Corpus Christi 2006
Even for Christians today, influenced by the world of ideas around us there are plenty of surprises. First of all that the one true God should have taken on human nature and lived among us. I remember hearing of a Moslem who heard of Jesus being crucified and replied that he could not believe in a God who was so weak!
It is surprising that this Son of God would choose to suffer and then to die for us. Some other outsiders unused to Christian teaching find this beautiful and remarkable, too good to be true. I also remember hearing of an incident where the Christian story was explained to a young woman with no religious background in Communist China and she said what a beautiful story; the unspoken words were, but it is too good to be true.
It is also surprising that the Son of God would decree that his saving death and resurrection, that perfect sacrifice which was effected (brought about) by the blood of Christ at his death, should be remembered through a sacrificial meal where the bread and wine are turned into Christ’s body and blood.
It is appropriate that Our Lord should have chosen the symbolism of a meal to remember him. It is the claim that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ that is jolting.
And finally it is surprising that Saint Paul speaks of the followers of Christ (that includes us) becoming part of the body of Christ, becoming divine in some sense, even though we are physical as well as spiritual, because we have a share in this one loaf and one cup.
Today’s gospel passage is Mark’s account of the Last Supper. Jesus instructs his disciples to take and eat and drink what he describes as his body and blood. This forms the basis of the Words of Institution that every priest utters during the consecration. In chapter six of John’s gospel, Jesus makes the startling claim that He is the living bread come down from heaven to give those who take communion eternal life.
This provoked arguments among his followers which have continued to this day and John later recounts that some of Jesus’ followers left him because of this issue. It is provocative, because Jesus is not relying on God’s spiritual presence, but on tying his own continuing real presence to bread and wine, and the ritual eating of this bread and wine.
The controversy and differences remain today throughout Christianity. Many Christians teach that the Catholics have been mistaken for centuries in teaching that Jesus Christ is truly present in the consecrated species, that the bread becomes the body of Christ. They believe in a symbolic presence only, a ritual for remembrance sake, in contrast to the extravagance of Catholic claims.
It was not so many miles from here in his Palace at Croydon that Archbishop Cramner abandoned his belief in this Catholic understanding.
Now it is certainly true that the wine is not changed into physical blood. Appearances do not change, contrary to the expectations of some youngsters when they first have the Christian teaching on the Eucharist explained to them. I have had little ones come up to me and ask to have a look at the chalice, asking “does the wine turn into blood?” And I say no, no, that is not true.
However while the Church Catholic has solemnly defined very few passages in Scripture she has defined the scriptural words, This is my body and this is my blood. They are to be taken literally. Our Lord is really present, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the remaining appearances of bread and wine. On this point one can and should be a biblical fundamentalist!
Saint Augustine, whom I have often quoted – a North African bishop who died in 430 in a part of the world now which is almost completely Islamic – when he was preaching as a local bishop to his people early in the fifth century said, dear people that which you see on the Lord’s table is bread and wine, but when a word is added that bread and wine become the body and blood of the Word. That is not an expression of common sense. Faith is needed to believe that.
Writing 800 or more years after that, Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote in the hymn, ’visus tactus gustus fallitur – our sight, our taste and our sense of touch are all deceived’ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This is completely true, and reinforced by repetition. We get used to this great miracle.
We speak of the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated species. This is different from and superior to the presence of God in baptized individuals, in communities of believers, (we are told that where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, the Spirit of God is there also). Recently I heard of a catechist explaining this text to a church going senior primary lad. “But when I pray by myself is God still with me?” he asked. She was able to reassure him.
The Real Presence is superior to the presence of God in a priest, in nature, or even in the Scriptures. None of these are God or become God, although in a variety of ways they can be described as godly.
Let us then pray this prayer of thanks for the gift of Christian faith, a prayer of thanks for the traditional Catholic teaching about the Real Presence and let us come to Communion with added reverence and pray more frequently before the Blessed Sacrament.
The final word comes from Our Sovereign Lady’s illustrious predecessor and namesake, Elizabeth 1 on being asked her opinion of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament:
‘Twas God the word that spake it
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.