The Body and Blood of Our Lord: Corpus Christi
June 11, 2020
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
When the Churchwardens and I decided to suspend public worship back on March 15, and the Bishop confirmed church closures the next day, it quickly became clear that we were entering an extended period in which the members of the Body of Christ would be separated from Christ’s Eucharistic Body. Many of my colleagues, for well meaning, pastoral reasons, tried to frame this for the people of the Church as a fast. Right from the start, I was uncomfortable with this image. First, a fast is a discipline one undertakes freely. It is intentional abstinence meant to heighten awareness of God’s presence, usually in preparation for some undertaking or anticipated period of feasting. It is a noble project. None of you, however, chose this discipline. It was forced upon you in response to a once-a-century public health crisis. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, I do not believe Jesus ever meant us to fast from the Eucharist. How can we?
The Eucharist is a gift, given freely by Our Lord in his final hours. It is the culmination of a ministry throughout which, over and over again, he fed the people with his very body. The only day we do not partake of the Eucharist is Holy Saturday, when we remember his death on the cross and the absence of his Body. The Eucharist is Christ’s legacy to the Church so that we may gather around his Body, present with us in that moment, commit ourselves once again to being working members of that Body, and go into the world to do our ministry. Every time it is offered is an opportunity for each baptised person to respond with a resounding “yes!” to the invitation to communion, to continued and refreshed life in Christ. The Eucharist is not for the baptised to give up or refuse. If we choose to abstain from the Eucharist, we are cutting ourselves off from the Body of Christ, literally excommunicating ourselves and substituting our judgement for that of God and the Church. An Eucharistic fast, therefore, is never appropriate.
We have been separated from our church buildings and prohibited from gathering together for sound epidemiological reasons. We did not choose for the Body of Christ to be separated from the Eucharistic Body of Christ. You have been prevented by circumstances beyond your control from coming to mass. I have been humbled that I have been able to celebrate the Eucharist and partake of it. When I make my communion, I believe that I am doing so on behalf of the people of God, standing, as the priest does, in the person of the Church. I have striven to make the Eucharist available to you by showing, making it visible, so we may see Christ’s corporeal presence, take it in with our eyes and make our Spiritual Communion, which the church teaches is real and meaningful when the faithful are prevented, as you have been prevented, from receiving. Even that, I know, is insufficient, to make up for the longing I know many of you feel to once again be united with Christ and one another in receiving the Sacrament.
When we started this period in which you have been prevented from approaching the sacrament in any other way than on YouTube, I had been planning a Corpus Christi sermon about seeing Christ’s body, perhaps even discussing Aristotelian and Medieval optics. I had been contemplating this for a while and then our dear friend Mark Schultz wrote something about it that stimulated my thinking further. Now, however, in this moment when we see once again Black and other minority bodies beaten and murdered by the police, and a nation rising to address this sin, it has become clear that we must look at the significance of the image of the Body of Christ and its presence and meaning, our participation and incorporation into its life, through a different lens.
The Body of Christ that we have been beholding in the monstrance this past week in the form of the Eucharistic Host is a concrete expression into this moment of Jesus’ corporeal presence with us. It is a focus of our devotion and our attention, a reminder of its physicality and reality. Viewing that Body in the form of wafer bread, mounted in its gold and silver monstrance, it is easy to forget the pain and suffering of Jesus’s passion and death. Yet, the Host we see before us shows us both Christ’s broken body and his risen body, his body restored. The Risen Christ returns with the scars of his torture and death, and the splendour we behold incorporates and acknowledges those marks.
Viewing the Host, all white and encased in precious metals, and remembering all those images of Jesus from western art, it is also all too easy to forget that Jesus’s body was not a white body, as we construct whiteness. Centuries of European and American art and thought have processed Jesus’ middle eastern, Jewish, minority body and portrayed him in the image and likeness of those with power and authority. Jesus’s body was not, however, ever a body with the kind of power that earthly rulers, the rich and powerful, often (even usually) take unto themselves. This is what Jesus refused in his temptation. The devil offered him dominion over all the cities of the known world, over the Roman Empire itself, and Jesus refused. Jesus affirmed that his power was not that of human authority, but of God, whose purpose is love and whose project is the establishment of a new and different kingdom, the Kingdom of God, founded on principals that reverse the priorities of the world of politics and economies.
