As the Church leads us through the sixth chapter of the gospel of Saint John in these weeks, today we focus once more on the Most Holy Eucharist. Throughout the bread of life discourse the Lord delivers a rich catechesis on the nature of this sublime gift, the freely-given gift of himself, thereby nourishing our faith and strengthening our hope of heaven. As the reality of Christ’s presence in the Most Holy Eucharist and its centrality is revealed to us in the sacred scriptures, we now consider the intrinsic link between the Eucharistic oblation we make here in earth and the banquet prepared for those who are faithful in the kingdom of heaven.
Throughout history the Church has placed great emphasis on the importance of mystery in the celebration of the Eucharist. In the Jewish temple, from where many of our liturgical traditions come, we find the origins of this in the Holy of Holies—the hidden inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle into which the High Priest (and he alone) entered on the Day of Atonement. In the first centuries of Christianity it was usual that the altar would be covered by a canopy and surrounded by curtains, closed during the most solemn moments of the Mass. In the medieval period, the sanctuary of the church was divided from the nave by a screen adorned with images of the saints, something which is still found in the Eastern rites, where the great icon screen—the iconostasis—is a reminder of the sacred character of the action that takes place beyond. Even now, the Church instructs that the sanctuary “should be appropriately marked off from the body of the church either by its being somewhat elevated or by a particular structure and ornamentation” (GIRM 295). From her earliest days, then, the Church has consistently sought to assert that, in her public worship, there is always a sacred aspect which is unseen.
The Requiem Mass is one of the most startling and pristine acts of Christian worship, with every action and word of the sacred liturgy ordered toward two distinct ends. First, we are summoned to pray for those who have died and who are now enduring the purification necessary to enter the eternal presence of their Divine Master. Secondly, we are called to a stark reminder of our own mortality; of the need to convert our hearts in order not to forfeit that opportunity ourselves; in order not to distance ourselves, through selfish desire, from the mercy of God not simply in this life but for all eternity.
Given at the Solemn Mass at Saint John the Evangelist, Silver Spring, during which there was the first administration of Holy Communion for children.
Last weekend I had the great privilege of attending the ordination of a new priest for the diocese of Covington, Kentucky. In the very pleasing surroundings of the exquisite French gothic cathedral, the bishop prayed that the new priest would be good, faithful, and obedient to the life to which – in that sacred ceremony – he was being conformed. On Sunday we gathered again in the cathedral as the new priest celebrated his first Mass at the high altar, and for the first time made present the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, as he will do with and for the Christian faithful each day from now until the day he dies.
This homily was given on Sunday 2 June 2013, the transferred Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street.
O sacrum convivium,
in quo Christus sumitur:
recolitur memoria passionis eius,
mens impletur gratia,
et futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur.
These are the words of S. Thomas Aquinas, written for the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, Corpus Christi, which we celebrate today. They are words that summarise what we are here to celebrate, and that give us four helpful indications of what the great gift of the Eucharist is, and how we, as Christians seeking a stronger relationship with the Lord, must respond to the outpouring of God’s grace which the sacrament gives us.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received. In the Most Holy Eucharist, under the simple outward signs of bread and wine, we find none other than Christ himself. Hidden beneath these manmade gifts, is God, who comes to abide with us in the tabernacle, and to feed us with his own self as the viaticum, the food of the wayfarer on his pilgrimage – our pilgrimage – to our rightful home in heaven. In the Eucharist, we gaze on Christ himself who is really and substantially present in our midst; we receive a foretaste of the worship which we hope to offer him in heaven, when we shall see him face-to-face; we see, held up before us, a reflection – not of what we are, but of what we are called to be: united to Christ in his body through our incorporation in Holy Baptism and his saving passion, death, and resurrection. We may see bread and wine, but we know through faith that Christ himself is received in Holy Communion. Again, to quote S. Thomas, What though sense no change discerns / only be the heart in earnest / faith her lesson quickly learns.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed. In the celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, in the Holy Mass, we keep “the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice” (CCC §1362). In the Sacred Liturgy, we do not simply recall the memory of past events – we do not reenact the Last Supper or even the Sacrifice of Calvary, but we rather proclaim “the mighty works wrought by God for men” (cf. CCC §1363; Ex. 13:3). In the words of consecration spoken by the Priest, we are given the same body which Christ gave up for on Calvary, and the same blood which he shed for the forgiveness of sins (cf. CCC §1365). The memory of Christ’s passion is renewed, because the sacrifice of the cross is re-presented for us, and we can say that the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice. We can say that, “The victim is one and the same: the same now offered through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross” (See CCC §1367; Trent, Doctrina de Ss Missae sacrificio).
