In my London parish I had a standard funeral homily outline for those I had never met – although I always pumped the family of course for any details or stories that would bring the dead to life (metaphorically speaking). A Caribbean community funeral in Peckham could bring anything up to 700 people crowded into church, the entrance narthex and outside on the street. My sermon on such occasions always began with the well-known words of S. Paul:
“For now we see in a mirror dimly; but then face to face: now we know in part; but then shall we know even as we are known. And now abides faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
And it is these words that seem to me to be particularly apt for this the great feast of Corpus et Sanguine Christi – The Body and Blood of Christ, commonly known as Corpus Christi.
Let me explain. The whole of the Christian revelation from the book of Genesis to the Book of Revelation, read in the light of Christ’s life, death and resurrection and in the power of the Spirit is a continuous unfolding of God’s ways with man. God’s purpose, God’s will, His love, forgiveness and the hope He brings to our human frailty. This is slowly but surely revealed. Not all at once. Not with a total clarity – for to see God face to face would kill us: you can prove this to yourself by imagining God Himself somehow in the next room and you going in through the door. We would be consumed.
And so we see only as in a mirror dimly. Signs and symbols, sacraments and scriptures, rituals and songs, music and words, sacred things and holy places – all these stir in us some part of the divine which we carry and which we are commanded to ‘show forth in our lives’.
Not everybody will be familiar with the liturgy of Benediction with which we concluded the mass we recorded for this feast to be found on this site. But it is a particularly appropriate ritual devotion for this feast which is a feast of thanksgiving and devotion to the sacrament itself. Today is not a thanksgiving for the institution of the Eucharist itself – that is the focus of Maundy Thursday. Today is about the mystical transformation of the bread and wine into the very body and blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. “This is my body; this is my blood”
And so at the mass and at Benediction the host is raised up and we bow before it in contemplative devotion. We praise God in this His sacrament of the altar. We praise Him for all his aspects and manifestations and we receive His blessing, His benediction – for these words have the same meaning.
Some perhaps, remembering the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine articles from their youth might recall number 28 and the instruction that,
“The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped”.
Sadly, like so many things proclaimed with such self-righteous finality Christ actually said nothing at all on this matter. Indeed as a human being at the time of the last supper with his friends he could hardly have been able to predict the whole development of spirituality and devotion which the following 20 centuries would bring about in relation to this sacrament. But even if he could, what do you suppose Jesus’ attitude to people wanting to pray, to be close to Him and worship Him – maybe only from afar but with heartfelt praise and deep longing?
Exactly. If we think about it, I am sure we would conclude that He would have encouraged people to use any devotion to keep that greatest of virtues, love, alive in their hearts and lives.
Since we cannot now contemplate going to Church more than once on a Sunday – if indeed even that – so we have lost a range of wonderful services and ceremonies which would enliven our faith and inspire and comfort us in our need. Evensong from the Book of Common Prayer is one such loss – as indeed is Morning Prayer. Don’t you, like me, miss singing – or even saying – in common, the Benedictus, the Te Deum, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. I know I miss the marvellous Anglican musical settings for these services which praise God in all the differing times and seasons?
- O Lord, show thy mercy upon us;
R. And grant us thy salvation.
V. Endue thy ministers with righteousness;
R. And make thy chosen people joyful
And so in a very similar way we kneel before Christ’s body and blood on the altar and pray at the simple devotional service called Benediction:
Blessed be God.
Blessed be His Holy Name.
Blessed be Jesus Christ, true God and true man.
Blessed be the name of Jesus.
Blessed be His Most Sacred Heart.
Blessed be His Most Precious Blood.
Blessed be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
The Christian religion has always recognised that there are different seasons, different emotions, different ideas and actions which all combine to make the human person and the human experience – and the Christian faith uses and blesses all these differences to encourage and enable everyone to worship God in their own way. As the book of Proverbs so rightly says:
“To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born,
And a time to die …
A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn,
And a time to dance- (as I have said before the dancing in the Cathedral leaves much to be desired!)
A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing – (this verse was written with the diocesan Covid-19 instructions in mind)
A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
A time to keep,
And a time to throw away (responsibly of course – or better, recycle)
A time to tear,
And a time to sew – (now that’s a time that has never yet come to me personally)A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
A time to love,
And a time to hate;
A time of war,
And a time of peace….
As one gets older (and older and older) some of the rules and regulations which had seemed so essential in one’s youth now seem less important. What remains important though is the Truth: the truth of our religion and that truth informing our lives and our actions; and of not therefore living a lie.
Corpus Christi reminds us – no, indeed shows us – that Jesus is alive today, in the world here and now, in the Cathedral and every church, and on every altar now. Our best response is to fall down and worship Him. This is why we genuflect or bow as we approach the altar at Holy Communion, as we pass the Blessed Sacrament reserved, or why we bow our heads to receive God’s blessing in benediction.
The obsessions of the Reformation are long gone. Today’s world is one where all people of faith, of whatever branch of the Universal Church, need to work together with people of goodwill for peace, mutual respect and the dignity of every human life and person. Black lives matter. The lives of every human being matter to God as they should to us.
As we place the blessed sacrament of the altar in the monstrance we believe that the priest holds the Lord in His hands. It is no pointless ritual. It is a shewing of the life-force which gives our lives meaning. It is a commitment to the way of life that Christ, broken for us, showed on the cross.
For we are all called to bring the bread of life – be it sacrament, food and drink or charity and comfort, to the sick and suffering; to the poor and weary; to the outcast, asylum seeker, refugee or boat person. In this way we are sharing the body of Christ with those whom Christ loves. As we offer food, shelter, refuge and support to any who seek our help on these shores, in the seas that surround these islands, or in any that we meet, so we offer Christ Himself water, food and clothing – for he is always one of the naked, the starving, the outcast, the abandoned and the wounded of this world.
Christ’s body broken for us and His blood shed for us, is the living, ever-present sacrifice at the centre of our faith and our lives as Christians. This feast deserves a procession round our streets, rose petals strewn in front, the band club banging the drum and sounding the trumpet! Let’s have the servers in their cassocks and cottas, thuribles swinging, choirs singing, people’s hearts o’er-brimming with love and devotion for Him who is our Master and our Lord. Let the hymn of praise ring out from one and all:
Blessed be Jesus, true God and true man!