Corpus Christi

Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14-16; Ps 147: 12-15, 19-20; I Cor 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

Rev’d Dr Deborah Meister, ODM

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast first proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas, who felt that Maundy Thursday was so tightly focused on the impending death of Christ that it would be helpful to have another day on which give thanks for the gift of Holy Communion. Traditional parishes have formal processions with the Eucharist, carrying it through town streets and farmers’ fields as a act of blessing — bringing Christ’s presence into the place of our lives and our labors just as Christ himself spent his life in the homes and workshops of ordinary people — because that’s where our life is lived.

As Anglicans, we believe that the Eucharist is Christ’s presence among us, his very body and blood, but what does it mean to be fed by the body of Christ?

A few weeks before I arrived at the first parish I served, a young woman in the parish suffered a terrible accident, one which left her quadriplegic. I’ll call her Maggie (not her real name). One minute, she was driving home from her first year in college; the next, she awoke in a hospital bed, unable to move her arms or her legs. The doctors spent months trying treatment after treatment; none worked. Finally, they met with her parents and said there was only one option left. It was an experimental therapy, one which required an immense investment in people and time. The idea was that when it proved impossible to stimulate the neurons in the brain to recognize the presence of the limbs, it was sometimes possible to work in the other direction, and teach the limbs to move in such a way that they were able to reconnect to the brain. People would need to come to Maggie’s house in teams of four, moving her arms and legs in tightly scripted patterns for four hours a day. They would need to come for months.

The family took it to our church, which was large, and more than fifty people signed up to help. And so, each day, Maggie would lie on her back on a table while people moved her arms and legs, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Maggie hated it. She was a normal girl, one who liked parties and friends and learning; this had no dignity in it. She tried to put a good face on it, but sometimes she was just crabby and angry. The volunteers tried to make it better with cheerful conversation, but there was only so much they could do. After a year, nothing had happened. The doctors told the family the treatment had failed. The volunteers could stop.

The problem was, they did not know how to stop. Stopping meant looking at a young woman they had grown to love, a person many of them had known since she was a child, and saying, in effect, “I’m sorry. You’re 19 years old and in a wheelchair and you’ll never move again, but there’s nothing more we can do. Have a nice life!” It was brutal and no-one knew how to say it. And so, because they did not know how to stop, the volunteers kept coming. It was awkward, and it went on for months.

But somewhere in that second year, something began to wake in Maggie’s body. There was the day a volunteer thought she saw Maggie’s finger move. The day someone else saw her move her foot. No one said anything; after all, what they thought they’d seen was not possible. And so I was utterly unprepared on Christmas Eve when I stood before the altar, giving out Communion, and I looked up and saw Maggie walking down the aisle toward me. O, she was not walking well: she lurched unsteadily, like a toddler, supported by her parents on either side. But she was walking! And when she saw my face, she smiled — the most radiant smile I’ve ever seen.  And she stepped away from her parents and shuffled the last few steps toward me on her own. Then she held out her hands — which she had not been able to move for two years — and I put the bread into them, saying, “The body of Christ, given for you.” And she smiled even more, and then turned and walked toward the wine and I stood there with the tears streaming down my face, knowing that I had just witnessed a miracle. Not the miracle of her healing,  although that would have been enough;  but the greater miracle of a community which had seen a person in need and had refused to walk away.

What St. Luke’s Church did for Maggie, Jesus does for us in the gift of Communion. When we were weighed down by sin and bad choices, flat on our backs with no way to move beyond what we had become, Jesus came to us. Not just as prophet and teacher, although that would have been extraordinary enough. But the teachers and prophets had already failed. They had taught and cajoled and seduced the people of God, but the people simply did not have the ability to start from zero and remake themselves or their world.

And so, faced with the stubborn intractability of human nature, Jesus did one more thing: he found a way to transform us from within. The night before he died, he took bread, blessed it, and said, “This is my body.” He took wine and said, “This is my blood.” He created a way to work within us, within our very bodies, to enable us to re-connect with our divine center, to free us to act in new and life-giving ways.

It is a shocking gift, one which turns religion on its head. So often, religion can lose its divine core, inspiration becoming institution until, in the words of Henry Cadbury, it has been “reduced to a system of clever substitutes for God.” But our souls do not want an endless diet of substitutes; they want “to touch Life itself.”[1] Eucharist gives us that Way. Pushing back against our theologies, doctrines, and ideas, Jesus gives himself to us in a way which subverts our reason. Which is to say, a way which confounds our own desire to control God, to regulate God, to be God.

The fact that Communion is non-verbal — Word made flesh — removes it from the realm of intellectualization and opens us to the experience of awe. Bread and wine are simply real. We cannot explain them or analyze them; we can only choose to eat, or let them be.  They are the most intimate form of divine presence we will know in this life, and yet, they point to an absence. We believe Christ is really present in them, and yet, we receive bread and wine, not a man laughing at our table. And so even as they meet our hunger for God, they feed it, cause us to yearn for more. In the words of St. Augustine, “You have made us for your self, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” (Confessions)

Part of that yearning is being opened to the incompleteness of this world. The body of Christ which we receive is a body which has been torn, broken, and dragged through the mud. Through his betrayal and crucifixion, Christ has become inseparable from human suffering and degradation. Perhaps that is why, in the Anglican tradition, Eucharist may never be offered by the priest alone, but only in the company of at least one other human being. Offering it alone opens the possibility that Communion could become a thing for our own solace or pleasure. It would sever it from the central fact of our interdependency, of our own radical incompleteness. We need other people as well as Christ; in them and through them we learn to grow in love. It is a paradox: we come to Christ as individuals, but we are saved only as a people, in the company of others with whom we have given and received grace.

I think that’s the image I saw when Maggie walked down the aisle that Christmas Eve: a person broken by life but put together again by commitment and grace and love.  The commitment of a human community brought together by the commitment of God. That’s what it means to be the Body of Christ, fed by the Body and Blood of Christ. To be nourished in pouring ourselves out for one another, as Christ poured himself out for us. To be fed with a love that never ends, until we are able to share it.  To grieve for the suffering of God’s people, until we are driven to reduce it, any way we can. To be broken into the brokenness of Christ, which alone can make us whole.

[1] Henry Cadbury, Introduction to Journal of George Fox, p. 31.

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