Real Presence: Sermon for Corpus Christi 2020

Last Supper (Monasterio di Bose)
There is a symmetry between this eucharistic feast on a Thursday just after Pentecost, and the one on a Thursday just before Easter. In the first case, we commemorated the unique historical fact of Christ's gift of self, in the first Eucharist and on the Cross; in this second one, we commemorate the universal reality across time and space of Christ's eucharistic gift of self, echoing the expansive theme of Pentecost. Once, the reality of God was committed to a unique place in space and time, in the incarnation; now, we encounter him in the tabernacles and altars of a million places, where he is with us personally and concretely again, by the power of the Spirit.

In this feast we are affirming that Christ's eucharistic presence has a quality of unconditional and material gift, like the life commemorated in the first, but also that we encounter him in these signs of bread and wine, not only as a memory of that one presence, or even just during the experience of corporate worship, but as they persist even after it.

While our celebration of the Eucharist is the center of our worship, the eucharistic givenness of Jesus is not created by our single celebration, or limited to it. We are created a community by him and our participation in him, not the reverse. We come and go, as our recent experience during the pandemic has underlined so sharply, but he does not; we may not have been in Church, but he has. 

So in reserving, sharing, and adoring the sacrament, we are not making some narrow technical point about how eucharistic presence works, but affirming that it works generously, just as the incarnation did; God’s gift is unconditional, and it persists.

Because this gift of God's own self has an unconditional quality, just as in the first case, so it has difficult consequences. Jesus was once handed over, suffered and died, his love met with scorn. Subsequently, the universal eucharistic Jesus has made himself available for the same treatment. While Christ always invites our faith and devotion, he again becomes available for our neglect and mistreatment. 

The forms of eucharistic abuse against which we may need to guard are usually subtler than those of Jesus' historic sufferings. Perhaps the most common, and certainly the most significant, is how we make the Eucharist an idol, an object, rather than opening ourselves to its transformative power. The difference between idolatry and faith is not just worshipping the wrong rather than the right thing, but worshipping the appearance or the form rather than the substance, which means making that which we worship an object of our existing need, rather than making ourselves open to how God will change us. Or as Rowan Williams said in a commentary last week, "Idolatry is ultimately not the worship of things so much as the worship of myself – the reduction of God to the scale of my wants and my comfort." This is the nature of gift, that very fact of making itself available for abuse. This is always true in whomever and whatever we love, the risk and vulnerability that accompanies the genuine opening of self.

Idolatry in this case is to miss the connections between the Eucharist and the rest of Christ’s presence and action into which the Eucharist invites us. For if we believe him truly present here, we will find him truly present elsewhere also. Even the most intimate act of eucharistic contemplation is an invitation to encounter not the host, but everything in relation to the host and the one who present there; to imagine then with the eyes of faith what is the “eucharistic life” to which Jesus invites us, and to begin to be incorporated into that life.

Just under a century ago Frank Weston, the bishop of Zanzibar, famously challenged a group of Anglo-Catholics in London, who were living in an environment less indifferent to their "advanced" eucharistic adoration:
"I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.”
Some of us in the past two weeks have indeed walked out into the streets of New York, and Minneapolis - and of London, of Sydney, and of Hong Kong. We have been challenged afresh to discern the real presence of Jesus in those who have been the victims of literal violence, and other forms of oppression; we have also seen Christ abused (not so much in sacrament as in the Scriptures, at least as a symbol) by the same kind of authority that killed him. Just as of old, Christ’s presence does not mean he does not suffer, or that he is not abused. But he is truly present nevertheless.

Weston alluded to three forms of the presence of Christ: first in the tabernacle, and in the people of the world in their need, and in between those two his being “mystically present” in us. During COVID-19 there have been considerable challenges to the Church itself as Christ’s body. Many have affirmed that the Church is "not buildings but people." This is of course partly true, but like all clichés is insufficient. In fact our character and identity as Church, as Christ’s body, are not constituted by community in itself any more than by buildings in themselves. The Church isn’t made by people either, it’s made by Christ. 

The eucharistic Christ is present in his people, as people whose identity has been changed by his presence. He invites us into the same self-offering, the same love, the same vulnerability of his incarnate life, of which this sacrament is a present, material, fragile, reminder. 

+Blessed, praised, hallowed, and adored be Jesus Christ on his Throne of Glory in Heaven, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of all His faithful people. Amen.

[from a Sermon for St John’s in the Village, New York City, June 11 2020]


Popular Posts