Trevor Thurston-Smith’s homily for Corpus Christi at S Paul’s, Burton-on-Trent, on 20 June 2019
It’s a real privilege to be with you this evening and I’d like to thank Fr Stanley for his kind invitation, and all of you for your warm welcome. It’s also good to see a number of familiar faces from Horninglow.
Those of you who know me may remember that I trained for the priesthood at Chichester Theological College. The College closed in 1994 – eight years after I left – when the Bishops did to ordination training what Beeching did to the railways.
The former college building is now a Residential Care Home, and more than one rather unkind wag has been known to say, “No change there then.” When I last visited Chichester, it seemed that the old College Chapel was being used as a dance studio. I suppose there’s some continuity there too, as some students were rather obsessed with liturgical choreography.
Chichester stood very firmly in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, so most of its students came from parishes where Mass with vestments, bells and smells and reciting The Angelus were the norm. Many of them were also familiar with that Catholic devotion known as Benediction.
For anyone who’s not familiar with it, this is a service at which a consecrated host is placed in a receptacle known as a monstrance. Usually the monstrance is highly decorated and the bit in which the sacrament is exposed is often designed to look like the sun. The monstrance is placed on the altar, usually surrounded by a multiplicity of candles, for adoration by the congregation. Prayers and devotions are then said, and finally, the priest makes the sign of the cross over the congregation. The priests’ hands are veiled to show that the people are being blessed not by him or her but rather by Christ himself, present in the blessed sacrament.
The college authorities at Chichester were worried that this practice would be seen by some as too extreme for an Anglican Theological College, so it was banned. As a compromise arrangement, the Bishop of Chichester held a service of Benediction in his private Chapel on the first Monday evening of every month, and students from the College were invited to attend, and did so enthusiastically. On the remaining Monday evenings of the month, in the College Chapel, we had a rather bizarre observance that was known rather inappropriately as ‘Exposition’. This involved the doors of the tabernacle on the high altar being opened, supposedly to reveal the sacrament within. The trouble was that the high altar was miles away up at the east end of the chapel, and there was a space and another altar between it and the nave. In good light, with a strong pair of binoculars, there was a slight chance that students on the front row might just be able to discern the outline of the ciborium – a sort of lidded chalice – that held the reserved sacrament.
It was all a bit of a farce, so it was I suppose inevitable that on one occasion, as the Principal solemnly opened the tabernacle, genuflected devoutly and prepared to walk away, a student felt moved to burst into song:
“A room with a view…..”
Somehow that student did go on to be ordained, but he’s now the responsibility of the Roman Catholic Church rather than the Church of England.
Well that’s enough nostalgia, for now at any rate. We’re here this evening on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi, to give thanks for the gift of the Eucharist – this wonderful sacrament in which we receive Christ in a special way.
You may wonder why we need to do this. After all, we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday as we commemorate with particular poignancy our Lord’s last supper with the disciples.
The problem with Maundy Thursday, though, is that there’s really far too much going on. There’s the foot-washing and the giving of the new commandment to love one another; there’s Judas the betrayer slinking off into the darkness to do the dirty deed; there’s Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and, of course, the terrible looming prospect of his impending death.
So the church in her wisdom, decided to have this separate celebration focussing purely on the Eucharist itself.
Some Christians of course – to say nothing of those outside the church – will wonder what all the fuss is about.
Well the fuss is about the fact that this is the one and only service that Christ himself instructed us to hold. He didn’t say to his disciples, “Hold a family service, a ‘Songs of Praise’ or Choral Matins in memory of me”. Instead he told them to take bread and wine and to do this. Other services have their place, of course, but the Eucharist is central to our worship precisely because it is what Christ has commanded us, his disciples, to do.
But why did he command it?
The clue lies in the language he used.
The word used in the Gospel that is rather inadequately translated into the rather ‘wet’ English word ‘remembrance’ is actually the Greek word ‘anamnesis’, and this means far more than a simple looking back; it’s far more potent that the kind of nostalgia I’ve wallowed in this evening. Rather it describes a form of recollection that can impact powerfully on the present and change someone’s behaviour in the here and now.
From this, of course, comes the Catholic doctrine of ‘Real Presence’ and the idea that the Eucharist is far more than just a symbolic memorial. As someone once eloquently said, “The Eucharist isn’t a funeral tea for a dead prophet”.
Many years ago I was shocked when a very Catholic-minded priest whom I respected greatly said in the course of a retreat, “I’m not stupid enough to worry about what does or doesn’t happen to a piece of bread.” But as I’ve got older, I’ve found myself thinking exactly the same thing. Don’t get me wrong; I certainly believe that Christ is especially, mysteriously and wonderfully present in the sacrament, but I really can’t be bothered to get wound up about consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, or debating how God actually does it. Let’s face it, it’s a mystery that we’re never going to understand this side of the grave.
In any case, surely what really matters isn’t what God does to a bit of bread, but rather what that bit of bread does to us; and that brings me back to what Jesus was up to at the last supper.
When he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it; when he poured the wine, blessed it and shared it, he was giving the disciples a means of anamnesis – a means of recollecting him, of recalling his death and his giving of himself – a means of remembering that was so potent that it would impact powerfully on their present and change them.
Tonight, we are giving thanks for this means of remembering that is so potent, that it changes and transforms us in the here and now.
If you’ll allow me just one last reference to Chichester, our Principal used to get a real bee in his bonnet about people who received communion and then immediately genuflected before going back to their seat. His argument was very logical. He pointed out that a priest carrying the sacrament wouldn’t genuflect to the sacrament elsewhere because his focus would be entirely on the sacrament in his hands. So, he went on, when we have just received the sacrament into ourselves, we shouldn’t be reverencing it externally elsewhere, we should instead be honouring and rejoicing in the Christ who is now within us. He went on, “If you really can’t help yourself and you must genuflect, for goodness’ sake genuflect to the person next to you at the altar rail and honour the Christ in them”. I quite like that idea, because it certainly resonates with Jesus’ teachings about serving and honouring others and his suggestion that what we do for the least of our brethren we do for him.
There is a danger for all of us that making our communion becomes an act of individual piety and nothing more; that it becomes about ‘me and my Jesus’ so that we forget about the neighbour in whom we are asked to see Christ and whom we are called to love and serve.
The Anglican Priest and theologian Dan Hardy wrote this:
The individual pilgrim shares in the Church’s eucharistic communion, and eucharistic communion extends beyond the sanctuary into all the daily actions of its members……We are to imitate Jesus by walking round, embodying a presence on the actual land.
Those of us who like to call the Eucharist ‘Mass’ need to remember that that word comes from the Latin Missa which means ‘to be sent’. The name comes from the words at the very end of Mass – known as the Dismissal – go in peace to love and serve the Lord. In other words, you’ve reconnected with Christ, you’ve been fed now it’s time to get out there into the world and be Corpus Christi – the body of Christ in our very needy world.
Tonight, as we give thanks for this wonderful sacrament, let us also recall what we are called to be and let us resolve afresh to always approach the Eucharist believing that through it we will recollect Christ in such a powerful way – that we will reflect anew upon the meaning of his death and resurrection – and that his Truth and his Love will transform us here and now.
So as you make your Communion week after week or even day after day there’s one question I would ask:
Do you, in your life, clearly display Christ mysteriously and wonderfully present in you like the monstrance placed high and visible on the altar.
Or are you just ‘a room with a view’?