Corpus Christi explained

Over this weekend millions of Catholics throughout the world will take part in a Procession of the Blessed Sacrament. For those who do not know already, let me explain that the Blessed Sacrament is the bread that has become the real presence of Christ at Mass. It is placed in a special container called a Monstrance so it can be seen, and everyone praises God for giving himself to us in this special way. Usually the Procession finishes with what is called Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Benediction is just another word for a Blessing, but this Blessing is special because instead of the priest saying words of blessing, as he usually does at the end of Mass, he gives the Blessing simply by making the sign of the Cross over the people with the Blessed Sacrament.

 

Some of these Processions are outdoors. There is one in Oxford starting from the Oratory Church at 2.30pm and one in London starting from Farm Street Church at 5.15pm. I was once in Italy for this great Festival, and Benediction was given again and again in different places in the little town of Montefalcioni near Avellino. In each place the men appeared to compete with each other by letting off the loudest fireworks possible to give thanks for the Blessing their area had been given. It was very noisy!

 

Of course, the point of all this is not to have the best or the loudest Procession, but to remind all of us who are at Mass regularly how wonderful this gift of God actually is. How easily we take it all for granted. I have even seen people arrive so late at Mass that they have, to my horror, walked in the door and straight up to receive Communion. It appeared to me, although I might be wrong, that they had done nothing to prepare themselves for this. They had not been present for the first part of the Mass either in Church or at the Children’s Liturgy, they just simply walked into Church late, and thought it was quite all right to come up for Communion.

 

St Paul warns people about this. He writes to the Christian of Corinth  “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.   Let each person examine themselves, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon themself.(1 Cor 11:27-29) In one sense that would mean that none of us should receive Communion, for none of us are worthy; and I honour people who for one reason or another, not just because they arrive at Mass after the Gospel, sometimes do not come forward to receive.

 

We can all do more to “examine” ourselves, as St Paul says, so that when we say at Mass “Lord I am not worthy to receive you” we actually mean it, and that’s enough to allow us to receive.  After all, what is the point of a Procession to honour the Blessed Sacrament if those who take part do not mean it, if they do not, again as St Paul says “discern the body” – in other words realise that they are meeting Christ in a special way – that they are meeting Almighty God.  Jesus didn’t say have a jolly meal to remember me. He said quite solemnly that this is my Body broken for you. This is my Blood poured out for you. And he didn’t say – do this just to remember me, but used a word that means – do this to bring me into your presence.

 

Later this summer we will be reading through the 6th Chapter of St John’s Gospel at Sunday Mass. There we will see how hard it was even for the closest friend of Jesus to accept that he was actually going to give them his body in this way. It is easy for us to forget the reality of what is actually happening at every Mass. Let’s make a point of really trying to recognise his wonderful presence – today.

 

 

The mystery that is the Mass?

Frances writes on Corpus Christi :- One of the difficulties faced by modern Catholics in appreciating the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is I think rooted in the fact that we are now allowed to receive the Blessed Sacrament with great frequency, even daily if we wish. Whilst this is a great and marvellous gift from God, it also sets us up with a mindset whereby we do not take the sacrament as seriously as we should, indeed, we rather take it for granted; our right and an automatic thing, given us since first Holy Communion or Confirmation. Long gone are the days when devout Catholics were required to receive the sacrament twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, and we cannot even begin to comprehend the Medieval world where believers literally jostled one another to ‘see Jesus’ at the elevation at the Mass, and understood this as the high point of their Eucharistic connection with the risen Lord. There, seeing rather than receiving the sacrament was everything, and its holiness and the absolute presence of God the Son was a moment of high impact, of personal encounter with the risen Christ. By contrast we have to ask the question that if we are allowed such easy access to the Lord Jesus in the Sacrament, what the point of the Feast of Corpus Christi is. Are we simply to see it as a hangover from the 13th century, when things were very different? Can it serve us in the ways it did in the past, or if not, how can we rediscover and use the feast today?

Our gospel (Mark 14:12-16.22-26) helps us to root the actions of our Mass in real historical time and place. It was Passover, and we are told how Jesus had made very careful preparations for this the greatest of all Jewish festivals in Jerusalem, the yearly celebration of their Exodus, their escape from slavery in Egypt. This was the real beginning of the Jewish nation, as the small vagabond group struggled to become the people of God on their difficult journey to the Promised Land, their home; and in those events discovered more and more about their relationship with the one they recognised as their one true God. Imagine if you will the dramatic liturgical living out of these events at Passover; and ask yourself how you would have reacted if the man you had come to see as the leader of your devout group of Jews suddenly and dramatically high-jacked the service and shifted its long held meaning so that it focussed instead on himself. The high point of the Passover celebration had always been the silent passing round of food and wine. So consider how the disciples reacted when Jesus used this moment to enact out his own death and made it clear that in so doing something quite unprecedented was happening: “This is my body….this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for many.” When, only hours later, Jesus was arrested, tried by a kangaroo court and crucified, and then later came back from the dead would this tiny collection of believers understand that in this action all their earlier story of who Israel was came to its fruition in the Jesus events? Would they see those strange actions of his at Passover as absolutely crucial to any understanding of who he IS and of our continuing relationship with him?

