Friday, June 24, 2005

Corpus Christi

A sermon by Canon Howard Stringfellow, Diocese of Bethlehem.

+ In the Name of the True and Living God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

The grass, sometimes, is greener on our side of the fence. We can be forgiven for thinking our ecclesiastical controversies are sharper and fiercer, and more consequential, than many of the past. And if we can be forgiven, we should seek forgiveness the best way we know: by hitting the nearest kneeler or hassock and asking for it and by taking comfort, which means strength, from the Holy Sacrament, the Sacrament of Unity, the very unity of Christ's body.

Many of us take that view, that our conflicts and our situations, beyond being ours, are somehow more difficult, more challenging, more daunting than those our forebears and predecessors knew. We like our problems, and we wallow in them, mired yet still fully able to wring our hands. But this narrowness and provincialism need forgiveness and correction which is ours by God's gift in the gift of his body and blood.

On July 16, 1724, the Blessed Sacrament was carried in procession around a church in the Polish city of Torun. One account of what happened next tells of a "mean Lutheran burgher" who, with exceptional audacity, refused to bare his head. Appalled at such blasphemy, one of the Jesuit students pulled off the offending hat from the head of the offensive Protestant. For these troubles that student was promptly assaulted by other Lutherans and locked up. Other Jesuit students, apparently unknown to their teachers, then kidnapped and locked up a Lutheran, with the intention of making an exchange of prisoners. This, in turn, prompted a mob to attack the Jesuits' college, where, having beaten up some priests and torn down some altars, they "hewed down the sacred statues and tore and hacked to pieces the images, and especially that of the Holy Virgin." They then dragged to the public square before the schools the statue of the Blessed Virgin and others, where they burned them openly, impiously exulting and leaping over and around the fire.

I am indebted to Jonathan Wright's account of this public spectacle in his year-old book, God's Soldiers, for reminding me by this example of the enduring Eucharistic controversy that our controversies have not yet been fully mined to produce a lode of the highest quality of discord, the purest ore of public degradation. If we think our controversies more important or unique, then we should ask for the forgiveness that narrowness deserves, and we should hesitate before we think ourselves more challenged, more attacked, and more put upon for standing up for our beliefs.

As the Sacrament of Unity, as the body and blood of the Lord, the Eucharist, and how we believe in it, understand it, participate in it, and celebrate it, witnesses to other Christians and to the world that we believe that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, as we read in the First Letter of Saint Paul to Saint Timothy.

For the first one thousand years of the church's history, the Eucharist was viewed primarily as a sacred action. The ancient church insisted that the Sacrament was instituted for the sanctification of the people of God. Thus, according to the early theologians, the purpose of the Eucharist was not so much to make Christ present among us as to be our sacrifice and sacrificial meal. The effects of the Eucharistic action, distributing the benefits of Christ's passion, claimed those early Christians' first and fullest attention, for through the Eucharist and by participation in the Eucharist, Christ saves sinners.

Our controversies, for the most part, touch upon other questions of the church's life. But we need to continue to understand something. The Feast of Corpus Christi is important to us not so much for knowing how Jesus is present in the bread and the wine as knowing why that Presence is a life-and-death matter. We must, as the Gospel today proclaims, eat his flesh and drink his blood; for if we do not, as Christ says to us in the Gospel today, "you have no life in you."

The Eucharistic action, the offering and the blessing of the bread and the wine, the breaking of the bread, and the distribution of both, incorporates sinners into the divine life: this is the heart of the Eucharist and the heart of the Gospel. We are not just spirits and souls; we are bodies as well, and sin wastes us, body and soul. When the Son of God took our nature, he particularly took our flesh and blood, and he dedicated them entirely to our salvation. Christ's humanity, body and soul, is in perfect union with his divinity. That union is not marred by sin. His body and his blood are medicine to our infirmity, food and drink to our hunger and thirst.

As food for our hunger and drink for our thirst, Saint Thomas Aquinas, too, elaborates the importance of the Real Presence, setting aside, if only for a moment, his definition of that Presence. Hear him do so: Christ "offered his body to God the Father on the altar of the cross as a sacrifice for our reconciliation. He shed his blood for our ransom and purification, so that we might be redeemed from our wretched state of bondage and cleansed from all sin. But to ensure that the memory of so great a gift would abide with us forever, he left his body as food and his blood as drink for the faithful to consume in the form of bread and wine."

As surely as the Jesuit sinned in lifting the "mean Lutheran" burgher's hat, and as surely as the Lutherans sinned in attacking the Jesuits' college, we also find ample occasions to sin in our controversies. Doubtlessly, we think we are right; doubtlessly, we think others are wrong; perhaps we believe we have to be the ones to hold out for the right. We might be happy in thinking ourselves right forever but for this. The humanity of our opponents and those with whom we disagree, too, has been incarnated. Christ took their flesh, not just ours. Christ shows no partiality. He is no respecter of persons. He came to save us all. Christ has opened the way of salvation for all sinners, whether they be right or wrong about this or that. And, further, being right doesn't relieve us of the need to partake in Christ's sacrifice and to eat his sacrificial meal. And neither does being wrong disqualify us from participating and receiving. The Sacrament of Unity saves us all in our blindness and in our sight, in our rightness and in our wrongness, and in our strength and in our weakness. On this great Feast and at the end of this and every day, in the Eucharist, Jesus does to us what he does to the bread and the wine in the miracle of the Mass: we become the Corpus Christi. So, let us take and eat with love and reverence, and let us by God's grace live up to what we have received and to what Christ calls us to be.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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