The Thursday following Trinity Sunday is kept as the feast of Corpus Christi in the Anglican Church. This year we kept it on the following Sunday. Here’s what I said.
By 1965 Bob Dylan was recognized as one of the leaders of the folk music revival in America. Songs like The Times They Are a-Changin’ led to him being called “The spokesman of a generation”. And then he went and did something that alienated many of his fans. On July 25th 1965, appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, a bastion of traditional and authentic folk music. Sandwiched between two traditional performers, he made the spontaneous decision to appear not with his usual acoustic guitar but with an electric guitar and backed by a fully amplified band. There is film footage of his performance. Within a few bars of his first song you can hear the cheers – and you can also hear the booing.
Some fans never forgave Dylan for abandoning his acoustic guitar in favour of an electric one. For them traditional was all important. It was said at the time that Dylan had “electrified one half of his audience and electrocuted the other.” The incident has become known as the Electric Dylan Controversy. Who would have thought that the choice of guitar would provoke such hostility from some who had previously been such fans? Hard to believe, when we hear electric guitars all the time, that the choice of guitar would be so difficult for some to accept.
Jesus provoked much the same reaction after what he said in today’s gospel reading. “I am the living bread…” he says, and goes on to talk about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Some people were deeply shocked. The whole idea of drinking bloodwas anathema to the Jews – as much as Bob Dylan using an electric guitar was anathema to traditional folk fans. Drinking blood was forbidden by the Law. And so shocked were some that we discover if we read on a few verses after today’s gospel that “many of his disciples turned back and followed him no longer.” Hard to believe, when we use such language week by week, that the choice of words would be so hard for some to accept. And yet, for countless Christians down the centuries, eating his flesh and drinking his blood has been at the heart of what we do every Sunday. Because we believe that this is what Jesus told us to do. And so today, on this feast of Corpus Christi, we gather around our Lord’s Table to reflect on the presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
You might think, of course, that the appropriate day to do so would be Maundy Thursday, the day on which the Eucharist was instituted. The Church, however, soon found that this wasn’t practical, given the emphasis on that day of the Passion of our Lord and the importance that was felt of stressing the washing of feet and the new commandment of love. So the Thursday after Trinity Sunday was chosen as the first free Sunday after Eastertide as the day to commemorate the institution of the Eucharist. We are now allowed to transfer it to the following Sunday. The institution of the feast was largely due to the influence of Blessed Juliana, a devout nun of Liège, who was led to take action in the matter in response to a vision she had in the year 1230. And in 1264 Pope Urban IV commanded its observance throughout the Western Church. It has been universally celebrated ever since as a day on which we reflect on the real presence of Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. At the Reformation, when it got rid of so many other feasts, the Church of England kept this one.
By virtue of Christ’s word of institution, “This is my Body which is given for you,” and by the power of the Holy Spirit, ordinary bread and wine become the Sacrament of Christ’s life-giving sacrifice, his Body and Blood. And to remind us that something wonderful and holy has happened the mystery of this change is reflected in the rubrics of every Anglican Prayer Book since the first Anglican Prayer Book of 1549, including Common Worship. The rubrics of the Church, and canon law, remind us that the bread and wine of the Eucharist are no longer ordinary bread and wine. The consecrated Sacrament is to be treated differently, a treatment corresponding to that mystical change. The consecrated Bread and Wine is either to be received in Holy Communion, or it must be reserved in a proper aumbry or tabernacle, or it must be consumed entirely by the end of the service. All the procedures of the Church in its Eucharistic liturgies are organized around the principle of respect for the Real Presence of Christ.
Our customs concerning receiving Holy Communion also centre on respect for the Real Presence. We bow to the altar, the place of the Presence; but we genuflect when the Sacrament is actually there and we are near it. The clergy kiss the altar on entering and leaving – for this is the place where we will have our encounter with Christ, really and truly present in the sacrament. We hold out our hands, one flat over the other, in the form of a cross, to provide a reverent throne for the Body of Christ. Our prayer books – again, including Common Worship – tell us to say “Amen,” as the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, are given to us, for this moment of receiving is a holy moment as Christ gives his very self to us. Many of us make the sign of the cross before receiving either the Host or the Chalice, as a sign that we do indeed desire to receive Christ’s body and blood “in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving.”
Saint Paul says that if we approach the Body and Blood of Christ in an unworthy manner, we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves. He even says that irreverent or impenitent participation in the Sacrament is dangerous to body and soul. But Paul is by no means speaking solely or even chiefly of the Real Presence of Christ in the Bread and Wine. He is speaking of the Body of Christ as being also, or even principally, the people of God gathered at the altar. For Corpus Christi is a feast where we remember not just the body of Christ on the altar but the body of Christ gathered around the altar – for we, too, are Corpus Christi, the body of Christ. In fact, outward piety towards the consecrated Bread and Wine, if it is accompanied with rudeness to others, unkindness, slander, gossiping, cruelty and suchlike, is just as bad as irreverence to the consecrated Bread and Wine itself. We must treat the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ which is his people, with just the same reverence as the Corpus Christi, his gift of his own body to us in the form of Bread. For we need to understand that Christ does a similar sort of thing to his people as he does to the bread and wine. As he changes common bread and wine into his Sacramental Body and Blood, so too he transforms sinners into living, consecrated members of his Body the Church.
As so as we gather together at each Eucharist we pass the Peace of the Lord (his Resurrection greeting in the Upper Room on Easter) with courtesy. We treat one another with the dignity and respect due someone for whom Christ gave his life. We are friendly to strangers, visitors and newcomers at the door. We go out of our way to help the weak, the infirm, the sick, the disadvantaged, the powerless. We try to respect and make way for one another in doing our part, in offering our services in the liturgy and to one another. We pay attention to the liturgy and participate; for Christ is not only on the altar, but in the Word, and in each of us. And beyond the church doors, once we have left this place where the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, has been given to us, and where it is reserved both to be taken to the sick and for the devotion of the faithful, we also are aware that we are the Corpus Christi. We are the Body of Christ. We represent Christ in our daily life and work. There is within each of us the Real Presence of Christ, as we carry him to the world around us.
There it is, this great mystery, the Corpus Christi. When you look up at the Sacrament Sunday by Sunday as the priest lifts it high at the moment of consecration, remember that just as the Bread and Wine become his Body and Blood; just as he becomes really and truly present in ordinary everyday things, so too as we receive the Sacrament he becomes really and truly present in us. We become his Body, his Real Presence in the world.