GSC – Corpus Christi 2019
To be honest, when I first sat down to think about this sermon I got myself into a bit of a tizzy. I think ‘tizzy’ is the right word really. Not a full-blown panic attack or a crisis of faith, but a certain slight anxiety did begin to creep into me. This is largely because the feast of Corpus Christi is not one that is familiar to me from my own Christian background, having grown up in a church which I had always thought of as quite ‘high up the candle’; until I came to St. Mary’s and the Good Shepherd! So it is not something that I’d ever really been aware of, and thus I had to do a little bit of reading to get my head round it all, which has been, as regards my theological foundation, no bad thing at all. In fact, the first place I started was my Catholic catechism, given to me by Fr Morris. I remembered that he’d written inside it, ‘May you find here all you need to know!’, and I thought to myself, “Well, here’s the first test!”I’d like to share with you a little of what I found out, and also perhaps, if you will indulge me, a little of my own perspective on the feast of Corpus Christi, and why it might be important. Not because I am an authority on these things or because I know better than anyone else, but simply because I know that on my own journey of faith it has been invaluable to me to hear the testimony of other Christians, as well as their stories, and their insights into theological issues, which very often unlocked something for me inside an issue which I had been banging my head against for months or even years, metaphorically speaking of course, without ever getting anywhere near a resolution, let alone truth.
The first thing I realised, was just how contentious an issue this feast has been for Christians in the past, and doubtless continues to be even today for some parties that feel particularly strongly on either side. Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer, said about Corpus Christi;
“I am to no festival more hostile than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival.”
Now, I never met Martin Luther, but I have it on good authority that he wasn’t one to mince his words – perhaps the only thing he might have had in common with our own dear Father Beer here! But what was it about this festival that he saw as simply ‘vain idolatry’? What, after all, are we celebrating today? Well, essentially we are celebrating the Mass. Not celebrating the Mass in the same way that we do every day here in our parish, but actually commemorating the Mass itself as a wonderful gift from God. Taking some time to say thank you for the gift of the eucharist, to fully appreciate its mysteries, to study this action that we perform when we partake of Christ’s body and blood at the altar of our Lord, and to inquire what it is we are participating in when we participate in the Mass.
Although Jesus really gave us the gift of his body and blood on Maundy Thursday, and commanded us to do the same, it was thought by the church that so many other things of significance happened on Maundy Thursday that it was right that there should be a separate day of remembrance for the gift of Christ’s body and blood, which has come to be, after all the focal point and spiritual climax if you like, of all our worship;“The perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the words of Thomas Aquinas. A beautiful sentiment, and one which it would be hard to disagree with, or see as particularly offensive; because what the Mass is about is thanksgiving, memorial, and presence.
It is this last word, ‘presence’ that really got old Martin Luther’s goat. That is because for Catholics the eucharist is not simply a reminder of what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross, or a grateful acknowledgment of this, although it is also both of these things, but a means by which Jesus himself becomes physically present with us. Catholics believe that after the bread and wine are consecrated by the Priest, they take on the literal form of Jesus’ body and blood. Our Saviour did not merely offer His body on the cross in expiation for our sins, and then have done with it, but in fact He offers himself to us every time we take communion. No one pretends to know how exactly this change in substance from bread and wine to body and blood takes place; it is one of the central mysteries of the Catholic faith. Apparently, this was just one miracle too far for old Martin.
Another miracle which I myself do not even pretend to understand on an intellectual level, although my heart seems to understand and identify with it on a much deeper level than the level of mind, is the fact of Jesus being both completely human, and completely divine. I believe that this dual-nature, somehow harmoniously balanced in Christ, is perfectly evidenced in our Gospel story today of the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus shows a very human concern and compassion for these people. He is not a distant deity, either literally or metaphorically, such as the gods were for the Greeks or the Romans, looking down from the clouds at these pathetic mortals with their human desires and weaknesses which they do not share and for which they can feel nothing but a kind of vague contempt or at best a detached sense of pity, instead ours is a God who truly walks the walk. Jesus understands the hunger of the crowd because he himself feels this same hunger.
I love the practicality of this miracle; people are hungry, Jesus provides food. It is not flashy or flamboyant, but compassionate in a very human way. The breaking of bread with others is so often, in so many different times and places, seen to be the ultimate gesture of hospitality and community. The sustenance which Jesus offers to us today is not of this same nature, but has a far greater significance. The food which He will give us today when we kneel before the altar, will have undergone that mystical transformation, and will become for us the body and blood of Christ. The generosity of God, in the person of His son, knows no bounds, and transcends form and time, to be with us here, in this place, literally present with us.
As Christians it can sometimes seem as if we are asked to believe so many things, some of which may seem impossible to our intellects. The mystery of the incarnation, of God coming to earth and living among us both human and divine, is not a mystery which I have ever had particular trouble digesting – if you’ll pardon a very clumsy pun indeed. It seemed to make perfect sense to me, on that heart level which I mentioned earlier. Jesus is a man, and so He understands physical hunger, and yet He is a God, so He can make food multiply. I suppose what helped me to understand it was love. I knew that I felt love for people, and I felt that God was love, and so therefore Jesus was too, and that if He could help the people that He loved then He would, and He would use all His power as God to make that possible. It was a simple formula of love, for my childish heart: Need + God = Satisfaction
I wish sometimes that I could still access that childish acceptance which I once had, and switch off my overly critical, analytical brain. Sometimes, in moments of quiet and stillness, I find that simple, innocent understanding is still with me, still lurking deep inside. Jesus himself often sought out the company of children, and even says that we must become like little children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I think perhaps what He means is that we must find again that wonderfully innocent way of understanding which does not allow the mind to confuse and confound us into cul-de-sacs of fruitless questioning, but simply knows that something is true, in the very core of our being. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, tells a wonderful story of a Corpus Christi procession in Orvieto in Italy. He says that as He was processing along with the monstrance, he turned a corner and a little boy was there, sitting on his father’s shoulders. As Cardinal Dolan passed the man pointed to the monstrance and said to his child, “There is Jesus.” The cardinal says that this pure, and uncomplicated moment of explanation and comprehension, brought tears to his eyes. I hope that we can all, here in this place, find again the unadulterated joy and love of children, and that this child-like (not childish, a crucial distinction) place within us may resound with the words, “Here is Jesus.”