Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the feast of Corpus Christi 2021
Today is a feast of food, and it is a feast of the body.
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian
Thursday, 3rd June 2021 at 12.30 PM
Jesus said, “Whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Today is a feast of food, and it is a feast of the body. Over the last year, we have learned afresh something about the public vulnerability of our bodies, how our physical proximity to one another can be risk as well as blessing, and we have been brought up sharp by images of frail bodies supported by ventilators and the tenderest of care. Here in the UK, many of us have perhaps not known our food patterns to be dramatically altered, save perhaps, during the early period of lockdown when some staple items were suddenly in huge demand. Some supermarkets honed their ethical muscles by encouraging us not to hoard, whilst others ensured that the earliest hours of the working day were reserved for keyworkers or the vulnerable.
Eating together, of course, has been impossible for much of the last year – all those wonderful scriptural images about feasts, banquets and suppers tantalising our taste-buds as well as animating our Christian imaginations. But today is a feast of food and a feast of the Body. Here, we celebrate a God who does not simply draw near, alongside us, but who gives himself for us so that he may live in us and we in him. Towards the end of the second century, the early Christians were accused – amongst other things – of cannibalism, in part because that was a useful polemical stick to beat them with, and in part, because of their insistence on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. St Justin Martyr, around the year 150AD (whose feast we celebrated on Tuesday) addressed this charge in his famous Apology:
‘This food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist]… For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body.”’
Some 25 years later, Athenagoras of Athens rebuts a similar accusation in his Plea for the Christians, where he makes the point that what is consumed in the Eucharist is not some kind of grizzly, dead flesh, but Christ’s glorified and resurrected body which is given to them by Christ Himself. This Christian vision of God, is a God who becomes incarnate, who ministers and lives among humans as one of us, whose death and resurrection reconciles the cosmos to God’s own love, and through the gift of the Holy Spirit sustains his followers in the world now with these sanctified gifts which are the Body and Blood of the risen Christ. St Leo the Great, preaching on the ascension, told his listeners, ‘What was visible in our Saviour has passed over into his mysteries’ – in other words, into his sacraments. In this bread and this cup we receive Christ’s own life in the most intimate of ways. Here, we receive into our own bodies the fruits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Here, we are renewed again in our mission to be Christ’s agents in our daily lives. ‘Whoever eats me, will live because of me.’
The Eucharist is the most corporate act of feeding. Amongst the many other charges levelled at the early Christians, a particularly distasteful one was that of incest. The pagan world could not cope with the idea of a kiss of peace, or of the intimate family images the Eucharist creates. This rich sustenance, a renewal and refreshment of the life of Christ within us, is also a refreshment of that life between us. We are never alone in this feeding. We sometimes talk, slightly sloppily, of making ‘my communion’ – this reflects the deep personal intimacy we know with Christ through these wonderful mysteries. Surely, this is to be honed, treasured, relied upon. ‘Whoever eats me will live because of me’, Jesus tells us. But the communion offered to us is never ours alone. This is corporate feeding: wheat and grape from the earth, the work of human hands, offered to God in thanksgiving, sanctified by Christ’s Spirit, and given back to us so that Christ’s body – the Church – can be fed.
We are in peril when we think of Christian discipleship apart from the Body of Christ. People do sometimes say, ‘I’m Christian, but I don’t go to Church’, as if Christian discipleship is principally an atomised, individual thing. Of course our own spiritual health and relationship with Christ is essential. But we cannot do this apart from the Body. We are fed here, in this and every Eucharist, not only alongside one another, but also alongside the whole Church. Here we pray for the gathering in of the fragments, for the unity of Christ’s people, for healing of the Church’s divisions, and ultimately for the renewal of creation – that the shattered earth and the fallen world might, too, know the healing of Christ’s resurrection and the peace of his Kingdom.
This Feast of Corpus Christi – the feast of food and the feast of the Body – is a relatively late addition to the Christian calendar. In 1264, whilst living in Orvieto, near to the sight of a Eucharistic miracle in the town of Bolsena, Pope Urban IV declared this celebration at the strong encouragement of St Thomas Aquinas. Whilst Maundy Thursday is the day when we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist, that is, of course, within the great sweep of the drama of Holy Week. Today’s feast, gives us a chance to step back, to reflect on the gift of the Eucharist, and to ponder with joy what it means for us. A feast of food, and a feast of the Body. The seventeenth century Anglican poet Richard Crashaw translated two of Thomas Aquinas’s great hymns for this feast. Of the Blessed Sacrament, he writes, “O dear memorial of that death which lives still, and allowes us breath! Rich, Royall food! Bountiful Bread… Ah, this way bend thy benign floud to a bleeding Heart that gasps for blood.” A death – Christ’s – which lives still, and allows us breath. Which animates us, and gives us life.
Crashaw, when writing this, may not have known the European tradition of the Corpus Christi processions common on this day throughout pre-Reformation and Catholic Europe. In Orvieto, in 1264, a great gathering of the whole town came together in its own order, the civic officials alongside those of the Church. Useful propaganda, one might say rather cynically, for a particular image of a City and its unity, but rather beautiful, one might argue rather romantically, for the civic body and the Body of the Church to be seen united – imaged – in one movement.
The point is this. The feeding we receive in the Eucharist is of course personal, a coming to our own heart and flesh. But it is first and fundamentally a corporate one. It binds us to Christ and to his sacrifice, and it binds us together. The brokenness of this bread signifies the wholeness to which the Church is called, as a sign and sacrament of the renewal of all creation. Crashaw again, ‘in broken forms a stable faith…’ – here, we receive what we will become.
One common Old Testament image – indeed prefiguring – of the Eucharist is the manna which the Israelites receive from Heaven whilst they’re in the wilderness. It’s a lovely image. But in the canvas of the broader Exodus story, it comes with a devastating warning. The lesson the Israelites learn in the wilderness, is that the hand that feeds will be the hand that owns them. That is so for the Church institutionally, and it is certainly so for us individually. So, on this feast of food and the body, let us commit ourselves to a renewal of our whole life in Christ. Whoever eats me, says Jesus, will live because of me.