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Sermon for Corpus Christi

May 30, 2015

Corpus ChristiYour body is a temple of the Holy Spirit – Words of St. Paul to the Corinthians.

An Italian couple was getting married. They had an arrangement with the parish priest to have a little reception in the parish courtyard outside the church. But it rained, so they said to the priest, ‘Would it be all right if we had the celebration in the church?’

Now Father wasn’t at all happy about having a reception in the church, but they said ‘We will eat a little cake, sing a little song, drink a little wine and then go home.’

So Father was persuaded. But being good life‑loving Italians they drank a little wine, sang a little song, then drank a little more wine, and sang more songs, and within half an hour there was a great celebration going on in the church. And everybody was having a great time.

But Father was all tense, pacing up and down in the vestry, upset about the noise they were making. The curate came in and said, ‘I see you’re quite tense.’

‘Of course I’m tense.

Listen to the noise they are making, and in the House of God, for heaven’s sake!’

‘Well, Father, they really had no place to go.

‘I know that! But do they have to make all that racket?’

‘Well, we mustn’t forget, must we, Father, that Jesus himself was once present at a wedding!’

Father said, ‘YOU don’t have to tell me Jesus Christ was present at a wedding banquet! But they didn’t have the Blessed Sacrament there!!!’ (Anthony de Mello, Awareness, Fount, 1990)

It’s easy to make a fetish out of the reserved sacrament. Yet the feeling of Christ’s real presence in the sacrament is very powerful. In the film ‘ The Mission’, Jeremy Irons holds up the monstrance with the consecrated host. As the Portugese fire at his mission station. It stalls them – for a while.

To see Christ present in a tabernacle is very convenient. Because we can go about our daily business in the world. And pretend he is not there, he’s locked up in church, the prisoner of the tabernacle. I remain very disturbed at my reaction to a scene in the film Romero. The army took over a church and made it their barracks. Archbishop Romero walks in to find soldiers smoking and playing cards. He genuflects and goes up to the altar to remove the reserved sacrament. As he does so, a soldier opens fire just above his head. The tabernacle explodes, wafers shower to the ground. Romero begins picking them up as the soldier kicks him.

I was outraged by the desecration of the sacrament. But strangely unmoved at the desecration of human beings throughout the film. I feel I had a faulty theology of the eucharist

John Betjeman’s reverence for the eucharist was more earthed. He had a sense of the vital human connection with the past and specific place in the long title of his poem ‘St Saviour’s, Aberdeen Park, Highbury, London, N5’ He speaks of the journey there:

With oh such peculiar branching and over‑reaching of wire
~Trolley‑bus standards pick their threads from the London sky

He describes the neighbourhood as it was when his parents lived there and as it was at the time of writing, not long after the end of World War Il. The centre of it is the parish church and its centre the reserved sacrament. In the language of Anglo‑Catholic piety, Betjeman describes the paradox that unifies it all for him:

Wonder beyond Time’s wonders, that Bread so white and small
Veiled in golden curtains, too mighty for men to see,
is the Power that sends the shadows up this polychrome wall,
Is God who created the present, the chain‑smoking millions and me;
Beyond the throb of the engines is the throbbing heart of all
Christ, at this Highbury altar, I offer myself to Thee.

This is no piety that takes one away from the world. The very point is to be immersed in it not just in some isolated present, but in a whole succession of moments in the life of the world: the moving shadows, the chain‑smoking millions, and all. To be connected to God is to be connected to the universe through its throbbing heart.

Corpus Christi became a universal festival in 1264. It began as eucharistic devotion of the Beguines, a sisterhood in Liege, as a response to the teaching of the Cathar heresy which despised material things like the human body and the belief that Christ was present in bread. Juliana of Mont-Carnillon had a vision of the church as a moon with a dark spot. The dark spot being the absence of a festival of the Lord’s body.

In those days you had to make your confession before every reception of Holy Communion. So reception declined to a mere three times a year. And then the chalice was withheld from the laity. The mass was the business of priests. Corpus Christi did not originate with the clerics. It came from the consumers. But devotion to the eucharist goes back much further. Denys of Alexandria reserved the sacrament in the year 250. Canon 13 of the 4th Century Council of Nicea orders: ‘Concerning the dying, let the ancient and canonical rule still be kept, that none be deprived at the hour of death of the most necessary viaticum.’

Since the Church of England accepts the ancient councils of the church, it follows that the sacrament should be reserved in every parish church, not just those with a catholic bent. The first known occasion when the sacrament was reserved at the main altar, rather than a side altar or vestry was in England Lindisfarne in the year 800. A century before it became common in the rest of Europe.

