Sermon for CORPUS CHRISTI – High Mass and Outdoor Procession of the Blessed Sacrament Thursday 4 June 2015
Sermon preached by Dr. Peter Groves, Vicar of St. Mary Magdalen, Oxford
Gospel: John 6: 51 – 59
When I think of my time at theological college, it’s fair to say that I was not well behaved. I came having studied theology for the previous six years, and was exempt from much of what was prescribed for most others. This left me, and a friend in a similar position, with too much time on our hands, never a good thing for those with a certain amount of growing up to do. One of the first bits of trouble we stirred up was an unsuccessful campaign to persuade the powers that be that the Blessed Sacrament should be reserved in the chapel. Despite initial enthusiasm, we were unsuccessful, but we took our revenge at the college Christmas revue, offering up some Eucharistic devotion with a twist: we formed a choir and sang along lustily to hymns such as “we hail thy absence glorious”; the dangerously modern, “Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One was almost here”, and the more medieval “Of the glorious body telling, or we would if it were there! Westcott House, the light expelling, bids us seek our Lord elsewhere.”
Now I don’t think it reflects well either on me or on the Church of England that such mischief is among the very few things I can remember about theological college, but it was a useful reminder that we inhabit a broad church, and that much of what we take for granted in the catholic tradition is strange to others. And this strangeness is not, in itself, a bad thing. We should be worried if we find that our attitude to the eucharist, the sacrament of our salvation, is one which takes that miracle for granted. Every so often, we need to step back and marvel, and that is why we keep the Feast of Corpus Christi.
If do we stop and think about it, the claim made in the catholic doctrine of the eucharist, is bizarre beyond words. Lady Jane Grey is alleged to have asked, of the presence of Christ in the consecrated bread, “how can he be here who made us all, and the baker made him”? Unfortunately, the days are gone when we could send people to the Tower of London for saying such things. Sorry, I meant: fortunately…. But in a sense, she is right – it’s an absurd suggestion.
However, the give-away for the unfortunate Lady Jane is the first half of her charge – how can he be here who made us all? A perfectly good question which reminds us that saying anything about God in human terms risks absurdity. How can God be here among us, in any form? Many at the time of the Reformation dismissed the Eucharistic presence with the objection that the body of Christ is in heaven and not here. But if heaven is a place as the earth is a place, then frankly I’m not very interested in getting there. Proper study of the catholic doctrine of the eucharist will remind us that the presence of Christ in the sacrament is not a physical, local presence – we are no nearer to Christ at the altar than we are to the north pole, and the body of Christ is not moved as we carry it around. The body of Christ cannot be physically contained, limited or constrained. But that is precisely the point. Christ’s body has no physical limitation, but my body does. My body is all I have with which to worship my redeemer, and that bodily self, that physicality, is today enjoined to celebrate the physicality, the bodily truth, of God’s redemptive act in the presence of Jesus Christ.
Christianity, we should remember, is not about abstracts, it is about things, about particulars, about the particular redeeming presence of God in Jesus Christ, divine and human. It is precisely because of our inability to articulate the meaning of what it is to be divine that God comes among us and transforms our world – and within it, the things that we say – to unite it with himself. The presence of Christ which we celebrate is not something static, something limited to an object or a place. It is the presence among us of the eternal offering of the Son to the Father. What we celebrate in the eucharist is our being drawn up into the worship of heaven, our being enabled to share in the very life of God, a life of perfect self-giving in love, the life which we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In our gospel reading we heard Jesus speak of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Greek teachers enjoy reminding students that the word used here does not mean “eats” so much as “munches”. He who munches on my flesh. The material reality of the eucharist, something physical which is something spiritual, could hardly be more clearly stated. But the point of the word is not an emphasis on realism so much as an emphasis on life. The word really belongs in the context of animals feeding, or grazing. For livestock to graze on something is continually to be digesting it, to be sustained by that process of chewing and eating which is the basis of their life.
That sixth chapter of St John reminds us that the eucharist is the source of true life. What is present to us in the Eucharistic elements is the personal presence of the one who is always and perfectly interceding for all of humanity. The Eucharistic celebration sees us present to God our unworthy offering in order that it be taken by Christ and transformed into his perfect offering. Having been transformed, it is given back to the worshipper as the food by which the life of the church, the Body of Christ, is sustained, the food which is indeed our daily bread.
The presence of Christ, if it is real, is the presence of that dynamic giving and receiving. Eucharistic worship becomes for us the language of offering and self-giving: both the physical language of we who receive, kneel process, adore; and the theological language of humanity redeemed by identification with the self-giving of the Trinity. Adoration of Christ in the eucharist enables us to offer ourselves in worship to the God whose very life is self-offering, of self-sacrifice, the act of self-giving love which is the eternal action of the Trinity.
Hence, then, Corpus Christi, a time for making a fuss, a time for standing up and being counted for our belief in this most miraculous of divine truths, that the God who made the heavens and the earth gives himself without reserve for love of you and me, that the one who frames and sustains the heavens is the one who is broken and poured out for the stupid, selfish, sinful pride of every single one of us. It’s not rational, it’s not sensible, it’s not convenient, but it does happen to be true. So we must never apologise for worshipping Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, present among us in the sacrament of his body and blood, for if the miraculous truth of God’s ludicrous love is not worth celebrating, I don’t know what is.