Our Old Testament reading (Exodus 24:3-8) helps us to enter into the Judaism which shaped Jesus and his disciples. Like other societies round about, Israel was a nation much addicted to the ritual sacrifice of animals. Indeed, they hedged their entire lives by a myriad of sacrifices, some which dealt with sins, those of the nation or of individuals. There were sacrifices for thanksgiving too, at harvest or as we meet in the offerings of the parents of Jesus, for his birth, and sacrifices ratified treaties. Israel became a society of rules and it was of absolute importance that these were followed to the letter. You might say that its self-definition was marked in and by blood. The problem was, as Israel and their sacrificing neighbours realised, that the system was self-perpetuating and for the temple priests, not to say lucrative. The death and resurrection of Jesus and our reliving out of his sacrifice in the Mass must be seen not simply as a challenge to the old ways, but the gateway to a much deeper understanding of God and of our relationship to him.

This is why the Letter to the Hebrews, (9:11-15) is so significant. Here the writer, possibly Paul, reflects on the difference between those earlier animal sacrifices and that of the person of Jesus Christ. Here, in the single sacrifice of himself Jesus has put aside all earlier meanings of sacrifice and put us in a wholly new relationship with God. Whereas previously people killed animals to placate wilful deities and deal temporarily with their own faults, here the one who is already divine, of God, “Has passed through the greater, the more perfect tent…not made by men’s hands because it is not of this created order”, (meaning it is entirely from God himself) and ensures that we are eternally capable of living with and in God. The Jerusalem Bible translation is less than helpful here, since it makes a modern psychological distinction between what it calls our ‘outward’ and ‘inner’ lives, in a very dualistic understanding of what is redeemed. But the Greek of the text speaks simply of outward offerings purifying from ritual pollution, restoring the cleanness of their flesh, so that they could once again worship God in the temple. But Christ, according to the writer, gives himself in total and unrepeatable sacrifice to God for our sin, sin which affects the entirety of who we are. By this unique action he restores the whole person; our being; what it calls our conscience, so our capacity for God. This means that we can live in union with God through the Holy Spirit and serve him. “He brings a new covenant, as the mediator, only so that the people who were called to an eternal inheritance may actually receive what was promised.” This is what his death on the cross achieved for you and for me and it is this we ritually re-enact every time we join in the sacrifice of the Mass. Corpus Christi is the day on which we give thank for this immense gift by which the Son eternally unites us to the Father. It is an action of unprecedented gift and grace, in which Father and Son together co-operate to fulfil their eternal wish for the humanity they created in an act of outpouring of creative love and self-surrender.

 

Sharing in Christ

Frances writes on Corpus Christi :- Words are not ‘flat’ things, complete in themselves; they convey meaning and invite thought and understanding. Words that we cannot fathom require us to search for meaning, they are means of development and engagement, and they lead us into the depths of things, words then are signifiers. Words are not ‘who-dunnits’ requiring an answer, so much as means of entering into something, in our case, the mystery of God; and not to want to go on this journey is a tragedy and a rejection of the Creator.

This was the experience of Moses as recalled many hundreds of years later by the Deuteronomic historians. (Deut 8:2-3.14-16). They have Moses talking about the experiences of God of the people of Israel; reminding them of his goodness to them during the Exodus, providing them with food and succour. But the writers realise that the manna, and the other material gifts from God, actually stand as a ‘language’, a means by which the Lord communicates with his people. “To make you understand that man does not live by bread alone but that man lives on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”  The Exodus journey was not simply a survival exercise, nor a team-bonding experience for Israel; it was a journey in which they discovered their relationship with God. Through their bodily, material appreciation of God’s goodness and salvation, they slowly began to understand their immaterial relationship with the God who is wholly other, outside his creation, and has a purpose for them.

When Paul wrote to the Christians of Corinth (1 Cor 10:16-17) he too was involved with this question of the meaning of language, words and actions, and what they signify. The context of this statement is part of his dealing with the question of their eating meat which had previously been sacrificed to the pagan gods, which was the way most meat came onto the market. At this time the Eucharist was always part of an ordinary meal so the problem of what was happening – what it all signified – was very important. When the newly converted Christians celebrated the Eucharist and ate and drank the body and blood of Jesus Christ, what did it mean for them also to eat meat previously part of a pagan sacrifice to the gods? Clearly in this context understanding what one was doing, what the words of the Mass, of the meaning of the bread and wine, was all about. It followed that entering into the sacrifice of Christ’s body, and being filled with his real presence, was quite incompatible with involvement with pagan sacrifices to the gods. Paul made the point that as the gods do not exist for Christians nothing significant occurred when one ate such meats. But, and this was the important thing, for many of the newly converted, who had previously believed these sacrifices vital to their lives, and that of society, it quite clearly meant a great deal. There was a strong possibility that they would understand belief in the Christian God as simply one more in the long list of new deities to the pagan pantheon rather than as the unique and only true understanding of God. They would in other words fail to understand the unique significance of Christ.  Paul’s solution was to avoid eating meat. The controversy illustrated vividly the significance of our understanding what we are doing, and how important it is to have some real appreciation of the mystery in which we are partaking at the Eucharist; that in it we are truly made one with Christ and the rest of the community and they with us, and that this is something which brooks no dilution or additions but demands our full commitment.

