Monday, June 3, 2013

Corpus Christi - the SOMEWHERE of his Presence

Liturgical calendars being what they are today, some readers would have kept Corpus Christi last Thursday, and other yesterday. What a wonderful solemnity! Go HERE, HERE, and HERE for previous Corpus Christi posts. Today, I share with you a sermon I preached in 2001 at St Mary of the Angels, Hollywood, CA., USA


I can remember how as a typical Aussie schoolboy I would join with those who started small fires in the school playground by concentrating the sun’s rays with a magnifying glass onto my brown paper lunch bag. The sun was everywhere; it lit up as far as we could see; it gave us warmth on cold winter days; and yet it was possible to focus the light and energy of the sun very powerfully on one particular spot SOMEWHERE to great effect. 


I heard of a woman who spoke of her painstaking journey from aggressive atheism to the fulness of the Catholic Faith. She looked into many non-Christian and Christian religions. Then, having come to think it more logical to believe in God than not to, she asked an evangelical pastor to help her find God. The best he could do was to say that ‘God is everywhere.’ The poor man thought he was being helpful! But what he said just made the woman angry. She said it was no use telling her that God was everywhere; she wanted to find him SOMEWHERE. 

Eventually she discovered Catholic Christianity - the kind that goes right back to Jesus and the apostles - with its Eucharistic worship and its proclamation that under the appearances of bread and wine, the God of glory lies hidden, to be worshipped and adored and lovingly received in Holy Communion. She found the Blessed Sacrament of the altar to be the SOMEWHERE of God’s encounter with us.


Back in the 1970’s, the Roman Catholic Chaplain to Newcastle University in Australia, who had a deep interest in comparative religion, told me about the months he spent in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery exploring the common ground between Christian and Buddhist spirituality. Being a priest, he asked to have a small room in which to reserve the Blessed Sacrament, say the Divine Office, and celebrate his daily Mass. Early one morning, a senior monk sat on the floor just inside the doorway, and stayed there motionless while my friend said Mass. When it was over, the monk asked him how often Christians went through this particular ceremony. He was stunned when my friend said . . . ‘every day!’ The monk replied that he would not be able to cope with experiencing such spiritual intensity so often . . . that it was as if all that there was and all that there ever will be had converged and become focused at that point in time and space. What a wonderful testimony to the mystery and power of our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist!

I know there are people all around us who can accept that God is EVERYWHERE, but who cannot conceive of encountering him SOMEWHERE. Even some Christians think it is blasphemous to talk of the SOMEWHERE of his presence. We have a name for this. We call it the ‘scandal of particularity.’ Some Christians today even speak about the particularity of the Incarnation itself in hushed tones so as not to be ridiculed. ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’ in whose tradition to become incarnate, taking to himself human flesh in a particular time, in a particular place, in a particular culture, born of a particular teenage Virgin. How incomprehensible that this God who is EVERYWHERE would come into our world SOMEWHERE IN PARTICULAR without destroying the EVERYWHERE of his presence.


Come with me to the upper room. To the last supper Jesus ate with his disciples, those who were to be the nucleus of his new humanity. To the occasion of his creating what would be the SOMEWHERE of his presence for those who love him from then until the end of time. In the beautiful words of the Italian mystic Luigi Santucci:

“At this point I see his eyes wandering around over the remains of the bread on the table-cloth, and then shining with an ineffable inspiration: this, this would be his hiding place. That’s where he would take refuge. That night they wouldn’t capture him in his entirety; they’d think they’d done so, they’d think they’d dragged him away from his companions, yet really they would scourge and crucify a ghost: he had hidden himself in that bread. Rather as in Galilee, when they wanted to seize him and kill him or make him king, he had the knack of hiding himself and disappearing from sight. So he stretched out his hand over the already broken bread, broke it into smaller bits and, raising it in the air, pronounced the words of the magic transition: ‘This is my body, it’s been given for you.’

“ . . . no, it wasn’t to escape the lance-thrusts. All his flesh - not a ghost - was there for the executioners to tear at within a few hours. But the hiding place was still valid, and by inventing it in that instant he really did leave to his followers a Christ that no-one could ferret out and wrench from their hands. Let them eat him. Let their breast become the hiding-place of a hiding-place. A little earlier Jesus had washed their feet, he’d besmirched himself with the muddiest part of their physical being. Now he wanted to do more: he wanted to go down their throats, mix himself with their mucous membranes to the point of transforming himself, and gradually melt into all the fibres of their body.

“The primary significance of the Eucharist isn’t mystical but physical, almost a clinging to the material being of his friends who would stay on and live. He said ‘This is my body’ with a tenderness that first and foremost exalted it itself. Not ‘This is my spirit’ or ‘This is generalised goodness or well-being’ - possibly they wouldn’t have known what to do with such things. It was necessary to them that he should remain with the only thing we really know and attach our hearts and memories to - the body; and that it should be a desirable, acceptable and homely body. That’s why he looked over that table-cloth for the easiest, most familiar and most concrete thing: bread. So as to quench hunger and give pleasure. Above all so as to stay. That evening Christ measured out for us all the millions of evenings before we’d see him face to face; he measured out the long separation. He knew that men forget things within a few days, that distance destroys things, that it’s useless for lovers to insert a lock of hair in letters that are going far across land and sea. If Peter himself, and John and Andrew and James would forget, then in order that their children and their grandchildren shouldn’t forget he had to throw between himself and me that never-ending bridge of bread . . .” (Luigi Santucci, Wrestling With Christ, p.155-157).

