Corpus Christi, 14th June 2020
Holiness and Holy Truth don’t always express themselves in the ways that we expect they should. On several levels that’s something always worth keeping in mind. One of the loveliest stories from the miraculous life of St Anthony of Padua, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, involves, for example, a very holy donkey. Anthony was preaching in the French city of Toulouse, a city beset in those days by Catharism, the great heresy that held that Jesus had not become human, and which denied his Real Presence in the Mass. Unpersuaded even by the great friar’s famous preaching, some Cathar merchant scoffingly suggested he’d believe if his donkey did. He starved the poor thing for three days and brought it to the town square. There was set out the most wonderful hay and oats a donkey could dream of - and, beyond, was St Anthony, with a consecrated host - the Blessed Sacrament under which Our Lord Jesus was present. The donkey trotted straight past the delicious fodder and over to St Anthony and bowed down before the true God who is creator of man and donkey alike.
A lovely story - and, let’s not pretend otherwise - something of a surreal one too. It’s funny isn’t it that the sort of event that persuaded that donkey’s mean-minded owner to faith, the sort of story that in the thirteenth century would’ve been the talk of the town - is the sort of story that were we to tell it to our friends today they might start to worry about what we’d been putting into our coffee. To some, such stories have become barriers to faith rather than proofs. At best an eccentric romanticism, at worst some sort of superstition. But we shouldn’t be ashamed of the miracles, signs and wonders of scripture and of Holy Church. For what, my sisters and brothers, is a devoted donkey when compared to the wonder of Our Lord’s presence under the form of bread and wine? to which that wise animal somehow knowingly knelt. Nothing more, in a sense, surreal, nothing more beautiful, nothing more strange but nothing more true than the wonderful mystery of the Mass. Benediction - which will take place here at St Mary’s tonight - is a powerful expression of this strange truth - put across to us all the better by the wonderful absurdity involved in encasing in an elaborate frame of glitz and gold, that which to the eye appears to remain a tiny fragile disc of unleavened bread. This very church in all its height and colour and heft, is centred on the tiny little tent behind me, wherein sits Our Lord, our very God. Worthy is our God of such lavish attention and craftsmanship. But an added benefit for us is that all the splendour of a church like this makes us focus even more on the contrasting simplicity of the way in which our God, whose own splendour is unimaginable, has chosen to reveal himself to us, to communicate with us, to draw us, from wherever we are, into his life.
Bread, this lucky humble human creation with which Jesus has chosen so to identify himself, is tied up with what it is to be human. The wheat from which it comes is thought to have first been cultivated some twelve thousand years ago in the very same Fertile Crescent from which civilisation itself emerged - the same Middle East which God chose as his earthly home. That little, momentous town of Bethlehem indeed means nothing more - and nothing less - than ‘the house of bread’ - the original tabernacle of the New Covenant. Bread is there throughout the Bible - from Moses and the Manna in the desert to St John’s gospel and in it Jesus’ explicit revelation of himself as the true bread, the living bread, the bread of life. We might have moved on beyond my simple childhood choice of white bread or brown bread - and we might find ourselves delighted or bewildered by its stone-baked and sourdough and seeded pan gallego varieties - but behind it all, is wheat, the staple on which we came to be what we are.
In making himself present then under the appearance of this most elemental, this most simple of substances our God in one motion reaches out to us and reminds us that it is he who created and who sustains us - and that there is nothing more fundamental to our lives than him. It is for him that our souls hunger and thirst. Behind all the blinding desires of this life it is for him that our hearts long - and in his self-revelation as bread through every Mass he is making us the most generous offer to satisfy those hearts. It is the world’s great tragedy that more do not recognise that. In this complicated world, of complicated human hearts and their interactions, we need only know that our souls are called to this simple centre. All we need ask - as our offertory hymn will shortly bid us ask - all that this wonderful sacrament enables us to ask and demands that we ask is ‘Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All, How can I love thee as I ought?’ Nothing - no human situation, no grief, no grievance, no tormenting jealousy, no bitter regret or bent for revenge can amount to anything in the face of the soothing, swallowing simplicity of our God, if we let him take his rightful place within us. Be still, our first hymn has quietly demanded - for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place. Be still and know that in all the tumult he is our staple and our sustenance.
I know that there’s a sadness for us at the moment in that we cannot, physically, as we do in normal times, ‘eat the flesh of the Son of Man’ as Jesus asks us to do. But this Corpus Christi give thanks nonetheless that Mass is offered and has been offered here everyday during lockdown - that the Lord has been present in that tabernacle for you, throughout. And know that in spiritual communion he continues to bind us to himself. There will come a time when we will gather together at his altar as he bids us. In the meantime, this week for some of us opens up the opportunity to come back to church for private prayer. Our Lord is of course, everywhere, but he is here in a very special way. Come and bend your knee and open your hearts to the all powerful and almighty God who would come to you in a fragile wafer of bread. Pray for yourselves and for those who can’t yet be here. Give thanks for our daily bread. Act that others might share it. Know that before long we will eat again together this bread of angels, this foretaste of heaven, and look forward to a time when sacraments cease and when all of us, the living and dead and yet unborn, shall partake in a yet greater feast.