Corpus Christi, 11 June 23
You’re being watched! One of the first things you’re asked if you’re a victim of crime these days is whether there was any CCTV around. Of course, it’s so the police can try and find out who committed the crime, be it burglary or an attack or even something worse. There’s an interesting assumption though in the age of CCTV that if people think they’re being watched they will act differently hence folk put signs up warning folk “you’re on camera” even when you’re not. And perhaps we do behave differently when someone is not watching, is not around. We don’t do the washing up because we won’t get nagged; we eat the last chocolate when no one’s looking; and so on. Teachers and parents realise that you daren’t turn your back on children for a minute. I remember one particularly naughty day at secondary school when one of our teachers walked out of the classroom to do some photocopying and we turned everything round 180 degrees so the teacher’s desk was at the back and our desks were all turned round so at first sight it looked exactly the same as before. It took the teacher a few seconds to realise what had happened but it could only happen because he had been absent (and yes because of sin getting hold of our hearts…).
So, presence and an awareness of presence and indeed a knowledge that someone is absent changes how we behave. And this is important for us to comprehend as we ponder today’s great feast of Corpus Christi, which is Latin for “the Body of Christ,”referring to Christ’s presence in the Mass. There are sadly some Christians who dispute God’s presence in the Sacrament. Our first reading reminds us that there is the perennial danger in the life of God’s people of folk forgetting or not recognising just how interwoven with their life God is. To counter this, Moses bids the people remember, remember, remember what God had been doing in their lives and how the way they conducted themselves was to reveal this: “Do not become proud of heart.” God’s presence will move us to humility and worship.
Some may refute God’s presence, indeed we all live from time to time as if we have forgotten that God is with us and this is where we sin but it is with the clear majority of Christians that we hail Christ as being indeed really present under the forms of bread and wine. This presence is made possible because it is done in obedience to the commands of Jesus who says to take and eat (St Matthew 26). These elements of bread and wine are consecrated by the work of the Holy Spirit, in response to the prayer of the priest saying Mass gathered with the people, acting in union with the entirety of those whom Christ has redeemed. “Ask and you shall receive,” Jesus says (St Matthew 7:7). We do all this with confidence.
This ought not to surprise us because Jesus says to the disciples having ascended to the Heavens, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (St Matthew 28:20). Christ is the head of His body the Church and doesn’t leave us, His bride, without comfort. Moreover this ongoing presence is not something remote or which we can only behold and see afar off and is beyond our grasp, no; the presence of God is to nourish us. “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever,” Jesus says, “and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” (St John 6:51). The presence of God is to be consumed by us, as is foreshadowed in many places, including when God tells Ezekiel to eat the scroll, which produces a sweetness in his mouth, a sweetness as honey (Ezekiel 3:1-3).
The people of God were taught something of the importance of the presence of God through being given the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. This was to be carried around by the Israelites and it was ordered on one occasion by God that no one should touch it (Numbers 4:15). Uzzah did so and though he did it with the best of intentions - to stop the Ark falling over - it was a breaking of the divine law and so he died (I Chronicles 13:10). It may have been because he was overly familiar with the Ark of the Covenant: it had stopped being special for him because he’d even seen it in his father’s home (II Samuel 6:3). We should have the Image of the Ark of the Covenant in our minds when we go on our Procession later. Just as the people travelled through the wilderness reassured by the Ark of the Covenant journeying with them, so we go on our Procession through our streets journeying with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the bread of the Mass.
It’s a great responsibility for us and indeed a great responsibility for the priest to be carrying such a precious gift. I find giving Benediction a tremendously uplifting experience, a huge culmination of what the priest is to do in blessing the people not through spells or signs but the very real presence of Christ, given that we may be nourished. Part of the gift of the abiding presence of Christ in His Church is a sense of security and indeed a reminder of the responsibility we have to cherish and safeguard the presence of Christ among His people. As we heard the psalmist speak of God, “He has strengthened the bars of your gates … He established peace on your borders, He feeds you with finest wheat.” We are to be aware of the strength of God’s protecting hand, stronger than anything foes can assail us with.
St Paul writes about about his own ministry, describing himself as a steward of God’s mysteries (I Corinthians 4:1). This is to be true of us all. We look after the gift of faith and the practices which we have received and ensure they are handed down to the next generation. We ensure God is worshipped in His Church for this is what pleases Him and we do this by ensuring our own attendance here as well as inviting others to come and indeed checking up on those who have not attended. The community we form here is not self-serving or inward looking, it is concerned that the world should believe.
Yes, God is present everywhere and we can pray wherever we are but God is only present everywhere because He is reigning in Heaven, there His presence is visible, tangible and rightly recognised by all those there already who are engaged in the great act of worship which is continuous before His throne: Holy, Holy Holy. And so when we come into Church we appreciate that we are coming more fully in to God’s presence. Moses is told to take off his shoes as he approached the Burning Bush for the ground on which he stood was holy (Exodus 3:5). I’m glad we don’t have to take our shoes off when we come but we do make the sign of the Cross with the Holy Water as we come in to show we are part of the family of Christ’s Body: it is a reminder of our baptism. And then we genuflect to get the relationship right while we are in this place. We are to listen and to receive with gratitude from God who is greater than we are. It is because we are aware that we are God’s servants that we kneel in His presence, not comfortable on our bottoms but beseeching, yearning, receiving from Him. This is what God had in mind when He made our knees.
One final reflection on this question of presence, and that is how we are present to those around us. A hundred years ago we must surely have been more aware of those around us. With headphones and telephones we are far less present to those around us. On the bus I observe how some people are so engrossed in their telephones the person next to them could keel over and die or grow seven heads and they just wouldn’t notice. This is a fundamental problem if we are to live out God’s call to love our neighbour, if we spend our days not aware that we even have a neighbour. This failure of charity and lack of care for those around us leads to a lot of the violence and discord we see in our streets. For it is annoying if we feel we are being ignored by others and it can feel like the only way for us to be heard is to raise our voices.
We as Christians then need to learn to be better at giving due regard not only to the presence of God but also to the presence of others. When St Paul writes to the Corinthians as we heard, he is writing to a community who do not behave well when they gather: they fail to recognise the needs of others and all this must stem from the fact that they failed to recognise they were meeting in the presence of God. Hence he wrote, as we heard, “The blessing-cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ,” and (in the version used in some Church of England liturgies), “though we are many we are one body because we all share in one bread.”
God is indeed present, my friends, under the forms of bread and wine! May our Corpus Christi celebrations preserve us ignoring Him and from ignoring our neighbour.