Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Sermon, Corpus Christi, 2014

The Mass of Bolsena - Raphael

Genesis 14.18-20
1 Corinthians 11.23-26
John 6.51-58

Like so many things in life which are really great fun, the feast of Corpus Christi started with a nun having visions. (Think of The Sound of Music if you want another example.)

The nun in question was Juliana of Li├Ęge, a Canoness in Belgium in the 13th Century, who started seeing visions of the moon disfigured with a single dark spot. After puzzling over this for some years, Christ revealed to her that this represented the Church, luminous with many feast days but sadly disfigured by the lack of a solemnity in honour of the Holy Eucharist.

After some campaigning Juliana managed to persuade the Pope, Urban IV, to institute a Feast of the Blessed Sacrament, on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, for the whole Church. And as this was while the Church of England and Rome were still in communion it forms part of our common heritage. Though today, in countries like ours where sadly it isn’t a public holiday, we tend to keep it on the next Sunday.

The Eucharist was of course instituted by Jesus on Maundy Thursday, at the Last Supper. But that day is overshadowed by the suffering and sorrow of Good Friday, so the first available Thursday after Eastertide was chosen as a day when the gift of the Eucharist could be celebrated with unrestrained joy.

What is it that we are celebrating?

Firstly, under the signs of bread and wine, Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples, to make present and effective for all time his saving death on the cross.

The sacrifice of Christ is once for all, it cannot be repeated, it does not need adding to. But in the Eucharist the Church pleads that one sacrifice before the Father, making it present and effective for every time and place. In the Eucharist the Church offers Christ’s perfect worship to the Father, and brings into his saving work the needs of the Church and the world, and the intentions that the celebrant and people bring with them.

Secondly, the Eucharist makes us the Church, the holy people of God. We become what we receive, the body of Christ. We are, through the Eucharist, members of Christ, joined to him as our head. Jesus remakes the human race, freeing us from the old order of sin and death and enabling us to live with God’s life and love and limitless generosity. We are, together, made into a new human nature, a “new Adam” in Christ.

Thirdly, Jesus truly gives himself in this sacrament. He who is the truth, who cannot deceive, took bread and wine and said, “this is my body… this is my blood”. Why should the faith of Christians doubt what he said? The Church in every age has believed that in the Eucharist the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ, together with his soul and Divinity, though in a manner that surpasses our understanding. To our outward senses the appearances of bread and wine remain unchanged, but faith perceives the deeper spiritual reality.

From the very first Christians reserved a portion of the consecrated Bread to give holy communion to those who could not be present at the celebration of Mass, such as the sick or those in prison. Just as we do here in the tabernacle on the High Altar.

But Jesus is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament all the time, not just when It is being received in communion. So reservation of the Sacrament gave rise to devotion and worship of that special presence of Christ, even when Mass was not being celebrated.
Now of course Jesus did not institute the Eucharist so he could sit in a tabernacle being worshipped, he instituted it so that people could receive him and be transformed into his body and live with his life. But nevertheless, the generosity of God overflows all boundaries. Devotion to that sacramental presence is not an essential part of the Eucharist, but belongs to the overflow of God’s generosity and love. God does not give just enough, but more than we can ask or imagine.

The gift of the Real Presence is one that has inspired love and devotion down the ages. On Saturday we will celebrate the anniversary of the dedication of this Church as a house of prayer for God’s people. And what makes this church holy, above all, what makes it a place of prayer, is the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Jesus is here, day and night, whether people realise it or not. His love radiates from the Tabernacle, his presence warms cold hearts, converts sinners, comforts the troubled, sets the hearts of secret saints ablaze. And always he draws us to himself, to that most intimate and necessary union with him in Holy Communion.

So at the end of Mass today we will celebrate that real presence in our devotions to the Blessed Sacrament, which you’ll find in the weekly bulletin after today’s readings. A consecrated Host will be placed on the altar in a display case called a monstrance, so that we can focus our attention on the abiding presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of his love. It’s traditional to kneel or sit reverently while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. There will be a hymn, then a time of silence, some prayers, and another hymn. Then there is benediction, which is a blessing given from the Real Presence of Christ himself in the consecrated Host.

Now we might think that’s all very well, but isn't it just a bit far from the last supper in the upper room, that straightforward meal with Jesus and his disciples together? Isn’t it just all too complicated, too fussy? Aren’t we drifting away from the simple commandment of Christ to eat the Lord’s Supper in memory of him?

But I wonder. What do children do, when someone who loves them enormously gives them a really great present? Do they scrupulously fold up and discard the shiny wrapping paper and ribbons? Do they carefully read the instructions to the letter in order to make sure they only do exactly what it says on the box, and nothing more? Do they then put the gift away in the cupboard, and get it out, say, just once a month, for fear that otherwise they might be making too much of it? Do they indeed. And if they did, wouldn’t the person who loved them enormously, and gave them such a wonderful gift, be rather disappointed?

Today we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist with childlike joy. Corpus Christi invites us to go beyond the merely necessary, and to delight in the exuberant abundance which God delights to give to us. There is more than enough for everyone, but still there is no excess, for God’s generosity does not lead to greed or surfeiting but to the increase of our joy and thanksgiving.

There is so much we do in church that we don’t actually need to do. We don’t need beautiful buildings to celebrate the Eucharist, we don’t need candles, incense, vestments, music and all the other things with which we adorn our liturgy. But our delight and generosity reflect God’s delight and generosity. The special devotions of this day are part of that exuberant delight.

The joy and grace of the Eucharistic celebration is not meant to be contained within tight boundaries. It is meant to spill over, and does so in all the extra devotions with which God’s children like to adorn this wonderful gift.

It is meant to spill over, too, into the rest of our lives. The Eucharist is a sign and foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God, in which all of human life is to find its fulfilment. It increases our joy, and it should also increase our charity, our generosity, and our justice. The Eucharist breaks open all boundaries so that those on the edge can be welcomed into the centre as the most honoured guests. The Eucharist refashions human society, transforming the world into God’s Kingdom just as it transforms bread and wine into the risen Lord.

God has invited us into his Kingdom, and given us a foretaste in this holy meal. This is not just for when we are in church, but for the whole of life. It is not just for us, but for the whole of humanity, all sorts and conditions, the whole motley crew of them. And we, the disciples of Jesus, we are to spread the table for the feast. Welcome to the party.

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