29th May, 2005

The Feast of Corpus Christi

The Reverend Dr AW McCormack,
The Dean & Chaplain of Trinity College Dublin

“As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (I Cor 11)

Today we keep the Feast of Corpus Christi, today we reflect on the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist, we try to give space to the intelligent understanding of what it is that we do and what it is that we receive in this the normative ritual of our Christian life. At the outset it must be said that it is an attempt that is bound to ‘fail’ and we hope only for God’s grace that it should fail well and not badly. For mystery is basic to the Christian traditions and we speak always in residual awareness of the fact that God and the things of God are properly ineffable, are properly unsayable, that they can be enunciated and described in ways that are forever partial and provisional. With reference specifically to the mysteries of the Holy Eucharist ‘silence’ might well be judged to tell a closer truth than words.

Corpus Christi is not a feast of the primitive Christian Church. It was added to the Christian calendar much later, in 1264, when it became obvious that the natural occasion for reflecting on the Eucharist, Maundy Thursday, was too much a part of the dynamic of the passion and death of Christ to permit appropriate and extended reflection on his Eucharistic presence. Corpus Christi, then, provided such an occasion- an invitation to the Christian community to dwell on the daily ritual that is basic to its life and definition.

The theology of the Eucharist is fraught with complexity. Old battles can be fought and refought and the war cries of ‘transubstantiation’, ‘consubstantiation’, ‘Pflichtszeichen’ and myriad other linguistic cyphers can be heard. The controversies of the European reformation can be lived again, run and re-run like so many examples of venerable old sit-coms. But is this clarifying? Is this enlightening? Does it really help the community to understand and experience what it is that our Eucharistic practice implies and enables?

To take us some ways into the theology of the Eucharist this morning I want to deploy another old language, not quite the language of the reformation divines, but the language of a perhaps now neglected twentieth century theologian. I want us to consider Paul Tillich’s theology of symbol. For Tillich, a symbol is a sign that participates in the reality to which it points. A symbol is something that not only witnesses to a reality transcending itself but actually participates in the essence of that reality. The symbol is ‘connected’- a finger that points and a finger that actually touches.

Tillich’s notion of the symbolic might I think be developed rather happily in the Christian eucharistic context. Here the bread and the wine, consecrated and set apart (made functionally autonomous) in the Eucharistic ritual, become by the community’s declarative agreement, the ‘symbols’, the deep participatory referents, of Christ’s body and Christ’s blood. They participate, that is to say, in the reality of Christ and enable our participation in that self same reality. The far off is brought near, the proximate transported, the incarnational refracted through the lens of the sacramental.

By the ritual action of the ‘Mass’, the priest and the faithful (surprising and unworthy channels for the effecting of God’s grace) co-create the liturgy of the sacrament. The bread and the wine become symbolic through our faithful and declarative act, itself enabled by the priority of God’s grace in our lives. When the bread and the wine, in this manner, attain to the status of the symbol they manifest for us the presence of God, a presence not otherwise noticeable or discernable in these ordinary things.

Simone Weil once defined prayer as a matter of ‘paying attention’- in the Eucharistic ritual we are enabled to ‘attend’ to Christ’s presence in a focused and particular and highly consequential way.

If even some of this is true, then self consciously protestant objections to the celebration of today’s feast as an occasion for the authorizing of ‘biscuit worship’ seem altogether besides the point. For the co-created sacrament exists as a gateway, a transport and a door. The symbol participates in the reality of Christ and enjoins and enables our participation in that reality. The symbol is fundamentally iconic and not idolatrous. It is not an aesthetic gesture, not an end within itself.

The bread and the wine exist as an urging and not just as a consolation- we are offered food for a journey not dinner on arrival. The sacrament, that is to say, points us beyond itself deep into the mysteries of the divine ontology. By receiving the sacrament we are invited to, asked to, urged to participate in the mystery of God Himself. The sacrament is an arena of God’s epiphany, a place where God is made known for us, a place where God is experienced by us- not the only possible place, to be sure, but one that is distinctively authorized by the tradition of the Church- the tradition of proclaiming the Lord’s death and thereby of announcing also his resurrection and his final coming, recalling ourselves and our world to faith and to the construction of the self upon God and upon this His symbolised reality.

Like any other truth, this can be abused or trivialized and the Church must always be on its guard against this. Any notion of ‘magical function’ is a trivialization and literalization of the symbolic, as is the privileging of the symbolic elements outside of the ritual that we are commanded to create. For Christianity ‘context’ is determining. The narrative of Jesus, the narrative of the Eucharistic rite instituted and authorized by Jesus and recalled by us, is that which effects the ability of the utterly unremarkable elements of bread and wine to become for us a place of epiphany, a place where God is known.

Keeping the Feast of Corpus Christi is, then, an important and clarifying thing for the Church, but it should not be observed as a strategic shibboleth or as a spectacle of ecclesial distinction- something that we do that others don’t. It should be celebrated, rather, as an occasion which faithfully and joyfully insists on the ability of natural things to bear, by ritual proclamation and the mercies of God’s grace, the shadow and the stamp of the eternal.

And there is one more thing. It is dangerous to focus too much on the mode of God’s presence in the eucharist and to lose sight of the theological consequence of that presence. The eucharist is a declaration of God’s solidarity with us. The eucharist exists as something that bears the presence of God for us. In the eucharistic action it is we who become the object of the divine address. The bread and the wine exist to nourish us, support us, strengthen us, encourage us, challenge us and for no other reason. We must not lose sight of the fact that in the eucharistic symbols we are addressed by God and entreated to conform to the pattern of His Son. If this awareness is lost or diminished, then keeping today’s feast becomes a hollow gesture focusing its attention on quite the wrong thing.

‘Corpus Christi’, the Body of Christ, has as its final theological referent the community of the baptized which is daily being coaxed, molded and transformed by the mystery of God-in-Christ and the mystery of God-in-Eucharist. Both mysteries are irretrievably conjoined through the functional similarity of incarnation and sacrament. Understood in this way, today’s feast is as much about the effect of God’s presence in us as it is about the marvelous transformation of the bread and the wine that we shall shortly be invited -and challenged- to receive.

‘As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’



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