Corpus Christi 2008
22 May 2008 at :00 am
Genesis 14: 18-20; I Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 6: 51-58
We gather to worship today in a building that has benefited from the work of many centuries. It is at least the third church on this site. We know the date of consecration of the great Romanesque abbey this building replaced: that was 28th December 1065, a few days before the death of King Edward, later known as Saint Edward the Confessor, whose inspiration it was. We also know the date of consecration of this building, 13th October 1269, when the remains of Saint Edward were removed to their present location in a magnificent shrine behind the high altar. The bulk of this great church was complete in the 13th century, although building work also followed in the 14th, 15th, 16th and 18th centuries. So the 13th century is one of importance to Westminster Abbey.
The 13th century is especially important for us today, since it was the century in which the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, was first celebrated. In 1264, only five years before the consecration of this church, Pope Urban IV issued a bull Transiturus making the first Thursday following Trinity Sunday the feast of Corpus Christi. The great Dominican theologian St Thomas Aquinas was commissioned to write the special prayers and hymns for the celebration of the feast, some of which remain in popular use to this day. It took some sixty years before the practice of celebrating Corpus Christi had spread to this country. The feast was suppressed at the Reformation in England and only generally revived in the Church of England within the past thirty years, first as permitted within the Alternative Services Book of 1980 and then with greater prominence with Common Worship, the current liturgical use in the Church of England, published in the year 2000.
The feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. We are engaged in a thanksgiving for the Eucharist, itself a celebration of Thanksgiving. Now you might regard it as curious that the Church needs a special celebration of the foundation of the Eucharist, which is so strongly linked with the Last Supper and observed on Maundy Thursday. Is not that celebration enough? It could be argued that Maundy Thursday’s observance is so heavily associated with Gethsemane and preparations for the commemoration of the Lord’s death on Good Friday that the institution of the Eucharist is not given the prominence it deserves.
Accepting that point, you might wonder why, if that was always necessary, it took so many centuries for the feast to be established. It seems the answer may be that the 13th century saw something of a shift in theology from a focus on the divinity of Christ with a predominant sense of awe and of mystery to a focus on the humanity of Christ with a sense of his proximity and accessibility to the human soul. Devotional and theological literature begins to emerge around this time with an emphasis on the possibility and the need for the Christian to be united with Christ.
So, we celebrate today the truth that Christ is present with us and that we can be present to Christ, that there is no unbridgeable gulf fixed between our humanity and Christ’s divinity. He himself has bridged the gap and he makes himself, as it were, available to the Christian faithful under the forms of bread and wine. He who said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live for ever”, himself feeds us with the “true food” that is his flesh and the “true drink” that is his blood. [John 6: 51ff.]
But what is the mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist? If Anglicans today have revived the medieval custom of celebrating Corpus Christi, in line with the Roman Catholic Church, does that mean that Anglicans have wholly adopted a belief in transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist? An exploration of this question, however brief, must start with an attempt to describe the doctrine of transubstantiation. That is the belief that any object at all has a substance of its own, an essential character, as well as its particular features or characteristics such as its form and appearance, called its accidents. So everything has substance, essential character, and accidents, particular features. This way of thinking about objects in the world derives from the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. The doctrine of transubstantiation holds that, when the bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, the accidents remain the same - the external characteristics are still bread and wine in taste and texture and appearance - but the substance, the essential character, ceases to be that of bread and wine and becomes that of the body and blood of Christ.
The difficulty with this manner of thinking is not about the essential truth it safeguards but about the characteristics of the argument. You might think this paradoxical in view of the way I have expressed it, but that particular manner of Aristotelian thought is not familiar to philosophy or to ordinary ways of thinking today. We simply look at a table and see how old it is, how it was constructed, whether it is oak or mahogany, or steel and formica, and how rickety it is. Unless we are learning the Latin vocative we are unlikely to address it as O mensa and think of its substance, its essential character. That is not to say that we are likely today to do any better philosophically at describing the essential truth that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. So the Roman formula has recently been reaffirmed by the Pope, although it still has a foreign sound to Anglican ears.
However, a high measure of agreement between the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches on the doctrine of the Eucharist was reached about thirty years ago. The published report allowed relations between our two churches to move forward strongly, signified by the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Archbishop of Canterbury at his cathedral in 1982. The report, like all other reports of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) sought to get behind the disagreements of the Reformation era about formulation to a statement of what is essentially true. I finish with two paragraphs from the Final Report of the First ARCIC
‘The Lord's words at the last supper, "Take and eat; this is my body", do not allow us to dissociate the gift of the presence and the act of sacramental eating. The elements are not mere signs; Christ's body and blood become really present and are really given. But they are really present and given in order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.
‘According to the traditional order of the liturgy the consecratory prayer (anaphora) leads to the communion of the faithful. Through this prayer of thanksgiving, a word of faith addressed to the Father, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ by the action of the Holy Spirit, so that in communion we eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood.’
Could anything be clearer than that: the faith of Anglicans and of Roman Catholics we celebrate today?