Corpus Christi 6 June 21
It can always be difficult to know what to give someone as a present, be it for a birthday or a leaving present or because it’s Fathers’ Day. Is the gift meant to make the person think of you or is it more important that it is genuinely something they will find useful or should it be something silly just to show you remembered them and for them to enjoy, however fleetingly? One thing I can say with some certainty I suspect is that you have never given anyone a lock of your hair! Am I right? And yet, my friends, this used to be quite a common gift. Admiral Nelson, the great victor of Trafalgar against Napoleon, was mortally wounded during the battle and as he lay there he bequeathed to his beloved Emma Hamilton a lock of his hair. Nelson is buried at St Paul’s Cathedral, and at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich you can see an image of a floral wreath which Lady Hamilton had made with her own hair as well as that of Nelson before her own death. I have to say, I’m glad no one ever left me their hair, no matter how much I loved them.
Our celebration today for Corpus Christi is all about gift, God’s radical gift to us of the Body and Blood of His Son. But it’s not always been a welcome gift. Even when our Lord spoke about it, as recorded in St John 6, we’re told some of the listeners left the Lord because it was incomprehensible to them. How could the person standing before them be the Bread come down from Heaven? How could people eat His flesh and drink His blood? It’s always been this way sadly. In Europe the Reformation became concerned about the extent to which Christ could be said to be present in the bread and wine that had been consecrated by the priest on the altar. It’s so amazing that even those who love the Lord a lot struggle to comprehend. It’s not something we’re ever to feel too comfortable about.
I spoke three weeks ago about the Ark of the Covenant and how we need to receive the presence of God sincerely and devoutly or it’s impact will be limited, remembering the example of Uzzah and Obed-Edom in II Samuel 6. The Ark contained the two tablets of the law on which were written the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s rod that blossomed and - perhaps especially significantly for this Feast of Corpus Christi - a jar of the manna given in the Wilderness to nourish God’s people. These remind us of God’s desire to be present alongside His people and to sustain them through that presence. In Eden, God appears to Adam and Eve, even after they have sinned and finds them hiding behind the bushes (Genesis 3:8). As His people travel through the Wilderness, God is a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, leading them forward (Exodus 13:21-22). The Bible ends with a people not needing lamp or Temple because God has His dwelling finally among men and women (Revelation 22:5).
For me this is why the real presence of God in the bread in the Tabernacle on the High Altar and in the bread and wine that we will consecrate in a few moments’ time on the altar, God’s presence there is at the same time both the most natural thing in the world and one of the most unbelievable. Why would God give us yet another second or third hand experience of His grace when we have plenty of those already through the Scriptures and through the testimony of others? Rather, here in the Mass, the gift of Holy Communion which we will receive kneeling later if we’re able to, God comes to us intimately and scandalously close. There’s a lovely ancient hymn for the Ascension which has the phrase, “Lo, angels tremble when they see how changed is our humanity.” We ought to ask ourselves, Am I really worthy for God to be so close to me, sinner though I am?
God’s desire to be present is undoubtedly extreme, just as Christ-crucified is in the words of St Paul, “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,” (I Corinthians 1:23). The word Paul used that we translate as “stumbling block” is skandalon: the Cross is scandalous. So is the presence of God. Such is His love for us that He puts Himself in a position when someone could come up and steal Him from the altar or knock Him over or do anything to what would seem without the eyes of faith just a piece of bread. We pray such a desecration never happens! Such desecration did indeed happen as the body of Jesus was nailed to the Cross, having been spat at and vilified by the soldiers. The scandal of God’s presence on altars throughout Christendom means that we have turned our back on the Lord when we come not to worship Him here.
The Psalmist tries to explain his desire for the Lord on different occasions and so we read, “As the deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God,” (Psalm 42) and elsewhere “My soul thirsts for you, my flesh faints you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” This desire is part of our natural ordering, part of who we are. It is little wonder then that people create false religions and treat some things as if they were a religion. And God doesn’t want us to yearn for that which is unobtainable: that would be unjust. This isn’t teasing or leaving us squirming. This desire for Him we have is natural and so He comes to us fully under this Sacramental reality of His Body and Blood in the Mass, that we might be sated, full, nourished, satisfied.
When we’re feeding the seriously ill, those who cannot swallow, those who cannot chew, when we’re feeding babies, we give them food which they can stomach: it’s puréed or just in liquid form. So it is with Christ, the physician of souls: He comes to us in a form we can digest for He knows we are enfeebled by our sin. He comes to us under Bread and Wine so it is not dependent on our understanding but His substantial and free gift to us.
At the end of Mass as a treat for Corpus Christi we will have Benediction, as we also do at the end of the Church’s Year on the Feast of Christ the King. It’s a fancy word for “blessing” and it means the priest blesses us but rather than using his hands (hands anointed to bless at his ordination) the priest blesses with some of the consecrated bread - the Host as it’s called - and we all receive love from the Lord. Why would we have the presence of Christ unless it was so as to be able to reach out in blessing? Protestants will argue that it is bread-worship, and they’d be right if what was on the altar stayed just bread: it would be wrong for us to kneel and worship it. But it’s not a thing, an “it,” a piece of bread: it’s a He, He’s God hidden under the form of bread.
Of course, our Lord couldn’t leave a piece of His hair behind, as Nelson did for his beloved Emma. Our Lord having died was raised to new life and ascended to the Heavens. There He lives and pleads for us today. But through the wonder of His Ascension, this Sacramental world is made possible whereby Christ’s Body and Blood are also available to us: we are nourished by God Himself. His Flesh is true food and His Blood true drink. We celebrate this awesome which is also really rather daring. Amen.