Sermon for Corpus Christi, Sunday, May 29 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deut 8:2-3,14-16; Ps 116:10-17; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58
Today is the feast called Corpus Christi, which means, in Latin, the Body of Christ—a particular celebration of the presence of Christ in the eucharist, the presence of the Body in the bread and wine. It’s a reminder that Christianity, especially in its Catholic form, is a stubbornly material faith. It is a faith which believes in stuff, in bread, in blood, in bodies. We believe that God chose to take on our flesh, to be here in the world of mud and desire to restore its goodness and make it holy; and we believe that God comes to us over and over as food, as a consumable, that the immeasurable love that underlies the universe chooses to be for us a scrap of bread, a mouthful of wine.
I’ve preached before on the central role of bodies, food, bread. And there are so many ways to look at this; it is such a rich strand of imagery. But today I want to start with the reading from Deuteronomy, and look at the particular pattern of movement God outlines here for his people. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness … Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness … and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know.” It is a story of dislocation, a story which ends in divine tenderness, but reaches that point through both liberation and loss. The people do not, cannot, receive the manna while they are living in Egypt, slaves in a wealthy empire. They must first be brought into freedom and the wilderness, they must leave everything behind and come into the desert, and only there they will be fed. And the manna that comes is strange and subtle, like bread and yet not quite so, sweet and fragile, not anything they have known or can easily describe.
And the bread of life discourse, from which today’s Gospel is taken, this too is a wilderness teaching—Jesus has brought the crowd out of the towns and cities to a deserted place, a place where they are hungry, a place where bread is produced from no recognizable source, and they are fed with this bread before they are given these strange and subtle words, this language which slides from word to bread to body and back again. To reach this place they must lose everything, until there is nowhere else to go, until there is nothing left but those words to hold onto. A body, a life, given to us to be broken and consumed. God in this, above all else.
And it is this way, perhaps, that we should always come to the eucharist—as wilderness people, as people who have nothing else to live on, holding up our hands for the bread because it is the only thing which can keep us alive. Perhaps only at the moments when we are that lost do we begin to understand what we are receiving. God’s life in our longing, upturned hands.
We are given bread as the means because we understand the body’s hunger, because we must all eat, because at some point we will all know what it is like to lack food and need it. But the eucharist demands of us more—it demands that we come forward helpless, alone, with nothing to offer, and hold out our hands like beggars, like panhandler Jesus outside. We must come with that bare need, no goodness of our own; and it is only when we understand what we are doing in this, when we understand that we are always being fed by pure love and grace, that we may dare to try to do the same in the world, to see the panhandler as a person not in any way different from us, both of us hungry and needy and forgiven.
We are given the body because the body is what we all share, because beyond any counting of skill or strength or merit, we are all these leaky bodies. The sick infant, the refugee on the ocean, the criminal or the terrorist, the indifferent oil executive, and all of us somewhere in the middle of the struggle, there is no difference, we are these bodies, these bodies made in the image of God, redeemed by the body which walked in Galilee, was tortured by the powers of the day, rose wounded and ate bread as the final act and vision of love.
But we do not understand this easily. We do not want the strange subtle sweetness of the manna, which we cannot recognize, which is not beautiful or special, which comes and disappears, must be equally shared, cannot be accumulated or stored. We do not want the simplicity and demand of bread from heaven. We get there only by liberation and loss, by our own journey into the wilderness.
We are all in a kind of exile in Egypt—not rich, not free, not happy mostly, but caught up in a great and complex system which, in its own imperial way, does protect us, does give us a place to exist and a role to fill, even if it is making bricks from straw for no reason, even if it is nothing like what or who we are meant to be. And every small step we can take away from that involves loss as well as freedom, makes us more vulnerable, more needy—more able to hold up our hands and receive the bread that is given for no reason but love.
Of course, the risk here is that we think we can control our own exile, choose our own wilderness. We certainly do have some choice and some control, and we can and should make our small deliberate decisions, to extract ourselves from systems of oppression and competition and ownership, from all the ways in which our society turns human bodies into objects, made to serve the convenience or pleasure of power. We have choices we can make, about how we work, about what we buy, about when we speak out in protest, even—and perhaps most important of all—how we treat those treat those who come to us in need of food or care or company, without asking about goodness or deserving.
But we can never really choose our exile. We do what small things we can, and open ourselves to the dangerous action of God, and wait. And the wilderness comes for all of us in different ways, in illness and grief, in dislocation and confusion, in the failures of love, in the terrible gap between what we want to be and what we are. No one wants these times, no one welcomes them. But when exile comes, when the wilderness is before us, we must be careful not to deny it, not to escape back into a deeper slavery, a greater evasion. To live in the wilderness while pretending that we are still happy in Egypt may be the worst fate of all. If we are called to walk into our particular desert, we must do it and acknowledge it, and we must learn what it is the wilderness has to teach us if we can.
For in this wilderness we can begin to understand ourselves as frail bodies like all the bodies around us, and in understanding that, we may also begin to understand that we are all part of the one risen and wounded and glorified body of Christ, that this new life is available to us all if we can reach out. In the wilderness, the strange sweetness of the manna can be tasted for what it is, the thing we have always longed for, the love that cannot be stockpiled or hoarded but only accepted when it comes. We have nothing in our hands but desire, and that desire will lead us where we need to go.
So we take the bread which is the body, and we eat it, and it becomes a part of us as we, slowly and with so many failures, become bread for the world ourselves, become a part of that body, of that great act of offering. We come with nothing, and we are given ourselves, and both the gift, and the responsibility which flows from it, are that great. Become bread, become body. Become your own body, true, imperfect, and constantly changing, within the wounded body of Christ. Go into the world, a body among bodies, and heal what you can, and love what you can, and do what you must.