Today we keep Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. It was in 1264 that Pope Urban IV mandated this feast for the whole Roman Rite. So this year is its 750th anniversary.
Corpus Christi is a day in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, a day for contemplative focus on the gift that Christ has given us. And what a gift it is!
We eat to live. In the book of Genesis ch.1, God says to the man and the woman, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food’ (Gen 1:29). Fruit and vegetables! In ch. 9, after the Flood, he says to Noah and his sons, ‘Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything’ (Gen 9:3). Fish and meat now! But who’d have guessed that one day God would give us himself as food and drink? Would add himself to our menu? In the Old Testament, there were already hints: the paschal lamb, the manna in the desert, mysterious multiplications of food by prophets like Elijah and Elisha, the communion sacrifices of the Temple. But ‘on the day before he suffered’, Jesus of Nazareth took bread and took wine and did something never done before. By the power of his divine and human love he changed these elements into himself and gave them to us as nourishment for our journey. The Passion was the climax of Jesus’ life. He put his whole self into it; he expressed himself completely; he gave his all. And that evening before, he translated that action into the form of a sacrificial meal. And therefore he’s totally there. Under the appearance of bread and wine, he is really, truly and substantially present, in his body and blood, soul and divinity, his whole self, all of him. And we tell children and we can say to ourselves: it’s Jesus on the altar and Jesus we receive in Holy Communion. Here’s a food that doesn’t just keep our bodies going, but sustains the life of that “inner man” St Paul speaks of who needs to grow and become strong. Here’s a food that brings eternal life: ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day’ (Jn 6:54). The Bread of Life, the Chalice of Salvation. The memorial of his Passion and Resurrection. The most holy Sacrament of the Altar.
‘O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of your Passion…’ So begins the well-known prayer we heard this morning and hear at Benediction. If it’s the memorial of his Passion, it’s his sacrifice. It’s his love. It’s him. And the Collect goes on, ‘grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood…’ We pray for reverence. And the Church insists on this. Many think it’s not our strong point today. How do we show reverence, most especially at the moment of Holy Communion? We’re body and soul. So there should be reverence in our bodies and our souls. This is why we have a token fast of one hour, why we are suitably dressed. It’s why we should be focussed as we approach, not engaged in study of our fellow human beings! We should bow. And when the priest or minister says ‘the Body of Christ’, we should say a quiet but clear, ‘Amen’. It’s a profession of faith. It’s saying, ‘Yes, this isn’t ordinary bread any more. This is the Lord. Amen. I believe!’ If we receive in the hand, we should place the host in our mouth before we turn away. All this isn’t laying barbed wire to make a simple thing difficult. It’s just the appropriate response to this amazing gift which is given in such a humble way. More important still is to come with a reverent soul. To come with a living faith. To come humbly, ‘Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof’. To come as forgiven sinners, in the state of grace, not like the man at the party in the parable without the wedding garment. St Paul told the Corinthians to examine their conscience before they received. If ‘we eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner’, we’re profaning the body and blood of the Lord and bringing judgment on ourselves (1 Cor 11: 27,29). Strong words! Jesus said we should leave our gift before the altar and go be reconciled with our brother first. So, if we’re conscious of unforgiven grave sin, the way to communion is through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. If we’re in an irregular relationship, if we’re sleeping with someone who isn’t our true spouse, if we’ve done grave harm to someone or are planning it, we need to right these things first. If we’re in a situation which doesn’t allow of quick solution, then – as many good people do – we express our reverence by abstaining. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not out to discourage. I’m not laying barbed wire or putting up arbitrary hurdles. I’m simply stating the teaching and discipline of Mother Church. It’s a matter of a real, full ‘Amen’ on our side. It’s about hearts and lives open to what Christ comes to give. It’s about being good soil for Christ’s gift to bear fruit.
And so the prayer asks next ‘that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption.’ This is what’s offered in this wonderful sacrament: that together we become what we receive, the body of Christ, and each of us living parts of that Body. That our own poor little lives are enriched with his life and his love. That our body, blood, soul and humanity are ‘infiltrated’ by his body, blood, soul and divinity. That our lives become a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, a eucharist. That we become a sacrament of unity and peace, rather than a source of division. That we’re not mouldy bread or sour vinegar but nourishing, life-giving food and drink for others, fruit-bearing trees in the wilderness.
Jesus says it best: ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…This is the bread come down from heaven, not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever’ (Jn 6: 56,58).