Isn’t that beautiful!


The Mass is the centre of the Church’s life, because it is the SOMEWHERE of our encounter with the risen Jesus who, indeed, is EVERYWHERE, filling all things in heaven and earth with his presence and his love. In the Mass we are bound to one another by Jesus. We become part of his offering to the Father, and our union with him and with one another is deepened. Indeed, in a passage that fits nicely with the words I quoted from Santucci, Father William Johnston can say:

“As one assimilates the Eucharist, one is filled with the most tremendous energy - for . . . this is the bread of life (It) is medicinal, healing, leading to integration of the personality, pointing beyond the state of integrity to the resurrection, which is the state of glory.

“. . . the Eucharist is a cosmic symbol. Through reception of this sacrament we are united not only with the individual Jesus but with the whole Christ. We are united with those who have gone before us, with those in the state of purification, with the poor, and the sick and the oppressed; for all are his members. Indeed, we are united with the whole human family each of whom is related to the risen Lord in a way that surpasses human understanding.” 

(William Johnston, The Wounded Stag, p. 111)


So far, so good. Most Christians, and nearly all Anglicans would agree with what has been said. But every now and then someone calls into question the little service we know as ‘Benediction’, usually held at the end of Evensong, when we pour out our love, our worship, and our adoration to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. 

Mostly we come in joy, but sometimes in fear and trembling, perhaps aware of our sins, perhaps apprehensive about our future; and sometimes we come in sorrow, But we do come. We kneel, we gaze, we wonder, we adore, we love him. We allow the glory of the sacred presence of Jesus to shine upon us. We are warmed as the Sun of Righteousness is lifted up above us, for he is risen with healing in his wings. 

Is this right? Well, all I can say is that this little service answers to a really deep need, an instinct, that many of us feel in our hearts. In fact, to allay the fears of people from other traditions, Dr David Hope, when he was Archbishop of York, said that the only Christians who could possibly object to Benediction are those who definitely do not believe that the presence of Jesus is in any way connected with the bread of the Eucharist.

Or put a different way, wherever Jesus is, there he is to be worshipped and adored.

Now the Mass itself is properly an ACTIVITY of the people united with Jesus our great High Priest, in which we receive him in Holy Communion. The Mass has its own ancient structure, shape and dynamic, and to introduce protracted adoration of the Blessed Sacrament into it could well destroy the careful balance of the action and drama of the liturgy. 


But as far back as the thirteenth century, lay people in the West began to express their desire to gaze on the sacramental presence of Jesus with faith, love and devotion. They wanted to fix their eyes on the Eucharistic body of the risen Jesus, and exclaim with S. Thomas ‘My Lord and my God’. 

Fortunately, the bishops recognised this to be a real movement of the Holy Spirit among the people of God, and encouraged both the elevation of the Blessed Sacrament in the Mass and extended devotions that evolved into Benediction as we know it today. My brothers and sisters, I want to affirm the rightness of that development, that movement of the Holy Spirit, that outpouring of love to Jesus, in the face of so much shrunken thinking about Jesus and the Sacraments in the Church of our time.

Coming to Benediction to honour the Sacramental presence of Jesus, to gaze on the Sacred Host in wonder, love and praise, is to open ourselves to the healing and renewal that flows from him. It is also, when you think about it, one way of treating him as if he really is God. We kneel before him adoringly, there in the divinely appointed SOMEWHERE of his sacred presence. This kind of Catholic worship is one way of being made whole in our crazy world which has done its best to eradicate any sense of reverence, transcendence, awe and mystery.

And what we do in Benediction IS scriptural! We have always known that through the action of the Mass we participate in the worship of heaven. If we want to see what the heavenly worship is like, we turn to the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of S. John the Divine. There are two main pictures there. The first is the “marriage supper of the Lamb” . . . eating and drinking - banqueting - in the Kingdom, with Jesus (the heavenly Bridegroom) and with our brothers and sisters (the Church, which is his Bride). Since the earliest days of the Church we have known that in the Mass we participate even now in that eternal mystery. We don’t ‘imitate’ it. We are swept up into it! But the other theme, the other side of the coin, is that the heavenly worship DOES include the kind of thing we do in Benediction. For we read:

‘ . . . I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne, and the living creatures and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands; saying with a loud voice, Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory and blessing. And every created thing which is in the heaven, and on the earth and under the earth, and on the sea, and all things that are in them, I heard saying, Blessing, honour, glory and power be to him who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever. And the four living creatures said, Amen. And the elders fell down and worshipped him who lives for ever and ever’ (Revelation 5:11-14).


In preparing us all for prayer my final reading is a well-known passage from Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows, in its own way expressing so beautifully our instinct for worship, and the wonder of the encounter that takes place. It’s when Rat and Mole are rowing down the river and hear the sound of strange music. They follow the music to a place of ‘solemn stillness.’ Suddenly:

‘Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror - indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy - but it was an awe that smote and held him, and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very very near. He raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness and incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper . . . “Rat!” He found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?” “Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! of Him O, never never! And yet and yet - O Mole, I am afraid!” Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.’  

+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Alice C. Linsley said...

The Eastern Orthodox show such veneration each Sunday. During weekday services they prostrate themselves as the consecrated elements pass in procession.

On a different topic. Did you see this?

Post a Comment