Preached at Emery House
The Feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for the Body of Christ), has been celebrated since the late 13th century in the western church, remembering what Jesus said at the last supper when he pointed to the bread which he called “his body” and the wine, which he called “his blood.” In the church calendar, we first remember this on Maundy Thursday; however Maundy Thursday is a rather complicated memory. The name “maundy” comes from the Latin, mandatum, which is a command. Jesus commands us “to do this,” the very thing that we do here at this noonday: to name and claim Christ’s being really present with us in the form of bread and wine, the very thing he promised. And there is a second commandment which we remember on Maundy Thursday: Jesus’ calling us to “love one another as [he] has loved us.”[i] One of the many ways we are to show this love is in the washing of one another’s feet. And then, on Maundy Thursday, things go downhill as we remember Jesus’ later going to the Garden of Gethsemane, pleading with his disciples to stay with him, watch with him, to be really present to him… then Jesus is seized by the governing authorities, he is flogged, his disciples abandon or betray him, the crucifixion happens. In the heart’s memory, the institution of the Holy Eucharist on Maundy Thursday is overshadowed by so many layers of suffering.
This feast of Corpus Christi remembers the joy in Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist. Here, some words of Dom Gregory Dix (1901-1952), an English monk and priest of Nashdom Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community. This excerpt comes from his massive tome, The Shape of the Liturgy, first published in 1945:
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.
Men and women have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son; for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men and women have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them.
And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.[ii]
[i] John 13:34.
[ii] The Shape of the Liturgy, by Gregory Dix (Dcre Press Westminster, 1945), pp. 744-745.