Sermon for CORPUS CHRISTI – High Mass and Outdoor Procession of the Blessed Sacrament Thursday 26 May 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Kevin Scully, Rector, St Matthew’s Bethnal Green
Dear Ms or Sir,
The number of people in religious orders, especially those in the Church of England, is in decline. That means much of the highly commendable work of these communities is at risk of extinction.
Many orders produce (or have done so) wafers for the celebration of Holy Communion. I suggest a camera crew visits a number of religious houses to see the monks and nuns at work where the ageing exponents use specialised equipment to turn out altar breads.
Each vignette could contain an interview with community members, as well as a tour of the holy houses and grounds, giving viewers an insight into the at-risk religious heritage of this country.
The programme I am proposing could therefore be fun, intriguing and attractive to your viewers. It could also shine a light on what successive Archbishops of Canterbury have described as a hidden treasure of the Church of England.
It would be entitled the Great British Wafer Off.
Yours sincerely, Mister J. Pettigrew.
This admittedly fictional pitch to the producers of Factuality, or whatever it is at the BBC nowadays, should not come as a great surprise to a church from which some members were once involved in a blind tasting of altar wine on the Radio 4 Sunday programme. I think I was a student at theological college when that occurred, so it must be ancient history. The one aspect I recall from that segment was that every participant – man, woman, lay and ordained – correctly discerned, and condemned as undrinkable, the non-alcoholic wine used by Methodists.
One could do a similar taste test today. Among the breads to be used at Holy Communion – and I am only speaking of those I have personally encountered as a priest in the Church of England when filling in at various places of worship in London – have been white sliced (with and without crusts), sometimes impressed with lines for easy breaking; bread rolls – white, brown and organic; pitta bread; wafers of varying sizes, articulation and colour; and, perhaps most memorably a home made rock that made the fraction something of a test that could have got me on I’m a Priest, Get Me Out of Here. Yet these are all valid breads, whatever our personal preference, for the use in the consecration of the sacred mysteries.
Today is a day when the stuff of the world – bread and wine – is celebrated for what it is, bread and wine, whatever its provenance but, more importantly, it is also celebrated for what it becomes by the power of the Holy Spirit in the presence of believers, the body and blood of Jesus. Corpus Christi is a festival where we look at the here and now, the mundane, the ordinary, and dare to see beyond it. Or, more particularly, to two elements of the here and now, bread and wine, and look through them to God.
Some of you may have encountered a catechism in your Christian formation. This, if you are looking for it, can still be found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. If this were part of your formation, I expect you will not have forgotten this:
‘What meanest thou by this word Sacrament? – I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’
Those who have been prepared for Confirmation at the parish I serve, St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, are drilled in part of that definition of sacrament– an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
Sacraments are doors through which the divine is revealed. We open doors and step through the doorway to go from one place to another. We need the door for a purpose. A door is not an end in itself. The most holy sacrament, the blessed sacrament, the bread and wine that contains the body and blood of Jesus, is a wonderful door to heaven.
For some the reverence shown to the outward and visible form, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, can be puzzling. All Saints is, of course, a place where Benediction is celebrated. Indeed, it will form part of our worship here tonight. This meditative service venerating this awesome sacrament, is one that compels many of us onto our knees. But others can stumble at the doorway. They can’t take to it. As an American friend once said, ‘I love the Lord, but I don’t get this cookie worship.’
Those who are formed in the catholic tradition should be prepared for, and have a response to, such confusion. In the same way as we pray to God through the saint portrayed in an icon or a statue, we see Jesus in what he has given us to eat and drink. In some ways too we look beyond what we receive.
This is not some kind of hippy throwback thought, but a fundamental working out of the Incarnation. In the same way as the Word became flesh, God became a human being in Jesus, we see him in the world around us. He comes to us in the form of bread and wine. We celebrate that and literally take him into us to allow us to go beyond the gathering of the mass, to work with him in the world.
To go back to the BCP for a moment, another catechism question asks what are the benefits to those who partake holy communion. The answer? ‘The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.’
This is food for our journey. It is, as we recall in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread. It is the stuff of life. We must therefore make the link in our lives: our communion with God should extend to how we work, how we rest, and how we play. If the marvellous ritual we encounter here, or in whatever form the Eucharist is celebrated, if it does not enter into us and remind us of God, and compel us to take him outside of here, it is a hollow sham.
While we may have a preference for one kind of bread, wafer or host, or even a passion for a kind of altar wine, red, white or even rose, it should not be the preference that is celebrated. That would be a dead end. The road must lead beyond the altar. That is God’s gift to us in the Blessed Sacrament. And that is why, dare I say, we will take the sacrament in out into the streets in procession tonight.
I would like to assure you this is not new. So, might I suggest the Director of Factuality draw on the fifth century St Gaudentius of Brescia when he replies to Mister Pettigrew.
‘It was Christ’s will that his gifts should remain among us; it was his will that the souls which he had redeemed by his precious blood should continue to be sanctified by sharing the pattern of his own passion. For this reason he appointed his faithful disciples the first priests of his Church and enjoined them never to cease to perform the mysteries of eternal life. These mysteries must be celebrated by every priest in every church in the world until Christ comes again from heaven, so that we priests, together with the congregation of the faithful, may have the example of Christ’s passion daily before our eyes, to hold it in our hands, and even receive it in our mouths and our hearts, and so keep undimmed the memory of our redemption.
‘Besides, since bread is made from many grains of wheat ground into flour, mixed with water and baked by fire, it is appropriate that we should receive the sacrament of Christ’s body in the form of bread. For we know that Christ has become one body made up of the many members of the human race and brought to completion by the fire of the Holy Spirit.’
Now that does take the biscuit.