Jesus’s body was handed over to the authorities. He was given a show trial. He was taken off by his jailors to be beaten and humiliated. He was killed by the Roman state using an unspeakably cruel (but not unusual for its day) means that amounted to nothing less than torture. And we know he suffered. He used the words of Psalm 22 not to complain to God that he had been forsaken (as many would read it), but rather to express both his pain and his hope in God:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart also in the midst of my body is even like melting wax. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my gums, and thou bringest me into the dust of death. For many dogs are come about me, and the council of the wicked layeth siege against me. They pierced my hands and my feet: I may tell all my bones: they stand staring and looking upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
This is the Body of Christ in pain on the cross, calling out, “Save me from the lion’s mouth; thou hast heard me also from among the horns of the unicorns. I will declare thy Name unto my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.” Jesus’s suffering Body, the very Body of Christ, crying out in pain, the same body we have been beholding on the altar and that will bless us at the end of the service, is the critical element of his humanity, and we are united with it for ever. Jesus’s suffering body matters, and if we say that the Body of Christ matters, we must also affirm that Black bodies matter, that Black lives matter.
I don’t say “Black Lives Matter” as a political slogan or merely to join in a chorus of privileged white voices getting with the program. “Black lives matter” is, in fact, a theological statement. If the Body of Christ matters, then Black bodies matter. It is as simple as that. Black bodies matter very much, constitute an essential element of, and are beloved members of the Body of Christ. When Black bodies are broken, then the Body of Christ is broken.
While we have faith that in the fulness of time those bodies will be raised and made whole, it does not, however, in any way minimise the suffering, erase the scars, somehow make it all better. When Black bodies are broken and suffering, we, too, cry out with Jesus in those words from Psalm 22, “O my God, I cry in the day-time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season also I take no rest.” At all times, but especially when the Body of Christ is broken and in pain we are called to repentance, reflection, and to action, we are called to be ministers, living up to the standard of Matthew 25 about which I spoke on Sunday.
Jesus says, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” This is the life to which Christ calls the members of his Body. It is a life of lived love, expressed for those who are suffering and in pain. In our country today Black and minority communities are suffering, Black and minority bodies are broken by poverty and systematic, institutionalised racism that sits at the core of, and remains, the original sin born by American democracy. When Black bodies are suffering, the Body of Christ suffers, we all suffer.
The contemplation and veneration of the Body of Christ we have undertaken this week has been the contemplation and veneration of the whole Body of Christ, of members of the Body of Christ whose own bodies, whose Black bodies, have been broken, are in prison, thirsty and hungry, beaten, and murdered. If we forget those bodies when we look at the Host, and only see bodies that look like ours, than we have forgotten what it truly means to be a member of the Body of Christ; we forget what it means to take Christ’s own body into our body.
It may be some time yet before all of us will be able to gather together in this place and receive the Eucharistic Host. Our separation—not fast—will continue for a while yet. When we do return, it is unlikely that it will look and feel the way it did before the Covid-19 pandemic. It is unlikely to look and feel the way it did before George Floyd became the latest Black man to die at the hands of the police. Yet, gather we will. We will be here again, before the Sacrament, the Body of Christ constituted as the Church of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. We will make our bodies one with Christ and one another and receive a foretaste of the time when the priorities of this age will have been reversed and replaced with the priorities of God, the priority of Love.
Today, see the Body of Christ. See in his body not only bodies that look like our bodies, but bodies that are different, Black bodies, broken bodies. Knowing that the Body of Christ encompasses us all, receive the Blessing of the Body of Christ, receive his Body in your hearts and through your eyes, be filled with the Love of God, inspired to manifest Christ’s Body into the world, called to act as we see the Body of Christ broken in these days, and live the command Jesus gave us to love God and love our neighbour.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Saint Columba, 9 June 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume