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Might it have been said to Jesus, "Wonderful, Master, but what does it mean"?
The Reverend Justin White Priest Vicar
Thursday, 31st May 2018 at 5.00 PM
There is a story about the composer Robert Schumann. He once stood up to receive the applause after performing one of his own piano works. “Wonderful, Maestro,” someone in the audience shouted, “… but what does it mean?”. There was silence in the auditorium. “It means this,” replied Schumann, and sat down and played the piece again.
Might it have been said to Jesus, “Wonderful, Master, but what does it mean?”. “It means this,” he replied, and took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and shared it. And that piece has been played and replayed ever since. Or, in a piece of purple prose that we Anglicans love to quote: “ … for century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it … tremulously, furtively, gorgeously, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.” [from ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ by Dom Gregory Dix]
Today is the Thursday after Trinity Sunday – Corpus Christi Day – The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of the Holy Eucharist. Eucharist, as you know, means ‘thanksgiving’. So, somewhat tautologically, we are gathering in thanksgiving for the Eucharist, and doing so by celebrating a Eucharist! This is something that has been done tremulously, furtively, gorgeously, unfailingly here in this Abbey for many centuries.
But, so familiar are we with the Eucharist, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, that we can fail to realise just how perilous this sacrament is.
St Paul’s account of the Eucharist is the earliest. It comes before the Gospel writers. We heard it in our second reading. What we didn’t hear were the next few sentences that the lectionary chose to omit:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
This is strong stuff! It is a glorious and a perilous thing we do here this evening. If we approach it without the authentic discernment that it calls for, then we call down judgement upon ourselves.
But what does Paul mean when he says: “those who fail to discern the body”?
Well, much has been written about that! Uncontentious among Christians of all stripes is that Paul means ‘body’ in the sense of the ‘body of Christ’ – the Church, the body politic, us. That early Eucharist in Corinth was in grave danger of separating along social and class lines; the failure of one group to discern that the other was just as much part of the one body.
For us, therefore, the warning is: Nothing less than a wholehearted commitment to the life and the unity of our particular community is essential to the integrity of our communion, our holy communion. Have I failed to make peace with my fellow communicant before I approach the altar? Am I indifferent to the hunger and thirst of the millions even as I eat and drink the sacrament? If the answer is yes, then perhaps I eat and drink judgment upon myself, and Incarnate Love is betrayed at this table just as he was at the first in that upper room.
More contentious is a more literal reading of the word ‘body’: Those who fail to discern the body – the literal body, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That Christ himself comes to us in the meal of the Eucharist, is one thing, but the manner of his coming, the nature of his presence under the elements of bread and wine – these are Church dividing questions.
But there’s a third body that needs to be discerned discerningly: my own.
To be honest with you, I don’t really like dwelling upon my body, my fleshiness. I get rather disdainful about flesh. I sometimes despise the fact of my fleshiness. Occasionally, one of my ethereal religious fantasies is to escape from the physicality of it all – to escape from all this material reality.
But you’ll have to agree that, Christians who entertain such fantasies are in the wrong religion.
Christianity is drastically materialist. The setting of my salvation is the visible, tangible Church – an organisation of other pieces of flesh and blood (you); an organisation with bills to pay and boilers to service. The signs of my salvation are bread and wine and oil and water – stuff which has weight and price. The source of my salvation is Incarnation; God as a squawking Palestinian baby deposited, glistening, on the floor of a cattle shed. The cost of my salvation is that same body pierced and skewered to a cross. And the tradition is quite clear that we are not going to be spared the ignominy of the flesh when this life is over, for resurrection is not freedom from the flesh but the perfection of the flesh. And what is more, that same flesh has now been taken up, ascended, into the Godhead such that it is eternally one with God forever.
By a strange coinciding of dates in the Church’s calendar, today also happens to be the Feast of the Visitation. This is the event recorded in Luke’s Gospel when the pregnant Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. On hearing Mary’s greeting, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and Elizabeth sings part of the Angelus: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Two marginalised women; one whose flesh is really (don’t you know) too old for childbirth, another whose flesh is really (don't you know) too young for that sort of thing; one bearing the harbinger of God, the other bearing the fulness of God in the flesh. The unborn John the Baptist discerning the body of the unborn Jesus and genuflecting at his presence with a leap for joy.
No, there is no point in being a Christian and shying away from the carnality of it all.
As if that were not enough, we have our Gospel:
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life,” says Jesus in John chapter 6.
There is no account of the Institution of the Eucharist in John’s Gospel. Some say the whole thing is one extended eucharistic commentary.
Remember that Jesus began Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel with 5000 crowded around him. By the end of the chapter, all but a hardcore few have shied away from the gross carnality of it all.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
“This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” they ask.
“Does this offend you?” asks Jesus.
Frankly, yes! I too want to shy away from the carnality of it all.
We Christians are an odd people. Our highest spiritual act is to receive a morsel of bread into our hands and into our mouths. At the very moment of eating we will be reminded: “The Body of Christ”. There is no place here for a contempt of the material. Indeed, there is no place here for taking offense at our own fleshiness, for the Christian Eucharist is about literal carnality. Christ is our brother after the flesh, and so the sacrament of the Eucharist is a cure for the loathing you may have for your own flesh. To adore the Corpus Christi is to come to affectionate terms with our own corpus – our own body.
Yes, but what does it all mean?
“It means this,” he replies, and takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and shares it.
The bread and the wine that will be brought to the altar in a moment are the work of human hands – our labour. They are symbols of us, our bodies. The priest, in the place of Christ, takes them (takes us), gives thanks (gives ‘Eucharist’), breaks the bread (breaks us), and thereby incorporates us into his broken body. That same body, now by Christ, with Christ, in Christ, is shared with the body of Christ, the Church, for, though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.
Failure to recognise the body in all senses – the corporate, the corporal, the corporeal – is perilous, says St Paul.
In this holy meal is contained the fulness of all that God in Christ has done for us. And we know that the invitation to ‘do this in remembrance of him’ again and again, tremulously, furtively, gorgeously, unfailingly … we know that this is the one command of Christ we cannot refuse if we are to be true to our calling to be the body of Christ – the Corpus Christi.
Thanks be to God.