The Feast of the Body and Blood of Our Lord: Corpus Christi
Thursday, 20 June 2019
O God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament hath left unto us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 11:23-29
As most of you know, I grew-up here in Manhattan. When I was a teenager, I went to church quite regularly with my best friend whose father, the Rev’d Thomas Pike (now retired and of St Thomas Church) was then the rector of Calvary–St. George’s, a parish that then, as now consists of two churches—a rare “joint benefice.” One is Calvary Church on Gramercy Park, a lovely early Gothic revival building in the French style that in those days celebrated a Rite II Eucharist in, what would be in any other city, a generally High Church, English Cathedral sort of way with processions, incense, Eucharistic vestments, and a surpliced choir. The other is St. George’s on Stuyvesent Square, a great barn of a Civil War-era church that had fallen upon hard times and had seen a revival through the adoption of an Evangelical style that was not at all to the taste of this sixteen-year-old young fogey. Some people prayed with their arms in the air, they said the “New” Lord’s Prayer, they sang hymns I did not know, and they gathered in a circle for the celebration of the Eucharist. They seemed very enthisiastic.
One Sunday Father Pike told us to come to St. George’s that morning and he would take us out to lunch afterwards. Never ones to turn down a good Sunday lunch, we agreed. The service was, as we expected, all that we loathed, and afterwards we complained bitterly to him about it. After a while, he interrupted our tirade and said, “you know, someone is always unhappy with a church service. Today, a woman came up to me angry,”—and I will never forget this expression—“angry as only a religious fanatic can be angry, and demanded to know why we did not have an altar call today.” First, we had to ask what an altar call was. Then, when we found out that it was that moment, in an Evangelical service, when the minister invites people to come forward to proclaim that they have been born again, saved, and now have a personal relationship with Jesus, we were quite taken aback. We could never imagibe such a thing. In the end, we had a really good laugh about it: an altar call in an Episcopal Church! Indeed!
This story has stuck with me over the years. It has always amused and intrigued me—and for different reasons at different stages of my life. When I was at Church of the Advent in Boston and my first Corpus Christi came around I began to think about this idea of the altar call and why it does seem so antithetical to the Catholic expression of Anglicanism. On the surface, I think it is probably because many of us—myself included—are uncomfortable with this kind of affective, deeply personal and individualistic expression of devotion, that is made so publically. More deeply, however, I have come to believe that we do not have an altar call because we don’t need one. As Catholic Christians we already have a weekly expression of a wholehearted, physical response to God: the Eucharist in which we recognise and accept Christ incarnate with us today, here and now, in the sacramental meal of bread and wine.
Indeed, each time we hear the priest proclaim “the gifts of God for the people of God” or, as I say here, “Behold the Lamb of God,” we are presented with an invitation. And with that invitation comes the choice of whether to say “yes” or “no.” It is a real choice, a life-and-death choice that we are completely free to make each time. Will we choose to unite ourselves with God and with all other Christians? Will we choose to participate in what God is doing in the world? To participate in the loving activity of a God who is in the process of reconciling all things to God’s self? Or will we turn away from all this and say that we do not want to share in a life at the very heart of God? Or, will we follow a third path, and simply just wander up to the rail and stick out our hands without considering the awesomeness of our participation in the Eucharist? This last option, however, at least gives us the chance to encounter the sacrament and allow it to change us, regardless of our initial intention.
In the Sacrament we are offered no less than the love of God who is, as St. John always reminds us, Love’s very self. It is no less than the love that looked down at us from the Cross, looked down at us at our worst moment and still said, “I love you and offer you my love.” It is the love that overcomes death and finds, in the midst of the greatest tragedy, hope and resurrection life. And we are free to accept or refuse. In fact, this truly radical freedom to respond to the love God offers us is one of the signs that we are created in God’s image, that we share with God in the capacity for real love, freely given.
Love is that fundamental quality of God that can not be forced upon us. We can not be coerced into loving and we know this from our own experiences of human love. So much more then, God can not force us to love God. God can not force us to love each other. God can persuade us. God can and does continually offer us opportunities to respond to the love we are offered and for us to act in love. But for the love of God to be real, for it to operate in us, it must be accepted freely. This is the love—freely and continually offered—that is pulsing in the very Body of Christ, in the bread and in the wine that, being brought up and placed upon the altar, is transformed by the Eucharistic actions of thanking, remembering offering, and invoking the Holy Spirit into God’s self-giving love present with us, and then made available for us.
It is our decision whether or not to carry in ourselves, make a part of our physical being, and bring into the world the love and very presence of God. And in deciding to come forward, using the freedom God has given us in Creation, we know that the Eucharist is not merely something that we take, something to which we are entitled, but rather that it is a gift we are given. As we come forward and decide to accept this love, this new life, into our own bodies, we open ourselves to the possibility of being transformed by it and changed into that which we have received: the very Body of Christ alive in the world. In this way we pass along the gift God has given us in the Sacrament to the world through the actions of our transformed lives. This decision and the action of reception are our acts of faith. It is a faith that is not an intellectual ascent to a doctrine or idea, but the true, corporeal response to the love of God offers us. Our faith is something we Catholic Christians do.
Today we also mark in a special way that our participation in the Eucharist, in the fullest expression of Christian community is something not just of the mind, not just of the soul, but of our whole earthly, physical being. Indeed, although Thomas Aquinas tells us that all our senses, save hearing, are deceived in the sacrament, nonetheless our full participation in the richness of worship today is a real sign that our participation in the life of God involves all our senses. In the Middle Ages, when this feast was devised and added to the Calendars of Churches across Western Europe, for lay people special emphasis was placed upon seeing the Host, seeing Christ present in the community with us and knowing that he is there to protect and love us. Today we not only see the Host offered for us, we also walk forward to accept it, taste it, are transformed into it, and then we are able to see the Sacrament abroad, both in the host we carry aloft with us in procession and in each other. It is no wonder that Corpus Christi is one of the highlights for us of the Church Year.
So today, when we hear that invitation to Communion, let us all act like this is a true life-and-death decision. Let us act consciously to come to the love God offers us and take it into ourselves. Then, when we see the sacrament pass by us in procession, let us be filled with the knowledge and an awareness that we are beholding a reflection of ourselves, transformed into Christ Body, so that when we leave, we know that we are just like the host in that monstrance showing God’s love to the world, a world that may not know it needs it, and showing that this love is there for us, just by accepting it. And when we leave tonight let act as if we have been transformed by God into bearers of love, reconciliation, and hope. Tonight and tomorrow and for as long as we can, let us act as if God were truly dwelling in us and that we are united with all those who have received the Sacrament into one family, one Church, capable of giving ourselves up to God’s unfailing purpose of ever expanding love. I know we will like the results, and, more importantly, God will, too.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
20 June 2019
© 2019 Andrew Charles Blume