ‘thorn’ is the Glastonbury Thorn, said to be the staff of St Joseph of Arimathea which, to this day, and very mysteriously blossoms only at Christmas – a spray of its flowers being taken to adorn the Queen’s dinner table every Christmas Day.

Each year in Holy Week on Holy Thursday, we give thanks for the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, the sacrifice of the altar. On that day naturally and appropriately the shadow of Good Friday looms over our worship. On Maundy Thursday, the night before He suffered, the eve of His Passion, a sombre note sounds in the Mass of the Lord's Supper, which gives our devotions, even our devotions of the altar of the Host, a certain austerity, a certain sadness. It is not a time that lends itself to full thanksgiving for and celebration of this great gift. The Blessed Sacrament is forever rooted in the Lord's Passion. Where the Mass is, there is the Cross. We have a wonderful, visible reminder here in this church, with the crucfix in the stained glass over the tabernacle, but perhaps for this very reason, the Church's devotion needed another outlet, another more exuberant mode of expression. And in addition to Maundy Thursday, the "sensus fidelium", the sense of the pious and faithful, instinctively sought another day, in which to glory in the Eucharist; a day without the immediate shadow of the Cross, a day without the darkness of Gethsemane, a Summer's day, far removed from the agony in the garden.

The sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ has always been the object of a great veneration expressed especially at the moment of Communion. "No one eats this flesh without first adoring it," St Augustine says. This means that prostration was already part of the Communion rite in his time. Besides, as soon as Christians were able to build places of worship, they made provisions for a place where, after the celebration, the Eucharistic species were taken with respect and even with a certain solemnity regarding Communion for the sick. However, there was not yet what could be called a true worship of the Eucharist outside of Mass. This sort of worship developed from the ninth, but especially from the eleventh century on, as a consequence of controversies about what is called "the Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament. These controversies helped to develop the doctrine and understanding of the mystery: the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ, but under the sign—the sacrament—of bread and wine. The Council of Trent clearly defined this doctrine at its thirteenth session on October 11, 1551. Those controversies themselves stimulated Eucharistic devotion.

Male and female recluses were the first to become more aware of what the Eucharistic presence in the churches really meant. The walls of their cells, built against the church walls, had holes, called "hagioscopes," bored through them, to allow them to see the altar on which Mass was celebrated and to receive Communion. They became accustomed to spending their daytime hours kneeling before this little window in order to adore the Blessed Sacrament. There was just such a thing in All Hallows, Wellingborough, the church in England where I began my Anglican ministry in 1960. It is a lovely medieval church, full of great art, ancient and modern; and it had a place where a hermit or recluse could live, and a hole in the wall through which he or she could see the altar.

Lanfranc, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, instituted the custom of carrying the consecrated Host during a procession with palms in order to express the presence of the Lord among his people. However, it was in the thirteenth century that Eucharistic devotion really blossomed.

This feast began, we believe, as a local devotion in the Diocese of Liège, in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where an Augustinian nun, Juliana of Liège, had a vision in which a glistening full moon appeared to her. The moon was perfect but for some hollow dark spots which she was told represented the absence of a feast of the Eucharist. This led to the celebration of Corpus Christi, which started in 1261 with a procession, and that is why it is fitting that we have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament at the end of this Solemn Mass today. In the year 1264 Pope Urban IV extended the feast to the universal Church and in the same year, at the Pope's request, the angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, himself, composed the liturgical texts, which are still used today on this feast of Corpus Christi, 750 years later.

Aquinas, the great Dominican who taught in Paris, saluted the Eucharist as "tantum sacramentum," which translates into "so awesome a sacrament." And he addresses Jesus with these words, "In this sacrament, you are both shepherd and pasture." Another man, who also knew Paris well, was the 20th century Nobel prize laureate, the great writer François Mauriac. He wrote, "The Eucharist is what is most real in the world."

In his novel, The Stuff of Youth (La Robe Prètexte), François Mauriac put these thoughts into the heart of one his characters who had just helped to carry the canopy in the village Corpus Christi procession:

How deep a silence filled the dusk when, after the wayside altars had been dismantled, the birds once more took possession of the garden! All that evening, I, the little boy who had taken part in the triumph of God, was conscious of an inner glow. It seemed to me, as I leaned upon the balcony, that the stars were forming yet another procession in that Kingdom into which our own had been unable to penetrate, treading the highway of the Milky Way which looked to me like a magnificent thoroughfare of flowers.

Today’s Gospel passage is situated in the context of what is sometimes called Jesus' Eucharistic discourse. These verses constitute the ending of the "Bread of Life Discourse" (John 6: 22-58), given at the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus identified himself as "the living bread that came down from heaven," thus linking himself with the manna in the wilderness. The Eucharistic discourse is a teaching about the Lord's providential care for his faithful followers, describing Jesus’ promises to the Jewish crowd that He will give them his body and blood as their spiritual food and drink. The reference in today’s passage to the manna in the desert alludes to the care of God for his people during the years of their desert wandering. The manna God provided and and the water He gave sustained their natural life at the time. Eventually, however, they died. But Jesus claimed that he was the true bread come down from heaven to give everlasting life. "One who eats this bread will live forever."

