Sermon: Corpus Christi
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
At Theological College we were always taught that the best sermons consisted of three key points; and so on one Feast of Corpus Christi, a young, dashing ordinand stood up to preach what was arguably the most comprehensive and theologically profound three point sermon ever given.
…and this is what I said:
- Point 1: Jesus is God
- Point 2: Mary is his Mother
- Point 3: Go to Mass
And then sat down, earning the eternal gratitude of the entire congregation. You don’t need 45 minutes of preaching and endless bible allusions, modern-day anecdotes or recordings of Jazz classics to make the point.
On this feast day, of all days, when we come to encounter Jesus Christ in the most Holy Sacrament of the altar, we see revealed in the hands of the priest these simple, yet profound truths which speak not only to our own personal faith journeys and our own struggles to become more Christ-like, but which speak of the very purpose of the whole world: to respond to the living God in whom we have our being.
Our alternative community, Blesséd speaks of the whole world as sacrament, as having been marked by the fingerprints of God, and yet there are times and places, rituals and objects where the barrier between the sacred and the created appears very thin indeed: where the presence of God in our midst, in almost indescribable ways is palpably real: on a deserted beach in the South West, knelt in the Holy House at Walsingham, at the end of a decade of the Rosary and, perhaps most commonly, when bread and wine are transformed into the Blessed Body and Precious Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Reformation, that period of political and theological upheaval, that schism in Western Christendom in the 16th Century did away with many of the excesses of a Church which had lost sight of the Gospel that drove it and had retreated into the pursuit of power rather than the proclamation of love. But in doing that, it casually discarded much that enriched the faith and which we have spent the last 500 years in England slowly regaining: the sensuous, the metaphysical, the recognition of a corporate faith over an individualistic one and most of all in the Anglican Tradition, the rightful place of the Sacramental Life at the heart of the Reformed, yet Catholic Tradition that characterises true Anglicanism, and which if we actually allow ourselves to recognise it, has never actually gone away.
We return, as we celebrate this feast, to the simple recognition of Jesus Christ revealed in broken bread and wine outpoured; but not simply to remember what he did a couple of thousand years ago, but to do what he commanded us to do at the Last Supper and to bring him into our present.
Once again, English proves itself to be an inadequate language for the utterances of God: when Jesus says “Do this in remembrance of me”, he uses the word anamnesis – which is much more complex a word than simply remember – it is connected to the Hellenistic concept of bringing the past into the present, and so when he says “This is my body” “This is my blood”, we should take him on face value.
After all, we never have a problem with any of his other sayings do we? We don’t decry his use of the title “Son of Man” or deny his messiahship, his divinity? And yet, those who claim to hold most to biblical inerrancy will gladly disavow the very words of Christ:
“Take this all of you and drink from it. This is my blood of the new covenant which will be shed for you and the forgiveness of sins. Do this in anamnesis of me”.
Although you might not be able to clearly see it, at the back of this very church, painted on tin panels are those words of institution, those words of Christ and which now they are exposed are a daily reminder of the sacramental, the Anglo-Catholic tradition which is the heritage of this Church here in Elson.
On this holy altar, the most amazing transformation takes place: the ordinary things of bread and wine become transformed into the most divine; ordinary people like you and I are transformed by our encounter with that transformation, and we ordinary people become extraordinary.
St. Francis of Assisi, Deacon of the Church meditated on the sacrament in these words:
Let everyone be struck with fear, the whole world tremble,
and the heavens exult when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is present on the altar in the hands of a priest!
O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity!
O sublime humility! O humble sublimity!
The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself that He hides Himself for our salvation
under an ordinary piece of bread!
See the humility of God, dear friends, and pour out your hearts before Him!
Humble yourselves that you may be exalted by Him!
Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves, that He Who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally!
“He hides Himself for our salvation under an ordinary piece of bread!” – what power is hidden between the molecules of this bread and this wine! Outwardly, there is no change, and yet we sense as we draw near with faith, that the power of this sacrament has the power to transform. For just like the wind blowing on the trees, we witness the power of the wind without seeing the wind itself; so we also see the work of the Spirit on the people who receive the sacrament without being able to see explicitly the God whose fingerprints are behind it.
The celebration of the Mass is the most profound outpouring of our theology: a declaration of the divinity of Christ, and his emergence in the world, born of the blessed Virgin; as we see the Emmaus Christ revealed in our midst, we are transformed, just as countless generations of the faithful have been transformed.
Dom Gregory Dix, an Anglican Monk and eminent liturgist of the last century wrote so vividly:
“Was ever a command so obeyed? 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 circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of human greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.
Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner-of-war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc
One could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of christendom, the priests have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei — the holy common people of God.”
Was ever a command so obeyed? Never! And so it is with faith and joy that we come and gather around this holy altar: priests and people, God and lovers-of-God, the poor, the marginalised, the great and the weak, the wealthy and the ill, the addicted and the unsure. We come to obey his command, and be fed by the life-giving sacraments.
Jesus is God.
Mary is his Mother, and he is therefore man.
Go. To. Mass.