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed, in which the mind is filled with grace. The Eucharist is often spoken of as the ‘sacrament of unity’. We know that when we welcome non-Catholic Christians to our celebrations of the Mass we cannot offer them Holy Communion, because to receive Holy Communion means to be fully united with Christ in and through his mystical body, the Church. The communion of the Church is the means by which we receive God’s grace in the sacraments of the Church. In the Eucharist, then, we are filled with the grace that flows directly from the saving actions of Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection. If we are open to God’s love, if we are fully united to Him through our baptism and have remained faithful to our baptism – seeking out the Lord’s forgiveness in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Penance, in confession, then our minds and hearts are indeed filled with grace, and we continue in that profound relationship with Christ, which will one day (we pray) lead us to him in heaven.
O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, in which the memory of His passion is renewed, in which the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us. The Catechism tells us that “If the Eucharist is the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus, if by our communion at the altar we are filled ‘with every heavenly blessing and grace’, then the Eucharist is also an anticipation of the heavenly glory” (CCC §1402). In the Mass we come into contact with the Almighty, who comes to us under the form of bread and wine, and so our minds and our hearts are lifted up to the place where the fullness of union with him will be: the heavenly Jerusalem. We are pointed beyond the things of this world, and toward the things of the world to come – away from the tawdry human food of mere bread and wine, and toward the glories of Christ’s own Body and Blood, which we receive in Holy Communion.
In the Eucharist we are given a pledge of the glories of heaven, because in the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy we are shown the very Person who calls us to be with him for all eternity. In the words of S. Ignatius of Antioch, in the Eucharist we “break the one bread that provides the medicine of immortality, the antidote for death, and the food that makes us live for ever in Jesus Christ” (cf. CCC §1405; Ad Eph. 20, 2: SCht 10, 76). In the Mass we are surrounded, as in heaven, by the whole host of angels and saints, who join with us in offering our sacrifice to God, and we are caught up in the adoration of our God, who bids us home to our heavenly fatherland: Qui vitam sine termino / Nobis donet in patria – O grant us life that shall not end, in our true native land with thee.
May our celebration of the solemnity of Corpus Christi be a reminder of this fourfold truth. May our devotion to the Lord in the Eucharist be ever more profound, and may we draw others – through a tangible love of the Holy Eucharist – to the God who has died and risen again for us, and by whose passion and glory we are given a pledge of eternal life with him in heaven. In this sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, we renew his passion, our minds our filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us, may we be found worthy to receive the fruits of what, in love, he has won for us.
Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the fifth Sunday of Lent:
When we journey without the Cross, when we build without the Cross, when we profess Christ without the Cross, we are not disciples of the Lord, we are worldly: we may be bishops, priests, cardinals, popes, but not disciples of the Lord.
Speaking to the Cardinals who elected him as the 265th Successor of Saint Peter, these were the words of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the Sistine Chapel on Thursday evening. Amidst the excitement of the past few days, even weeks, in these first words, our Holy Father reminds us not simply of the primary purpose of this season of Lent – which now enters a more intensive final phase – but of the Christian life more broadly. Without the Cross, we cannot hope for the resurrection; without the Cross, our sins are not taken away.
Gregory Dix (1901-1952) was an Anglican liturgical scholar and member of the Anglo-Papalist community of Nashdom. As an Anglican priest he celebrated the Roman Rite every day, privately and in Latin, and yet was never received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. He was a good friend of the moral theologian and canonist, Kenneth Kirk, who served as the Anglican bishop of Oxford – another luminary indeed.
Each year, around the feast of Corpus Christi, I read these words again. This year they make such profound sense as I celebrate my first solemn feast of the Body and Blood of the Lord as a Priest of Jesus Christ:
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 pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men 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 fetich 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 amphitheatre; 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 canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men 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.