Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s 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 saw 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 not to think of the teaching of St Augustine, bishop of Hippo in Northern Africa in the 4th century (who I was studying at the time), that as we eat the body of Christ in Holy Communion, we become the body of Christ in the world; or to remember that as he gave Holy Communion to his people, Augustine would actually say to them, “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 on our journey to heaven. He comes as Food to nourish and 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 seem to be very clear.

And we can turn to those generations of the early Church closest the apostles for an indication of how the Eucharistic language of the New Testament was understood in their day.

Writing between 80 AD and 110 AD, - that is, while the Apostle John is still alive - St Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, calls the bread of Holy Communion “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.”

A little later on - in 189 A.D. - St Iraneus of Lyons said: "If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?" (Against Heresies 4:33–32)

He also said: "He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?" (ibid., 5:2). "

The realism of this language is startling. It comes from a time when the good guys were defending the Gospel and the Faith, which is all about the coming of God into real human life and joining himself to it (and to the creation of which human life is part) in order to redeem, renew and transfigure it. And who were the bad guys? You guessed it . . . the SPIRITUALIZERS who couldn't conceive that the flesh could be saved. So - did these early Christian leaders expect to be taken "literally" in these matters? You bet!

Since the dying and rising of Jesus, his followers have gathered at the altar Sunday by Sunday (and where possible daily!) in order to receive him 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. Indeed - and this might astound you if you are new to these things - we have proclaimed for two thousand years that Holy Communion is to the Church’s relationship with the Lord Jesus, her heavenly Bridegroom, what the act of making love is to the relationship of a man and woman united in marriage. From Genesis to the Apocalypse the controlling image used of the covenant relationship between God and his people is marriage. That is so basic that if, like a range of feminist and other liberal theologians, you are offended by it and try to pull it like a thread from the Judaic-Christian revelation, the rest actually falls apart! Notice that in Ephesians 5 the nuptial union of Christ and his Bride is The Great Mystery from which the marriage of men and women to each other is derived.

The Eastern Orthodox writer Anthony M. Coniaris puts it like this: "The Eucharist is a personal encounter with the living Christ. This is where we meet him . . . The Eucharist has been called a nuptial encounter of the soul with her Lord, a marriage union between Christ and the soul. In the words of Cyril of Jerusalem: 'Christ has given to the children of the bridal chamber the enjoyment of his body and his blood.' Another ancient Christian writer, Theodoret, writes, 'In eating the elements of the Bridegroom and drinking his blood, we accomplish a marriage union.' The Eucharist, then becomes the marriage relationship through which the Bridegroom, Christ, espouses the Church as his Bride, thus transforming a human community into the Church of God."
(Introducing The Orthodox Church, p. 134)

But throughout the twentieth century a renewal of what has come to be called "nuptial mysticism" was taking place in the Western Church as well. So it is that in writing about Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body Christopher West, commenting on Ephesians 5 can say "Christ left his Father in heaven; he left the home of his mother on earth - to give up his body for his Bride, so that we might become 'one body' with him." West goes on to describe the Eucharist as "the consummation of a mystical marriage. It is a physical sign that effects the profound spiritual mystery it symbolizes." Theology of the Body Explained, page 18.


By the 13th century, 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.” This is a very Christian instinct, born out of the great love the people had for the Heavenly Bridegroom. The bishops recognised this to be a real move of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, and so they encouraged both the elevation of the Host in the Mass and the 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 promoted Thomas’ compositions to the whole Church, and instituted today's feast of Corpus Christi.

St Thomas Aquinas' hymns and devotions to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament have stood the test of time, both in Latin and in every language spoken by Christian people. They are still used today - in fact, portions of them are sung weekly in parishes like ours where Benediction occurs each Sunday:

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.


One of the more eccentric and colourful characters of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England was Father Sandys Wason (1867-1950). A number of his poems have been included in his biography, Mr Wason . . . I Think, by Roy Tickner. Here is the one he wrote for today's Feast:

Corpus Domini

At every doorway of the rose-hung street,
On the stone stair-heads, in the angled shade,
Peasants in old-time festival brocade
Took refuge from the unrelenting heat;
These, all by some Mystery made one
With those who dozed or whispered, kissed or played
As silver trumpets rang through the arcade,
Leaned to the far-off sound like wind-blown wheat.

A dark-haired boy, sandalled and naked save
A shift of camel's hair, came first as John
The Baptist: in his wake a yearling lamb,
A crucifix, blest incense; next, a score
Of sunburnt singing-boys in lawn and black
Swept gaily on before a company
Of girls in long lace bridal veils and wreaths
Of oleander, telling rosaries,
But none so fervid that she failed to screen
The lighted taper in her small brown hand
Lest any love-lorn breeze mistake and woo
Its flame for some gold flower.

A group of children who from ribboned frails
Unendingly were flinging to the Host
Flowers of genista, poppy, myrtle, bay;
At last, as from a mist of frankincense
And candle-light and waving cypress boughs,
A priest in silver vestments flowered with gold
To which, as by a spell, his eyes were held;
He gazed, as if these transitory things
Were with the earth, all they had been before
They were created; as if our life were but
A greying garland doomed to pass away.

To him, within the pale orb of the Host,
All he had ever dreaded or desired,
Truth, wisdom, power, peace and righteousness,
As in a crystal mirror, stood revealed,
And so, adoring his uplifted God,
Wonder, profoundest wonder filled his soul.

This Host he held before him was, he knew,
But one of thousands he, with Christ's last words,
Had blessed and raised to God at break of dawn;
As known to him, as dearly natural
As his young olive trees, his violin,
The cedar press where lay the folded alb
He would at death be clothed in, the pale crown
Of 'everlastings' on his mother's grave.

This Host was close to these persisting things.
In this, then, dwelt the marvel; here abode
The Lord who made the beauty of the world,
The sun, the moon, and all the stars that be,
The solace and the menace of the sea.

Came holding, shaded by a baldaquin
Of white and silver tissue, thin with age,
A golden monstrance like an outspread fan.


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