Lo, the full, final, sacrifice
The Reverend Jane Sinclair Canon in Residence
Sunday, 17th June 2018 at 3.00 PM
How are we to meet with God today, we who are created, mere creatures, yet are the very handiwork of God? Great thinkers have long pondered this conundrum. Over the centuries the Church has articulated the shared experience of Christians in response to this question: how are we to meet with God today? We meet with God as revealed in Jesus Christ as we enter into the story of God’s dealings with us in the Scriptures; we meet with God as we lay ourselves open to God in prayer; and as we use our reason and reflect on the traditions of Christian learning; and we meet with God whenever we receive the sacraments of the Church. Most intimately, we encounter Christ crucified and risen when we share the sacrament of bread and wine, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist.
This afternoon’s anthem, so beautifully sung by the choir, is one of the great musical meditations on the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus – his offering of himself on the cross as he died for our sake – and on his enduring gift of himself to us in the bread and wine of Communion.
Gerald Finzi, whose anthem we heard a few minutes ago, lived in an old Berkshire farm-house. He had a large library, and chose the texts which he set to music with care. The words of today’s anthem were chosen by Finzi from Richard Crashaw’s version of two Latin hymns by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. Crashaw was a High Churchman and a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge in the years leading up to the English Civil War, during the early seventeenth century. He was also a poet. Crashaw eventually fell out with the Parliamentarian faction, was expelled from his Fellowship at Peterhouse, and became a Roman Catholic. His ‘Hymn of St Thomas in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament’ is a celebration of his new faith.
Like Thomas Aquinas, Crashaw was able to assume that his readers had a good knowledge of the Bible. He begins his poem with Old Testament references to sacrifice, references which were understood by Crashaw and his Catholic contemporaries to foreshadow the sacrifice made by Jesus uniquely on the cross, and now made present to worshippers in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In the opening lines of his poem Crashaw refers Isaac, Abraham’s son who was to be sacrificed; the ram which became the substitute for Isaac; manna, God’s gift of bread in the wilderness, foreshadowing the bread of Communion; the Paschal Lamb slaughtered at the Passover, as will be the Son of God, that God’s people may be saved.
The poem goes on to celebrate the gift of the bread of the Eucharist. God enables those who eat this bread to have resurrection life. The Eucharistic bread ‘allows us breath’ and is ‘rich, royal food … whose use denies us to the dead’. For Crashaw, the bread of the Eucharist is so identified with Jesus Christ, that it can be addressed as if it is Christ himself:
‘Live ever Bread of loves, and be
My life, my soul, my surer self to me.’
Not surprisingly then, this anthem is often associated with the feast of Corpus Christi, when the Church gives thanks for Jesus’ gift of himself in the Eucharist. The Eucharist itself is celebrated daily in this Abbey Church; but was first given by Jesus to his disciples at the last supper which he shared with them before his death on the cross: the meal which Crashaw describes as
‘The living and life-giving bread,
To the great twelve distributed
When Life, himself, at point to die
Of love, was his own legacy.’
The striking image of a pelican is perhaps the most memorable line of the text:
‘O soft self-wounding Pelican!
Whose breast weeps balm for wounded man.’
If you have been to London’s St James’ Park, or if you come from tropical coastal regions, you may have seen a pelican. Pelicans have at the tips of their beaks a crimson spot, and this gave rise in the ancient world to the mistaken belief that a pelican, while really preening its breast feathers, was feeding its young with its own blood. As a result, the pelican was adopted as a symbol of loving sacrifice. It’s easy to see how the Church took over the image and applied it to Christ, who was not only sacrificed for others on the cross, but – it was believed – fed faithful believers with his own blood through the Eucharist. Today you can find the image of the pelican pecking at its breast on the pillar marking the centre of the main quadrangle of Corpus Christi College Oxford – a reminder of the College’s Christian roots and foundation.
So if we were to ask Richard Crashaw that question we started with, ‘How are we to meet with God today?’, I expect we would receive an answer along these lines: people of faith can, with every assurance, meet with God as we share in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ. Far from being filled with fear at the thought of meeting God, we find that to eat and drink this heavenly food, is to be filled with God’s overflowing love. It is an entirely unmerited gift, one for which we can only offer our thanks, and our own selves afresh to God.
For the God whom we worship is the God whose very being is one of self-giving, of sacrificial love. The God-man Jesus gave himself on the cross for us; and he continues to give of himself time and again as share the bread and wine of the Eucharist. We can meet with God, because he first reaches out in love to meet with us.
Crashaw’s poem as a whole, and its complex musical setting by Finzi, bear repeated listening. And ultimately we are led to a vision of heaven, echoing Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain of Sinai, his face shining so brightly it had to be covered with a veil. But now, fed by the bread of heaven we will know,
‘When Glory’s sun faith’s shades shall chase,
And for thy veil give me thy face’,
echoing St Paul: For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13. 12 – 13).