Our gospel (John 6:51-58) is part of John’s famous explanation of the meaning of the Eucharist, ‘The Bread of Life Sermon’. In it Jesus gives a startling and revolutionary explanation of his own body and his gift of it for the world: “Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life….lives in me and I live in him.” There is a starkness to his language which deliberately resists any ‘spiritualisation’ of what Jesus means. He will die, ripped to shreds for us in a human, physical body. At the Eucharist, it is this event we celebrate in all its raw materiality now made immaterial and divine for us by the power of the Spirit; the same Spirit by which God raised him from the dead. The language used here affirms this by its choice of the word sarx (in Greek) for flesh where the alternative, soma represents the more rounded and enigmatic sense of the human person. Instead, our text speaks of the messy materiality of Christ’s body, in which God the Son is wholly united to us and thereby raises us through our reception of him in our so fleshly bodies to life with Father, Son and Spirit.

In receiving the risen Christ into our bodies we share in his risen and eternal life both now, immediately, and in expectation of our risen life with him when we die. The feast of Corpus Christi is then both a celebration of what Christ has already achieved on the cross, and of his intention for each of us. It is as it were God’s autobiography, his story, written out in the words and actions of the Mass for the faithful to perform and affirm at every celebration. It is where we meet Jesus, our Saviour and Lord, and where we love and adore him, hope for the final fulfilment of his promises, and continually recommit ourselves to his life.

A Real Presence of God

HOMILY for CORPUS CHRISTI 2013

Well I am back from holiday, but please don’t ask me how it went, because I think the weather in South West France was even worse than here in England! The only worthwhile thing I did whilst huddling in a damp holiday cottage was to write a lot more of my Memoirs. Some of you will know that I have had a long journey from Agnostic to Liberal Anglican to Anglo-Catholic during which time I was a Church of England clergyman and until finally I became a Proper Catholic when I was almost 50 and re-trained and so was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1997.  Anyway, I thought I would share with you today, as we celebrate Corpus Christi,  that bit from these Memoirs where I first met and had to come to terms with Devotion to Jesus in and through the Blessed Sacrament.

It all happened in Reading in the early 1970’s.  St Giles-in-Reading was my first parish after I was ordained as an Anglican. It was a wonderful parish for me. It was steeped in the Anglo-Catholic tradition that seemed sometimes more Catholic than the Roman Catholics. The ceremonies with incense and bells were very elaborate, but the preaching set within it was always straightforward and biblical. I did have a few worries however – hangovers from my English Protestant past!  One of them was, as I have implied, the Service of Benediction, where the consecrated bread -the Body of Christ – is taken out of the tabernacle in the Church – the place where it is kept – and placed in a Monstrance so that it can be seen clearly and even carried around in Procession. I shared my concerns with the Vicar, as it seemed that we might be guilty of worshipping the bread rather than God.

My problem, of course, lay in a view that I had not fully shaken off from my liberal Anglican past, that God only works spiritually in our minds and in our hearts. I had to learn that, as with the power to heal, where God actually works through our own physical hands laid on the sick person, so with Holy Communion God chooses to become not just spiritually but also physically present in the bread and wine in a mysterious way beyond ordinary explanation.

The mistake some people make about what Catholics believe on this comes partly from the fact that the process by which this presence of God comes about has been given the name “transubstantiation”. The problem here is that the meaning of the word “substance” has changed. When it was first used in the 13th Century it meant the “inner reality” whereas now we mean by substance the outward and physical reality that we can touch and feel.   So we believe that the outward form remains the same and that it is the inner reality of the bread and wine that changes.                        

So we use the visual presence of God in the Sacrament of Holy Communion as a window through which we can not just more easily feel very close to God but actually be closer to God, and can give thanks and praise that in this wonderful way God has come close to us. So I gradually came to realise that this was the case, especially as I saw the way it helped many good Christians grow into a closer union with God. I realised that since we humans are so very much physical beings God has given us physical things through which he is present to us in this special focussed way. The greatest of these things we call not just a Sacament, but the  Blessed Sacrament – given to us by Jesus himself.  Jesus knew that just thinking about God in our own minds, in a spiritual way, was an extremely difficult thing for us to do. His disciples actually ask for the ability to see God, and are told “to see me is to have seen the Father”, but then, when he knows they will not see him any more, he takes the bread and wine and says in effect – This is me. See this and you will see me. We use water and olive oil as well, and pictures, candles, and all sorts of other outward and physical things in a similar way, and all of them point back to the fact that God chose to come to us himself as a physical being, the man Jesus Christ. But this outward sign – this holy sacrament – is the most important one of all, given to us by Jesus himself. It is the heart of what Christianity is and so it is right that we should look upon it and sing God’s praises, pray in silent adoration before it, and sometimes even process it around with great joy as God’s gift of himself to us.