St. Mary’s Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
June 11, 2023
Despite having entered the “green season” after Pentecost, commonly called Ordinary time, two Mondays ago, we are still wearing white on Sundays! Last week, we celebrated Trinity Sunday, and this week we celebrate with great joy the feast of the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, commonly called Corpus Christi. After the 40 days of Easter and the 12 days of Ascensiontide, we’ve been feasting for so long it feels extravagant – almost overindulgent.
Today’s feast has its origins in the High Middle Ages. Observed in England from 1318, this feast quickly became very popular among the lay people. Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, Corpus Christi guilds comprised of lay people (not clerics) were founded to organize elaborate Eucharistic processions in both small villages and large cities. [If you’ve never experienced a Eucharistic procession and have no idea what I’m talking about, you’ll have the chance to do so at the end of today’s Mass, though because of the rain, it will be a much more muted indoor procession.] These processions consisted of elaborate ceremonial and huge amounts of money were spent on banners, garlands, lights, and flowers. They were also civic events at which prominent members of society put their piety on display for all to see. These celebrations also became the principal occasions for the performance of cycles of devotional and didactic plays on the theme of salvation history, which in some places involved virtually the whole community.
Why all the fuss?
The heart of the Eucharistic procession, is, well, the Eucharist. A piece of consecrated bread is put in a glass container inside of a ridiculously extravagant silver or golden vessel called a monstrance so that everyone can gaze upon it and worship what they see. And then after the procession concludes, the priest blessed the people with the monstrance, or more specifically, with what it contains – the body of our Lord – in a ceremony called Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Why gaze upon the consecrated bread rather than eat it? Beyond pointing out that the two are not mutually exclusive, as is evident at this Mass when we will do both, because taking the consecrated host in procession through the area around the Church is a way of insisting that Jesus is not only present in this world spiritually, but also physically. This isn’t to say that the Lord’s human body is present in today’s world as his body ascended into heaven on Ascension Day. Rather, Eucharistic adoration proclaims that we believe that Jesus is not only spiritually present here on earth, but is present in the physical elements of the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In other words, he actually meant what he said: “This is my body” and “this is my blood.” He actually kept the promise he made to his church when he said, “I will not leave you comfortless.” By the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the hands of a simple priest, the extravagant love of God is made present to us today not only spiritually, but tangibly, on this and every Christian altar throughout the world. We rightly and routinely eat and drink of the Lord’s body and blood as he commanded, but the extravagance of this feast rouses us out of our slumber and reminds us that the Incarnation of God – God’s taking on human flesh – remains a reality even in our own day.
When these ceremonies came into being in the Middle Ages, lay people were required to come to Mass every Sunday and major feast, but were only allowed to receive communion a few times a year. At nearly all masses, the clergy would receive communion, but not the lay people. 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, as we will behold in a moment. It isn’t surprising, then, the lay people cherished the feast of Corpus Christi, nor is it surprising that the Reformers objected to the excesses of Eucharistic adoration and insisted on a return to the origins of this rite which consists of all the faithful – cleric and lay - eating and drinking, just as the Lord commanded. Thankfully, the faithful have been encouraged to receive communion regularly – even daily – since the beginning of the 20th century, and for my part, I’m thankful that Eucharistic adoration has also made a revival, at least in some corners of the Church. For in gazing upon the Lord as he is made known to us in the breaking of the bread, with all of the ceremonial and ritual extravagance and grandeur the Church can offer, we acknowledge that Jesus Christ has not left us nor forsaken us. He is here with us, in the midst of our troubles and our joys, binding up our wounds, and little by little, restoring us to the fulness of the image of God in which we were created.
Eucharistic adoration at a time when the bread of heaven and cup of salvation was being withheld from the faithful! What cruelty! It was as if the clergy were taunting the faithful with the Sacrament! Look, here it is, but you can’t have any! No, the balance we have here at St. Mary’s is just right – almost daily mass where all of God’s faithful people can receive the Sacrament regularly, and Eucharistic adoration on this great feast and a few other times throughout the year, reminding all of us of the lavishness and extravagance of God’s love for us – that he really did not leave us nor forsake us. All of this was beautifully summarized by St. Thomas Aquinas, the author of most of today’s liturgical texts, during a sermon he preached on this day.
“O precious and wonderful banquet that brings us salvation and contains all sweetness! Could anything be of more intrinsic value? Under the old law it was the flesh of calves and goats that was offered, but here Christ himself, the true God, is set before us as our food. What could be more wonderful than this? No other sacrament has greater healing power; through it, sins are purged away, virtues are increased, and the soul is enriched with an abundance of every spiritual gift. It is offered in the Church for the living and the dead, so that what was instituted for the salvation of all may be for the benefit of all. Yet, in the end, no one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament, in which spiritual delight is tasted at its very source, and in which we renew the memory of that surpassing love for us which Christ revealed in his passion.
“It was to impress the vastness of this love more firmly upon the hearts of the faithful that our Lord instituted this sacrament at the Last Supper. As he was about to leave the world to go to the Father, after celebrating the Passover with his disciples, he left it as a perpetual memorial of his passion. It was the fulfillment of ancient figures and the greatest of all his miracles, while for those who were to experience the sorrow of his departure, it was destined to be a unique and abiding consolation."
May Jesus Christ in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar be our abiding consolation, this day and evermore. Amen.
 Much of this paragraph comes from Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, pp. 43-44.
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Opusculum 57, in festo Corporis Christi, lectures 1-4.
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St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.