Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Corpus Christi 2011
23 June 2011 at 17:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
For the Church of England, today’s festival of Corpus Christi is a modern innovation. In the calendar of the Church of England since 1980, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday may be celebrated as a Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion. The festival of Corpus Christi in the whole of the Western Church is also - comparatively - of recent origin. It became a universal feast in the Roman Catholic Church only in the 13th century. One of the great 13th century theologians St Thomas Aquinas, known as the angelic doctor, wrote the texts for the feast. One of his texts we shall hear sung this afternoon while the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar.
Corpus Christi is simply the Latin for the Body of Christ. Today we celebrate the gift of God to the Church of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Here God feeds us with the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and doing so incorporates us into the Church, which is the Body of Christ. As part of the Body of Christ, we become part of the very life of God himself. This is a wonderful and sacred mystery and is at the heart of our life as Christians. In celebrating the Holy Eucharist, we are being obedient to our Lord Jesus Christ, who said the night before he died, as he took, blessed, broke and gave the bread and took, blessed and gave the cup of wine, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
The late origin of the feast in the 13th century, around the time this current abbey church was built, does not mean that the celebration of the Eucharist was only then becoming of importance. From the very beginning of the Church, the regular and frequent celebration of the Eucharist was central to the life of the Church. We see it in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the four marks of the Early Church. The group of followers of Jesus after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ [Acts 2: 42] ‘The breaking of bread’ is a clear reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. We see too in St Paul’s instruction to the Christians in Corinth the moment when this celebration began to take on a life of its own as a devotional act. ‘When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?’ [I Corinthians 11: 20 – 22] Thereafter, the celebration of the Eucharist became separate from the community meal.
The importance of the celebration of the Eucharist from the earliest days and its centrality to the life of the Church can be seen in two of the accusations that were levelled by their persecutors at Christians when they were a little known and somewhat secret society. They were accused of incest and of cannibalism. It is easy to see where the charge of incest originated. Christians were told by St John and others to ‘love their brothers’. The charge of cannibalism could only have been sustained if it had become known that one of the strange and terrible things these Christians did was to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. The gospels are clear that our Lord Jesus Christ was explicit in his instruction to that effect. As we heard Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.’ [John 6: 53 – 57]
So, even in times of persecution, when Christians from all backgrounds, slaves and free, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, would assemble in the largest room in the house of one of the wealthier members of the Church, Sunday by Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist together, the Church has known the centrality and importance of this act in which we participate tonight. In the early days Christians would generally take home enough of the consecrated species to allow them to receive Holy Communion at home each day until they could come together again the following Sunday. ‘Do this as often’,’ said the Lord, as often as you eat and drink. Perhaps even the discovery of a fragment of the consecrated bread by a magistrate on the person of a Christian would be enough to condemn him to death. Fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, they defied death.
From the later Middle Ages, the Church went through a period when Holy Communion became less frequent. Fear of eating and drinking the Body and Blood of the Lord unworthily led people to approach the sacrament less frequently, even perhaps only once a year during Eastertide, whilst still attending a weekly celebration of the Mass. The earliest Church of England prayer books after the Reformation insisted on reception of Holy Communion three times a year, of which Easter should be one. That remains the minimum obligation on those confirmed in the Church of England - though now frequent Holy Communion has become the norm in the Church. During the days of infrequent Communion, there was no less devotion to the presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, perhaps even more so. A graphic illustration of the reality of that presence can be seen in a 14th century illustration from a prayer book on the cover of the order of service this afternoon. The blood of the crucified Lord Jesus pours straight from the wound in his side into the bread, the elevated host, and into the chalice. When most of the faithful did not receive Holy Communion, the moment of elevation of the host and the chalice became particularly important. Priests were expected to hold the host high so that all could see. With heavy vestments this could be difficult, so most chasubles were cut back so that their weight was no longer on the priest’s arms. It was not unknown for the faithful to cry out, ‘Heave it higher, sir priest.’
For us, for whom the reception of Holy Communion is weekly or more frequent, the risk is of over-familiarity with the Eucharist. We tend to take for granted the wonderful gift we receive. Too easily we ignore the reality of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. We become careless as we approach him who gives us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. We fail to recognise in the bread and wine the body and blood our Lord gave on the Cross for the life of the world. We must always guard against this complacency. The Holy Eucharist is a family meal, in which the Christian family is fed. But the host is our Lord and the food is his life. Without this wonderful gift, we know we cannot live truly as part of his Body; the task would be too hard. But we must never become casual in 0ur devotion to our loving Lord, as we prepare to meet him, hidden humbly under the forms of bread and wine.
The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins translated into English one of St Thomas’s famous Corpus Christi hymns:
Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with Thy glory's sight. Amen.