God in his bodiliness

Frances writes on the Readings for Corpus Christi :- Isn’t it intriguing that our earliest written account of the institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) does not stand by itself, as a carefully crafted piece of theology, but comes as part of an admonition written in the early 50’s AD to the Christians of Corinth. It follows on Paul’s thunderous telling off of that congregation for its abuse of the Eucharist; at that time still set amidst a meal; a feast in which distinctions were being drawn between the rich and the poor. Some stuffed themselves, whilst other poorer members of the house church went hungry. It is within the milieu of this rootedness, in the real bodily life of a community that we find Paul’s recalling of teaching he himself had received from other early Christians. It is here that we find teaching on the heart and centre of the Eucharist, of the personal reception into human bodies of the body and blood of Christ. This emphasises, as perhaps the synoptic accounts do not, set as they are within the Last Supper, just how focussed on our salvation this most pivotal act of the Church’s life is, with its memorable phrases: “On the night he was betrayed” and “Do this in remembrance of me”.


It is unfortunate that the English word ‘remembrance’ is usually a fairly empty and backward looking term nowadays. The Greek ‘anamnesis’ has a quite different meaning, and is about the recapitulation of the entire Jewish salvation epic projected into the consecration words, and bringing about their final glory in the action of Christ on the cross. It is precisely the action of this man, this body, smashed to bits, or as Isaiah 52 has it, “Marred beyond human semblance”, which joins our so fickle and misguided bodies and actions into the life of God in Christ.


This is graphically conveyed to us in three verbs of action. Jesus ‘took, blessed and broke’ the bread and wine. The fact that all our records of the institution of the Eucharist, recalling Jesus’ actions, have these three verbs is indicative of their age and authenticity; but also by their very physicality in their bodily actions they forcibly bring us all, at every Eucharist, into the presence of one who was himself the blessed, taken and broken for our salvation. By his self-offering and suffering he draws every believer into the life of God himself.


Our reading from Genesis (14:18-20) is part of this recapitulating and progressive salvation story. It is part of a long account of the way in which Abraham and his clan journeyed from Ur of the Chaldeans –Southern Iraq- into the Holy Land. During that epic physical trial, he and they set aside their ancestral gods and adopted a form of monotheism (later known as Judaism). In our bit of this epic they went to Jerusalem and met up with Melchizedek its priest-king. Now Melchizedek is a mythical figure and makes very infrequent appearances into Genesis, so that I think we should see him as symbolic, standing for the relationship between God and Israel, and important in the story of its growth towards God. Significantly, he offers Abraham the father of the race bread and wine, staples for survival, and he blessed him and promised him success in the occupation of the land. Melchizedek therefore acts, as it were, to ratify a promise, a covenant between God and his people – something promised and given in physical things – bread and wine and of course for Israel, the promise of territory, seized from its existing inhabitants.


This early myth of Israel’s origins and relationship with God is frequently heavily coloured with physical movement – symbolising development of the relationship between the two. Abraham would make a trip to Egypt and discover that deception did not aid his cause, and we all know the story of Joseph, sold by his jealous siblings, and of his relationship with Pharaoh and of his ‘salvation’ of his brothers during a time of famine. It is frequently through physical experiences, especially that of the Exodus, that they/we grow and learn and enter more deeply into the life of God. Throughout, our salvation is heavily coloured by movement and change.


This is precisely what we find in our Gospel (Luke 9:11-17) with Luke’s story of the feeding of the five thousand. Here again, this ‘myth’ of discovery, of their deep connectedness is rooted in physical details: “It was late afternoon”: “Give them something to eat yourselves”: “Get them to sit down.” And of course, Jesus uses the three great Eucharistic verbs, “He took, blessed and broke”. Surely all this is a prelude to his saving passion and death for us. What happens here in our Gospel is a sign of God’s victory and of the grace and abundance he brings, here pointing to the final reign of God over the cosmos, the consummation of all things. This is achieved first by the feeding of this huge number, five thousand, and secondly with the mass of the remnants, twelve basketfuls. These not only signify the tribes of Israel, but, with their vision of multiplicity, indicate the going out of the infinite embrace of God to his creation.


My guess is that this passage, which prefigures Our Lord’s sacrifice of himself for his creation, is precisely a lesson in the bodiliness of God’s involvement throughout, and the gentle nature of his continual disclosure of himself to us. There is a reason why we call this feast day Corpus Christi, for we are redeemed precisely by the bodiliness of Jesus. In our readings we have witnessed a journey from symbol, in Genesis, to the reality of the sacrament as we follow in the steps of God’s Son, who gives himself for us. In this sacrament we do not just symbolise our salvation story, we receive its fullness, its “Res et sacramentum” – God in his fullness.


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