Corpus Christi 19 Jun 22
How often do you take a photograph of yourself? One of the odd things I observe about tourists is they end up at some beautiful hallmark, be it Buckingham Palace, or St Peter’s in Rome, the Palace of Westminster, a pop concert or wherever it may be is that the first thing folk so often do is take a photograph of whichever landmark it is. Fine, I understand that. But then you see people turn their phone round and take a photograph of themselves in front of whichever landmark is there and inevitably 50% of the photograph is not of the ancient monument or once in lifetime opportunity to see a celebrity but the same old mug they see everyday! I get a bit confused, to be honest but there we are. We live in a society where team-building gurus have to repeat the phrase “There’s no I in team.”
Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their Cross and follow me,” (St Matthew 16:24) and it is this denial of self that I wish to look at today, which is especially pertinent for us on this Feast of Corpus Christi, when we give thanks for the gift of Holy Communion and Christ’s presence in the Sacrament of the Mass. We see Jesus dying on the Cross and we know this puts right the relationship we have with the Father. We are buried with Christ in our Baptism so we can be raised with Him to eternal life. We unite ourselves to the offering of Christ of Himself to the Father on the altar of the Cross, by the offering of His Body and Blood that we make here. But the Cross also shows us that we are to die to self: what a counter cultural thing this is in the age of the selfie!
When we gather for Mass there is a danger we turn it in to an act of worship of the self and this isn’t just something that those who take selfies need to be on the lookout for: we all need to be careful. Worship can easily become all about thinking about what I need, what I’m praying for. I only come when I can make it. When it is convenient to me. I expect the sermon to say what I want it to say or be about what I want it to be about. How dare this person treat me like this. I want this. I haven’t got time for that. In some churches before individuals read from the Bible they say “Morning everyone!” It’s meant undoubtedly as a kind greeting, but it shouldn’t be about them being nice and friendly: it should be about allowing God space to reveal who He is. In all this we reveal how self-obsessed we are.
Our gathering for Mass every Sunday - every day I hope where we’re able to - and our placing of the Lord’s Body and Blood on the altar as the focal point for our worship is about stating quite clearly that this is about Jesus. He is the reason we’re here; He has called us; He says to us, “Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened and I will refresh you” (St Matthew 11:25).
When Jesus said at the Last Supper, “Take bread … Take wine … Do this in memory of me,” He was saying that His story, His life, His sufferings, His Resurrection are to be the memorial we proclaim, as Paul made clear in that first reading we heard from his first letter to the Corinthians. That letter is perhaps the earliest written record of what Jesus did at the last Supper, some twenty years after it happened. Prior to this, the memorial of the Lord was the passover the Jews had kept in celebration of their being set free from slavery in Egypt. In Exodus 12 we read of the rules concerning the eating of the Passover Lamb. Not only were God’s people to be saved from the cruel servitude of Pharaoh but they were also to be spared the death of the firstborn which God sends as the final plague. This freedom was to be celebrated: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you … When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as He has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” you shall say, “It is the paschal sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt … but spared our houses,” (Exodus 12:14, 25-26). The story of the exodus, the escape, was to define God’s people for centuries. It was to be their story.
But Jesus is the new Moses, as the Gospel writers consistently remind us. The Lord goes up a mount and gives a law, but not just the Ten Commandments as with Moses, but the Sermon on the Mount, as we’re working through at the weekday Masses at the moment. A commandment to love God and neighbour above all else and to think not just about keeping commandments but a call to a deeper holiness of life. Such are the virtues we looked at in our Study Group on Tuesday: temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice, dispositions and habits which mean when we make snap decisions in the whirlwind of life we choose love, we choose Christ’s way.
Our Lord being the new Moses is seen also in today’s Gospel. Sadly one detail omitted from the verses the lectionary compilers gave us is that the feeding of the five thousand takes place in the desert. It is directly reminiscent therefore of when Moses had led the people through the waters of the Red Sea and they go in to the Wilderness. The people grumble about not having enough to eat (note again how the people’s priorities replace the mission of God if we’re not careful!) and the Lord rains down manna from Heaven, a flaky substance, that is to be collected only enough for each day (Exodus 16). Jesus makes clear elsewhere that the bread He gives is not like this manna given in the Wilderness, for He says, “I am the Living Bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh,” (St John 6:51).
In the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand there’s a danger that the physical food, the priorities of the groaning bellies of the crowd, nearly scupper the whole thing: the disciples come along and tell Jesus to send them away so they can go to the first century equivalent of the local cafes: it’s with a kind heart but it’s missing the point of the what the Lord is about to do. This reminds us of the importance of fasting, which is to be part of our life to remind us that self denial will ultimately set us free from the cares of this world. Fasting and abstinence is to be done specifically during Lent but also for at least an hour before we receive Holy Communion, abstaining from food and liquid which isn’t water, providing we’re not too old, too young or there’s some medical reason. Fasting can be done at other times too, linked always to the prayer of the Church, but does not remove from us other obligations such as to public worship or to care for others.
The desert has always been seen in Christian thinking as the place of discovery. To the desert the Holy Spirit drives the Lord after His Baptism that He might be tempted by Satan amid His fasting for forty days and forty nights (St Luke 4:1-13). For forty years the people of God had wandered in the Wilderness and now the Saviour of all mankind does the same. In the vision St John has of the Mother of God, clothed with the sun, giving birth to her son with the devil ready to snatch Him, the Heavenly woman flees to the “wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that she can be nourished,” (Revelation 12). These barren places are so often places of discovery, as St John the Baptist knew well, whose birth we celebrate next Sunday. They are places of discovery not because we need time by ourselves necessarily but because the loneliness reminds us that we are not just united to folk when we see them but that there is a deeper union still, with all mankind yes, sharing a common humanity; but also with all those reborn in the Lord, our brothers and sisters.
The Mass then makes the story of Jesus central to our worship. When we see our Lord we see Him always as head of the Church and therefore we see all those who are also members of His Body. This is why in the Eucharistic Prayer with the consecration of the elements of bread and wine we recall our fellowship with the bishops, spread throughout the world, most of whom we’ve never even heard of, but with whom we are reborn in Christ. We pray then too in fellowship with the saints, chief among them the Blessed Virgin Mary and her spouse St Joseph, who have let the story of Jesus shine through in their lives. It is right too that we pray during the Eucharist Prayer for those who have died that they who have allowed their lives to be interwoven with Jesus during their time on earth may gaze upon Him face to face in Heaven.
Making the sign of the Cross is a simple act which reminds us too that this world is not all about me. Not only does it unite us to the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, of course, but it also, of course, begins with us tracing the letter I on our bodies: head to stomach, I, me. And then the horizontal part of the Cross is traced upon us from left to right: we rub out the ‘I,’ the ‘me’ that Jesus may live in us. Paul reflects in a beautiful part of his letter to the Colossians that he completes in his body the sufferings of Jesus. It’s a profound expression of much He wants the life of Jesus at work in him, even the painful bits (Colossians 1:24). And if we, my brothers and sisters, let Jesus live in us, there would be greater love throughout the world. If we let Jesus live in us there would be no fear, no dissatisfaction; there would be wisdom and peace, gentleness and piety. When later on we gaze at the bread and wine and find the Lord there, when we spend time in silent prayer before the Tabernacle wherein the Body of the Lord is kept, our prayer can be no better than saying, “Lord, come and take control of my life, live in me, fill my words and thoughts and actions with your love. Underpin me with your grace.” Amen.