HOMILY—CORPUS CHRISTI, 18 June 2017—Desiring God’s Body
In the name of the one, holy and undivided Trinity: Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a fair question. Imagine if you had been there, listening to Jesus talk about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. You certainly would have thought he was being provocative. You may have thought he was a bit off-balance. Eating his flesh and drinking his blood. Isn’t that cannibalism, one of the greatest of all taboos? On the other hand, would you really have taken Jesus at his word, or would you have simply thought he was using a colourful metaphor, if perhaps a rather inflammatory one? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In other words, how is such a thing even possible? And what might it mean?
Today, we are celebrating Corpus Christi, more formally known as the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Its origins are Medieval, introduced into the liturgical calendar as an expression of thanksgiving for the institution of the Eucharist. Some of you may recall from those days here in Québec when the Feast of Corpus Christi was marked by large public processions with the host being carried aloft in a monstrance. These were also occasions for a display of civic belonging, as various community groups marched in the procession. The feast was a religious occasion, but also a cultural one. It bridged the sacred and the secular. This is actually not a bad way to make sense of Corpus Christi, but also of the Eucharist more generally: as a bridge, a link, a go-between—a way for us, as human creatures with a very real and tangible physical body, to make sense of an incarnate God. A way for us to become more like God, as God became like us. And, ingestion is key to that process. Yes, ingestion: a material merging of bodies.
A theologian and Episcopal priest friend of mine wrote a book a few years back called Divine Communion. Here’s what he writes in his conclusion: “At the heart of Christian liturgical practice sits that meal we (…) call “Thanksgiving”… By receiving only a bite of bread and a taste of wine and calling that moment a “feast,” the Church invites a profound recalibration of gratitude. Even as the word eucharist means “thanksgiving,” that rite depends on desire (…) our hunger for a re-enchantment with the wideness of God’s world and all its many creatures. (…) Eucharist can quicken the desire that dwells deeply in every human heart, the desire for that communion we cannot now fully imagine but of which we have precious and priceless hints (…).” When referring to the Eucharist or to the ritual of Communion, Medieval Christian mystics often spoke in terms of “desiring or eating beauty.” For them, the body and blood of Christ were, in fact, realities deeply caught up with our senses—not only our senses as disparate processes, but our senses as wholeness, a kind of imaginative merging of our various sensory experiences. One could therefore not only desire divine beauty, but also eat it.
When I was in Catholic parochial school, I remember the nuns taught us that you shouldn’t bite down on the host. Chewing the body of Jesus or having your teeth touch it was sacrilegious. We would therefore perform gymnastics with our tongue, trying to pry free the host which would invariably stick to the roof of our mouth. The good sisters were wrong, of course. There is nothing blasphemous about chewing the host; it is, after all, bread. But this reveals a mentality then very prominent: that receiving Jesus in communion is so important, so special, and so extraordinary that one should not in any way stain or dirty it with our own bodily processes. It was also why we could not receive communion in our hands; only the priest’s consecrated hands could touch the sacred host. This stood totally opposite to the idea of Eucharist as feeding and as a feast, as though Jesus became incarnate in a human body not quite like ours, as though his was an angelic body.
Of course, we should have been told to bite down on Jesus, to make him one with us, to merge with his flesh, to let our enzymes and whatever else we have in our saliva convert him into our own flesh and blood. We should have been told to ingest Jesus so we could better digest him, so our own mortal body could be fed and transformed and made immortal by his. We should have been encouraged to see and experience the Eucharist for what it truly is: one-on-one bodily intimacy, a selfless giving of God’s very own body so that our bodies could be refashioned in the divine image. In sum, we should not have been made fearful of the Eucharist.
I think Anglican theology and liturgical practice is, if not quite fearful, then at least somewhat muddled about the Eucharist. Beautiful language apart, the BCP communion service still emphasizes quite heavily Cranmer’s perspective of the Eucharist as sacrifice and our own unworthiness in receiving it. We never seem to be quite sure. Is it simply a memorial, or is it the Real Presence (capital R, capital P)? Is the meaning of the Eucharist to be located in our own inner disposition of faith, or rather in the experience of community that we share when we gather as one around the table? Actually, I’m not sure there needs to be a single Anglican way of understanding the Eucharist. As with most things, our diversity is both our uniqueness and our strength. I suspect there are Anglicans out there who believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and why not? Our “muddling” is not about confusion or uncertainty, but rather about recognizing honestly that we are in no position to understand fully the mystery of the Eucharistic presence, of how God continues to inhabit the simple elements of bread and wine. We need to be comfortable with that. We need to be comfortable with the mystery of God’s absolute sovereignty. God does not owe us a theological explanation.
That may sound somewhat harsh if not cavalier, but such a perspective, I believe, opens up for us a rich panoply of possibilities for how we can possibly understand and, even more importantly, experience the Eucharist. Because the Eucharist is not simply, or even primarily, a theological puzzle to be unravelled. It is a material reality to be experienced, to be embraced, to be inhabited, and to be shared. The Eucharist—the body and blood of Christ—is food. As simple as that. And what does food do? It keeps us alive. And what do we do with food? We ingest it so that it becomes part of our very own body. And what are our most vivid experiences of food? Those we share with others. So no wonder Jesus told his listeners to eat his flesh and drink his blood. He was trying to keep them alive. Not necessarily in a physical sense—you can’t go very far on a small host and a sip of wine—but in a spiritual sense. His words were quite firm: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” That should be a source of comfort and reassurance for each one of us. Whatever else may happen in our lives, however far we may stray, the Eucharist will always make us one with Jesus. It’s not a question of our being worthy of it. It’s a guarantee, regardless. In that sense, the Eucharist can be a source of transformation in our lives. We should not be afraid, therefore, of desiring God’s body. We surely all know about the unique pleasure and goodness to be found in desiring human bodies, so why not God’s? Jesus himself extended an invitation to us to do so. We simply need to say “yes.”
The Eucharist, of course, is not just something that is experienced between me and Jesus in the privacy of my body or of my soul. It is also a communal fact, a collective feast, and a moment of public sharing. It is what we are doing here this morning and every other Sunday of the year. I suggest we think of it as an experience of “holy promiscuity.” When we come together around the altar, we have not necessarily chosen those we stand with. They may be strangers, or we may even dislike some of them. But in God’s eyes, that does not matter one single bit. We are thrown together purposely, deliberately and promiscuously as a sign of what we could and should be—of what we will be—in the Eucharistic feast in the Kingdom. In sharing the same food, we become that food. We become one bread and one cup. Whoever I may be, whatever I may have done, or even however I may choose to define myself as a Christian: all such distinctions or identities are ultimately meaningless. All that matters at the table of the Lord is that we share of the one food, and that food will feed and sustain us as one body. In that way, the Eucharist is both reality and promise. It promises to fulfill what we already know.
For a long time in the history of the Church, all sorts of debates raged about the Eucharist: How is Jesus present? Should we be allowed to communicate under both elements? What age should one be to receive communion? In what proper spiritual and bodily state should one be to receive? These were all interesting theological questions, some more controversial than others, but all ultimately came to pass. Because when you really come down to it, the Eucharist transcends all of them. Such questions say far more about us and our narrow and fixated minds than they do about God’s boundless generosity in sharing God’s very own body and blood. In the Eucharist, God desires us as much as we should desire to taste and eat God.