It was that Anglican of all Anglicans, Queen Elizabeth I, who is reputed to have said, concerning the question of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, "Christ Jesus took the Bread and brake it. His was the Word that spake it. And what that Word doth make it, that I believe, and take it."

The Eucharist is the mystery of our faith, mystery of our hope, mystery of our charity. Why do we celebrate the Eucharist some 2,000 years later? We do this because Jesus told us to do so: "Do this in memory of me." St. Augustine in the 5th century said it best when he said: "It is your mystery, the mystery of your life that has been placed on the altar."

Now I would like to read, at some length, from The Shape of the Liturgy, the great work by an English Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix. It is a very important book, which remains in print – and very influential, more than half a century after it was first published:

(Jesus) had told His friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning 'for the anamnesis' of Him, and they have done it always since. Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc — one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make iheplebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God.

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, every one with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves — and sins and temptations and prayers — once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repeated and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew—just as really and pathetically as I do these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor:—'Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem for she prayed much'. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one's life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione—and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought. (All that going with one to the altar every morning!)

It is because it became embedded deep down in the life of the Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and the rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again, Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be bom; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever-changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In the twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara 'did this' with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfame in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since St Augustine (sent to England by Pope Leo the Great) used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed in 598. Yet 'this' can still take hold of a man's life and work with it.

Jesus chose to give us this sacramental sign of his union with us. Starvation -- even for a limited time -- convinces us of how dependent we are on food. Physical hunger, with its debilitating effects when prolonged, is a vivid sign of what it is like not to have God in our lives and thus to be separated, "excommunicated" from the community of believers. Just as a meal is the perfect relief from hunger, union with Jesus and the community of believers is the perfect relief for our spiritual ills. The multiplication of the loaves described in the gospels reminds us to ask Jesus for our daily bread. In doing so, we express solidarity with the poor and a desire to receive Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic meal is the perfect sign of the satisfaction for which we hunger. This is the reason why the fast before communion is retained as a part of the ritual action. And we need to observe it more seriously than we do: it is not just a matter of not eating as we go into church. The fast is broken by the soda or coffee in the parish hall just before Mass, that cigarette in the parking lot, that engaging in unnecessary chatter even as we come in to the narthex. The Catholic tradition is that we approach the Holy Mysteries with the most profound reverence and in a spirit of recollection – that is, an intense focus on what we are doing, into Whose presence we are coming.

We have the absolute duty to prepare properly for each and every reception of Holy Communion. Many of us have neglected this duty in our lives. We have tarnished God’s image within us through acts of impurity, injustice and disobedience. Hence, there is always need for repentance, and a need for the sacramental confession of grave sins before we receive Holy Communion. We should remember the warning given by St. Paul: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves." [1 Cor. 11:27-9]. Hence, let us receive Holy Communion with fervent love and respect -- not merely as a matter of routine. If we are struggling with sin, especially habitual sin, let us remember always to ask Jesus to strengthen us through this sacrament.

Today, then, we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. Last Sunday, we had Trinity Sunday, and the week before we celebrated Pentecost. Both Pentecost and Trinity honor an invisible and untouchable God. But today’s feast is different. Jesus is here, to see and to embrace. To celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi is to celebrate Christ among us. In response, we say, "Thank you, Jesus....Oh Sacrament most holy, oh Sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine."

Let me end with a poem by one of the great mystical writers of the 20th century, the Anglican Evelyn Underhill, who lived from 1875 to 1941.

Come, dear Heart ! The fields are white to harvest : come and see As in a glass the timeless mystery Of love, whereby we feed On God, our bread indeed. Torn by the sickles, see him share the smart Of travailing Creation : maimed, despised, Yet by his lovers the more dearly prized Because for us he lays his beauty down— Last toll paid by Perfection for our loss ! Trace on these fields his everlasting Cross, And o'er the stricken sheaves the Immortal Victim's crown. From far horizons came a Voice that said, "Lo! from the hand of Death take thou thy daily bread." Then I, awakening, saw A splendour burning in the heart of things: The flame of living love which lights the law Of mystic death that works the mystic birth. I knew the patient passion of the earth, Maternal, everlasting, whence there springs The Bread of Angels and the life of man. Now in each blade I, blind no longer, see The glory of God's growth: know it to be An earnest of the Immemorial Plan. Yea, I have understood How all things are one great oblation made: He on our altars, we on the world's rood. Even as this corn, Earth-born, We are snatched from the sod; Reaped, ground to grist, Crushed and tormented in the Mills of God, And offered at Life's hands, a living Eucharist.