Two men from earlier ages continue to influence what we think about this service, the Holy Eucharist, and what happens when we receive Holy Communion. Both were called Thomas. One Thomas lived in the 13th century at the time this church was being built. Thomas Aquinas was one of the great medieval theologians, the angelic doctor. The other was archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th century, during the last years of the reign of Henry VIII and through the reign of Edward VI. Henry's daughter Mary Tudor had Thomas Cranmer burned at the stake. The first Thomas, Thomas Aquinas, wrote about the holy Eucharist. He adored our Lord and tried to define in what way Jesus Christ is present in the bread and wine when we receive them in Holy Communion. The other Thomas, Thomas Cranmer, adored our Lord as well and was afraid that the long-term effect of Thomas Aquinas' teaching had been to domesticate our Lord, to turn him into our creature rather than our being his.
One of the key areas of dispute between one Thomas and the other would be Eucharistic sacrifice or offering. Thomas Cranmer rejected the teaching of Thomas Aquinas that the priest could stand at the altar and offer to God the Father the fruits of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. Thomas Cranmer had come to believe that no one on earth could be worthy to take on so awesome a role.
In the version of the Mass Thomas Aquinas would have used every day, there are references to what seem to be four distinct ways in which the priest makes an offering to God the Father. The first offering was of the bread and wine as they were set on the altar. The second mention of offering or sacrifice was of those associated with the offering, the priests and people present on the particular occasion, offering thanksgiving to God. The third offering was of the duty and service of those making the offering. The fourth offering was of the host, "the holy Bread of eternal life and the Chalice of everlasting salvation." This was followed by a prayer that God's "holy Angel" might carry the gifts offered "to your altar on high in the presence of your divine majesty." So, there are four offerings in the pre-Reformation Roman Canon: the offering of the bread and wine; of our praise; of our service; and of the Body and Blood of the Lord.
How many of these offerings survived in Thomas Cranmer's 16th century prayer books? In his second prayer book of 1552, in a prayer to be used after receiving the bread and wine, there is clear reference to just two offerings: "this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" and "ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice unto thee." There is no other explicit offering.
But if we look back to Cranmer's first prayer book in 1549 we find tantalising traces of the final of the four offerings in the Roman Canon, that of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Towards the end of the Prayer of Oblation, following on directly from the Prayer of Consecration, are included the words, "we beseech thee to accept this our bounden duty and service", but then the priest asks the Lord to "command these our prayers and supplications by the Ministry of thy holy Angels, to be brought up into thy holy Tabernacle before the sight of thy divine majesty." Cranmer must later have concluded that this reference to the holy Angel and to the heavenly Tabernacle, so close to the wording of the Roman Canon, even without a reference to the offering of the Body and Blood of the Lord, was too evocative of the old Roman rite to be understood in the new way of the Reformers, so all trace of them was removed from subsequent books.
Much discussion in the various bodies that were responsible for our Church's 20th century liturgical reforms focused on such questions as these. Is it only after the grace of Communion in Christ that we have anything at all to offer the Father? Or does the Church, do we as Christians, possess godly gifts of nature and of grace that afford us something to offer acceptably to the Father? And if Christ is somehow really present in the consecrated elements does that mean that the priest or anyway the priestly community of the Church can and does make a Eucharistic offering to the Father that can be referred to as a sacrifice? For many centuries these questions had seemed to divide the Church.
But when in the 1960s Roman Catholic and Anglican scholars began to study these questions together, they found more agreement than they had expected. The final report of the first Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission squared the circle with a wonderful statement. "In the Eucharistic prayer, the Church continues to make a perpetual memorial of Christ's death, and his members, united with God and one another … enter into the movement of his self-offering." The mastery is in that final phrase: "in the Eucharist we enter into the movement of Christ's self-offering." All the Reformation debates fall away: Christ offers perpetually his own sacrifice to the Father; we in his Body are united perpetually in that self-offering which finds its focus in the Eucharist.
Thomas Aquinas wrote some beautiful texts, hymns and prayers, for today's celebration of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, including the Collect, the prayer for the feast the priest sang today near the beginning of the Eucharist. Thomas Cranmer would be even more famous for the prayers and liturgies he wrote and put together during the turbulent years of the English Reformation in the middle of the 16th century. Hear these words of Thomas Aquinas.
Word made Flesh, by word he maketh very bread his Flesh to be;
man in wine Christ's Blood partaketh: and if senses fail to see,
faith alone the true heart waketh to behold the mystery.
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.
And these words of Thomas Cranmer…
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
As we think of this, some of the best of the writing of our two Thomases, we find them breathing much the same atmosphere, both deeply devoted to the adoration of God, both convinced of the vital importance of the blessing of Holy Communion between the Lord and his faithful people in the Holy Eucharist, the gift which we celebrate today.
"And if senses fail to see, faith alone the true heart waketh to behold the mystery." "…that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us."