Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of Corpus Christi 2016
Start Date 26th May 2016 5:00pm
Description

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Thee we adore, O hidden Saviour, thee,
who in thy sacrament dost deign to be;
both flesh and spirit at thy presence fail,
yet here thy presence we devoutly hail.

Thus begins a mid-19th century translation by James Woodford, a young Anglican priest, who would later be consecrated in this Abbey in 1873 Bishop of Ely, of the wonderful words of St Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Angelic Doctor.

The labours of the great theologian St Thomas Aquinas, contemporary with the consecration in the 1260s of the building in which we now worship, resulted in the inauguration of the feast of Corpus Christi, of the Body and Blood of the Lord, which today we celebrate, from the very beginning, on the Thursday after the feast of the Most Holy Trinity.

Unlike most of the feasts of our Lord that the Church celebrates through the liturgical year, we do not tonight mark a particular event during our Lord's life, as it might be the Circumcision, or the Presentation in the Temple, or our Lord's Baptism or his Transfiguration, or his Passion, Death and Resurrection. Instead we mark tonight our Lord's inauguration of the Eucharist and celebrate the blessing we receive from the Sacrament of the Altar, the Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass. Of course, we also celebrate that inauguration on Maundy Thursday, but I suppose St Thomas reckoned we had other matters on our minds then than the pure celebration of the gift of the Eucharist.

St Thomas not only wrote hymns for the feast; he also prepared all the particular liturgical items, including the Collect, or Opening Prayer we used earlier in this celebration of the Eucharist.

A few days after the feast of the Holy Trinity, today's feast of Corpus Christi allows us to ponder further the relations of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and in particular the nature of God the Son incarnate, the Son of Mary. The great ecumenical Councils of the Early Church took some time to come to a conclusion about the divine and human natures coexisting in the one Jesus Christ. The answer they reached, and that still the Church teaches, was that our Lord Jesus Christ is both fully human and wholly divine, both God and man, 'God of the substance of his Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world … perfect God and perfect man, yet not two but one Christ.' This one Christ suffers. He grows and learns. He is hungry and tired. He is angry and afraid. He is wounded. He dies. It is not that the man Jesus dies and the divine Christ somehow survives. The one man, Jesus Christ, God and man, suffers and dies. And the one man, Jesus Christ, God and man, is to be adored.

Turning again to St Thomas Aquinas' 13th century hymn Adoro te devote, the 1870s translation of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins helps us get closer to the intenti0n of the Latin verse than James Woodford's 1852 translation.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

'Godhead here in hiding:' St Thomas had argued not just that our Lord Jesus Christ is really present in the Holy Eucharist, as the Church had long understood, but also the precise manner in which our Lord is present, not of course in a manner to be seen, touched or tasted, but as it were masked and in hiding.

He also addressed in his Summa theologica, the greatest work of theology in the Middle Ages, the question whether it was right to worship the man Jesus. Of course worship was due to the Godhead, but was worship also due to the human flesh of our Lord? He concluded, 'To adore the flesh of Christ is nothing else than to adore the incarnate Word of God: just as to adore a king's robe is nothing else than to adore a robed king. And in this sense the adoration of Christ's humanity is the adoration of worship. One and the same person of Christ is adored with worship on account of his divinity, and with veneration on account of his perfect humanity.'

In the 21st century we have a much more obvious example of what he is describing. Think of a photograph of someone you love. You do not look at the photograph and spend time thinking of the paper and the clever way in which the ink has been applied to the paper. Instead you look at the image of the one you love and are moved in your love of the person, not of their image.

We see that degree of adoration, of worship, being offered to our Lord Jesus Christ within the Gospels. Even Herod expressed himself as wishing to worship Jesus, even though he planned to kill him.

When the disciples saw Jesus coming to them on the water and Peter walked on the water towards him, though his faith failed him and he sank, St Matthew tells us that 'Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."

Again, at the Transfiguration, when Peter, James and John went up the mountain and saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah and his clothing dazzling white, 'While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud over-shadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, 'This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!' When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.' That is the fear, or we may say awe, that is the character of worship.

In a similar way, St Luke tells us of worship in practice, 'And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.'

And Mary, sister of Martha, adores Jesus as she sits at his feet while her poor sister rushes about the house distracted with many things.

St Thomas Aquinas' conclusion that the Christian is to worship the humanity of Christ as the flesh of the incarnate Word of God leads him to his further conclusion that in the Holy Eucharist the Christian is to worship and adore the hidden Godhead in the Sacrament. The sight, the touch, the taste of the consecrated bread and wine of Holy Communion might tend to deceive us that there is nothing here to adore but he was certain that we must hear and trust what our Lord Jesus Christ himself had said, 'Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.'

This is the truth, expressed by our Lord himself, in which we may have confidence. He himself, our living Lord, is present, or we might say re-presented, in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Although the Godhead of Christ is masked, hidden, beneath the forms of bread and wine, yet we can and should worship and adore our hidden Saviour, in the confidence that one day in God's good time and by God's grace we shall worship and adore him face to face.

Gerard Manley Hopkins' translation of St Thomas Aquinas' last verse:

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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