Corpus Christi - 6/23/2019
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
June 23, 2019
Those of you who were raised in a Protestant tradition can relate to me when I say that I was intrigued by all of the ritual and peculiar practices in the Episcopal Church. And so many of the strange things are made even more peculiar by being referred to by a Latin name.
For example, I remember the first time I learned about the existence of the piscina. The piscina is a special sink that drains into the earth instead of the sewer. In some of the older churches in Europe, it’s a niche in a stone wall close to the altar, but in modern places like ours, it’s a metal sink that looks like every other sink, connected by a pipe called a sacrarium in Latin that leads directly to the ground. A piscina is primarily used for washing the communion vessels after Mass. Why do we need a special sink with a special drain with Latin names? For two reasons: first, the communion vessels have been consecrated (formally set apart) by a bishop for holy use, but more importantly, because there are remaining particles of consecrated bread and wine left on the vessels.
While theologians have been fighting about precisely what happens to the bread and wine at Holy Communion – and how it happens – the bottom line is that we believe in the “real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist”, a doctrine that leads us to reverently consume the leftovers after Mass, and that further leads us to treat even the most minute particles of the consecrated elements with utmost reverence.
In the upper room so many years ago when Jesus said, “This is my body”, he didn’t say “This has or will become my body” nor “This symbolizes my body.” He says, “This is my body.”
And in today’s gospel lesson from John, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Those listening to him got confused and asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” To which Jesus responds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” It is hard not to hear Eucharistic overtones in this passage.
The Episcopal Church’s catechism says that the Eucharist is the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. This is the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. And despite what my former Baptist friends and colleagues may think, the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been believed by Christians since the very beginning. Even a cursory review of the early Church Fathers reveals a deep and universal belief that the that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, with many of the Fathers referring to the consecrated elements as the same flesh and blood that suffered and died on the cross.
It was not until the early Middle Ages that the Church felt the need to further define how the change occurred. Like many dogmatic statements throughout the centuries, the formal doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated in response to a French theologian who, in short, denied the doctrine of the Real Presence. This notion of transubstantiation restated the doctrine of the Real Presence, which is fine, but it but went further in trying to explain how the change happens by superimposing Greek philosophical terms like “substance” and “accident” onto Christian theology. There had never been a need to even talk about how the change happened, and this overreaction on the part of the Church helped contribute to the schism that happened a few hundred years later. Since then, theologians have been fighting about precisely how it happens, but in my view, they’ve continued a discussion that continues to be unnecessary and unhelpful. In the opening hymn, we sang these words, speaking about the Jesus in the Eucharist: “Thou art here, we ask not how.”
Around the same time that the doctrine of transubstantiation was defined, today’s feast of Corpus Christi – the body and blood of Christ – became widespread. It grew out of Maundy Thursday which we celebrated nine weeks ago. On that day, the Church celebrates the institution of the Holy Eucharist in that upper room so long ago. But Maundy Thursday also commemorates the institution of the priesthood, and Jesus’s washing of his disciples’ feet, making it quite the busy liturgy. Because the Eucharist can easily get lost in all of the hustle and bustle of the Maundy Thursday, and in conjunction with an increasing number of the faithful being devoted to the Eucharist in a special way, there began to be calls for a special feast solely focused on the Eucharist, and the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the whole Western church in 1264 A.D.
Fast forward to the Protestant Reformation a few hundred years later. Corpus Christi was abolished in England. Why? Because Corpus Christi had come to represent all of the excesses of medieval Catholicism that disgusted folks like Martin Luther and Thomas Cramner. Many churches celebrated a procession after Mass on this day in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried by the priest under a tent throughout the neighborhood. To give you a feel for the Reformers’ view on Eucharistic exposition, all I have to do is quote Article XXV from 39 Articles of Religion, the original doctrinal statement of the Reformed English Church: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.” Or how about this from Article XXVIII: “Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Remember that the Articles of Religion were formulated in a time when yes, there were Eucharistic processions, but practically speaking, lay people weren’t allowed to receive communion except for a few times a year. The average Christian’s Eucharistic piety was not about receiving the body and blood of Christ for his or her redemption, it was all about gazing upon it – when the priest elevated the host and the chalice during the Eucharistic prayer, and at moments when the sacrament was exposed in a monstrance. The Reformers responded by saying, no, the primary purpose of communion is to eat it, as Christ commanded us to do, but they may have overreacted a bit in response to the Roman excesses of the day. And despite claiming that they never change their minds on matters of doctrine, sometimes Rome comes around to our position on things. In 1971, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission reached agreement on Eucharistic doctrine, relegating the term “transubstantiation” to a footnote, in which it is said to affirm the fact of the ‘mysterious and radical change’ rather than to explain how the change takes place.
On Maundy Thursday, the joy of commemorating the institution of the Eucharist is overshadowed by what we all know will happen the next day: the Lord’s awful death on that tree at Calvary. It is meet and right for us to rediscover the baby that the Reformers threw out with the bathwater when they abolished this great feast of Corpus Christi. And as much fun as a Eucharistic procession around downtown Kansas City sounds, we’ll have to wait until next year, for the canopy or tent we have is in ill-repair and is a bit too somber. Next year’s procession will be grand!
In the meantime, let us rejoice in the great gift God has given us in the Holy Eucharist in which the inward and spiritual grace of the Body and Blood of Christ is given to us in the outward and visible signs of bread and wine. Let us sing hymns of gladness, and wear the finest vestments, and use the gold communion vessels. Let us revel in the mystery of what we’re about to behold at this altar – that God would use ordinary creatures of bread and wine to join us with all the saints in heaven and on earth in the eternal banquet of love which began on the hill at Calvary and continues each time we obey Christ’s commandment to “do this in remembrance of me.” Let us give thanks to God that while we may struggle with the mysteriousness nature of the change that happens, in the bread and the wine we are made one body with Christ, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. And as we gaze upon the elements at the elevations in a moment, let us join with St. Thomas Aquinas in proclaiming these words which the schola will sing at the offertory: “Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary, having truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for mankind, from whose pierced side water and blood flowed: be for us a foretaste in the trial of death! O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, son of Mary, have mercy on me.” And let our pious gazing upon our Lord in the bread and the wine make us yearn to receive Him just as the deer yearns for streams of water. Amen.
 F.. L. Cross and E.. A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1637.
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