It is easy to write all this off as a fetish. It is one thing to believe in Christ’s presence in the reception of Holy Communion but another to revere the consecrated bread out of context. Thomas Aquinas wrote a collect for this day . It focused on the memorial of Christ’s death and its power to promote the church’s unity, of re-membering – building up unity and peace in a divided and troubled world

So real devotion to the sacrament should foster a desire for unity, or the church, for humankind. Real devotion to the sacrament should lead to political action to bring about equality. Charles de Foucauld spent hours in prayer before the sacrament but then spent hours serving the poor.

St John Chrysostom makes a close connection between the presence of Jesus in the sacrament and his presence in the poor and despised, he speaks of ‘the sacrament of the brother’. In his Homily 50 on St Matthew’s Gospel he says: What is the use of loading Christ’s table with vessels of gold if he himself is dying of hunger? First, satisfy his hunger, then adorn the table with what remains. Tell me, if you saw a man in need of even the most necessary food, and if you should leave him standing there in order to set the table with dishes of gold, would he be thankful to you? Would he not rather be angry? … But consider well that this is the way you treat Christ when he goes about as a pilgrim, a homeless vagabond, and when instead of taking him in, you embellish the floors and walls and capitals of columns and suspend lamps from silver chains, but refuse even to visit him when he is in chains. I am not saying this to criticise the use of such ornaments. We must attend to both, but to Christ first.

The poor man, says Chrysostom, is a bigger temple than the temple made with hands. ‘This altar you can see elevated everywhere in the streets and you can sacrifice upon it at all times.’

Clement of Alexandria quoted an alleged saying of Jesus, ‘You have seen your brother, you have seen your God.’

Sydney Carter took up that theme, in his song ‘Jesus and Mary’: ‘The poor of the world are my body’. It is not possible to worship Jesus in the sacrament and to ignore him in the suffering bodies of his children, or rather it is possible, and it is a blasphemy.

Worship is a paradigm for social action. The life of the church should have a eucharistic pattern. We offer materials – bread and wine, human potential. We proclaim brokenness, of ego, of selfish greed. We invoke the Spirit, invite transcendence in a world which encourages people to think they are OK as they are. We share holy communion in an unsharing world where the richest 15% uses up all the technology to indulge in a selfish lifestyle which ravishes the planet. We reserve the leftovers in a world which throws bread away. In a world where from the rich man’s table fall, not crumbs but toxic waste. Seen like that, the eucharist is a social and subversive act, A sacrament of equality in an unequal world. We share the Eucharist in order to be able to share the world. God feeds us so that we can help to recreate the world.

The vision of a recreated, transformed world lies behind‑and beyond‑the sometimes elaborate ritual which has come to surround the celebration of the mass . Conrad Noel of Thaxted expressed the purpose and point of ritual and ceremonial in church services. He wrote: All that appeals to our bodily senses that we use in our worship … incense, vestments and lights and music and flowers, is used as an outward sign that God has redeemed the body and its appetites and that God must be worshipped by the body and its appetites. If the body is the temple of God’s Holy Ghost, then those who defraud men’s bodies of proper nourishment and proper shelter and proper rest are robbing temples, and that is the sin of sacrilege. It is bad to break into a church and steal the crucifix from God’s altar. It is worse to underpay God’s poor.

Noel immediately passed from ritual and ceremonial to justice, as did the prophets. His central point is that ceremonial represents the offering of the body to God. Through ceremony and rite all the senses are being used. The Cathars were wrong. We are not pure spirits so if our worship is ‘purely spiritual’ it is incomplete because only a part of us is being offered.

God so loved the world. All of it. The eucharistic principle lies, not just at the heart of the church, not just of social action but of the entire planet.

Everything in the universe eats and gets eaten in some form or other. The supernova explosion 5 ½ billion years ago gave birth to the elements which make up our bodies. An explosive and generous death. A breaking and a feeding. For St. Ambrose, the bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Christ enable us to be transformed into Christ’s body in the world that we may be agents transforming the world into the Kingdom of God

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Poet W. F. Stead describes Corpus Christi in Festival in Tuscanny:

And down the lane a bellman came
Ringing a warning bell
Then pipes were out and heads were bared,
A grave silence fell. . .

Black‑gowned the wives and Mothers walked
Stark‑faced and harrow‑lined.
Under a darkly kerchief brow
Their eyes were wise and kind.

Behind them sons and fathers came
With heavy steps they trod;
Earth-stained and dumb with candles lit
And after them came God

Christ on the Cross! thorns on His brow!
The spear‑wound in His side;
He poured His life into their lives
When He was crucified.

The Priest came bearing the sacred Host
Wherein Christ lives again:
We were but heathen, yet we kneeled
While God went down the lane.

See also

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