Newly consecrated Bishop of Ebbsfleet, the Rt Rev'd Jonathan Baker,
gives Benediction at St Alban's Holborn last Thursday afternoon.
The devotions were led by newly consecrated Bishop of Richborough,
the Rt Rev'd Norman Banks.
Back in the late 1960's and early 1970's there was a huge sign painted on the side of a building facing the railway line near Redfern Station in inner Sydney. Tens of thousands gazed upon it daily on their way to work. I read it almost every day for my first two years at University. I cannot remember the product being advertised, but the sign said: "WHAT YOU EAT AND DRINK TODAY WALKS AND TALKS TOMORROW."
It was difficult for a certain passenger or two not to be reminded of St Augustine's teaching in the 4th century, that as we eat the body of Christ in Holy Communion, we become the body of Christ in the world. We even discussed our mental picture of St Augustine giving Holy Communion to his people as he said "Eat what you are, and become what you eat"!
Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi, a special day when we thank God for the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He comes to us supernaturally as food so as to share his life with us, to deepen our union with him and with one another, to strengthen us for our lives here in this world, and to sustain us for our journey to heaven. He comes as Food to transform us.
"But it's just symbolic" is what some Christians say.
Well, the words of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 11, in the Gospel narratives of the institution of the Eucharist, and in John 6 where he calls himself the "Bread of Life" after feeding the 5,000 are very clear.
And we can turn to the early Church just after the generation of the apostles. In fact, writing between 80 AD and 110 AD, - that is, most likely while the Apostle John is still alive - St Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, calls the Blessed Sacrament "the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his graciousness, raised from the dead."
St Justin Martyr says the same kind of thing a little later on - around 150 AD: "We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Saviour became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the eucharistic prayer."
For two thousand years, the followers of Jesus have gathered at the altar Sunday by Sunday (and some far more often than that) in order to give him the worship and praise that is his due, and to receive him in the Blessed Sacrament, in what is the most precious, sacred, awesome, life-giving encounter possible this side of heaven.
Holy Communion is a powerful sacrament of divine love.
By the 13th century in accordance with the principle, "wherever Jesus is, there he is to be adored", the laity in the west began to express their desire to fix their eyes on the Eucharistic body of the risen Jesus, and exclaim in faith and devotion with the apostle Thomas "My Lord and my God." The bishops recognised this to be a real move of the Holy Spirit, and they encouraged both the elevation of the Host in the Mass and the prayers and devotions that evolved into Benediction as we know it today.
In 1263, prompted by a eucharistic miracle at Bolensa, Italy, in which, during the consecration at Mass real blood seeped from the Host over the hands of the priest and onto the corporal, Pope Urban IV commissioned the well-known theologian Thomas Aquinas to compose special liturgical prayers and hymns in honour of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
One year after the miracle, in August of 1264, Urban introduced Thomas' compositions to the whole Church, and instituted today’s feast of Corpus Christi.
So anointed by the Holy Spirit was Thomas Aquinas that the hymns he composed have stood the test of time. They are still used today. Two of them are sung weekly in those parishes where Benediction routinely follows Sunday Evensong:
Therefore we, before him bending,
This great Sacrament revere;
Types and shadows have their ending,
For the newer rite is here;
Faith, our outward sense befriending,
Makes the inward vision clear.
Glory let us give and blessing
To the Father and the Son;
Honour, might and praise addressing
While eternal ages run;
Ever too his love confessing
Who from both with both is one.
Here is another Benediction hymn - this time from the 1970's – which I have used in my parishes:
Jesus, reigning high in heaven's glory,
Yet truly present on your altar-throne;
Bread of angels, Sacrament most holy,
Living among your people, Risen One.
Holy, holy, holy Lord almighty,
Angels and saints in heaven sing your praise;
Holy Jesus, Sacrament most holy,
Our voices blend with theirs through endless days.
Worship, honour, glory, praise and blessing
We give to you, our Saviour and our Lord;
Alleluia! Sacrament most holy,
Jesus among your people be adored.
Today at Mass, in the spirit of those words, we come to Jesus in repentance and faith, and also in love, joy, reverence and expectancy, knowing that he wants to bless us with his love.