Corpus Christi

Sermon for Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 14 2020, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Deuteronomy 8:2-3,14-16; Psalm 147:12-15, 19-20; 1 Corinthians 10:16-17; John 6:51-58

So today is the feast of Corpus Christi, a liturgical solemnity, as it’s called, which celebrates the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the eucharist—and it is very strange to celebrate it at this time when most faithful Christians are not able to receive the bread and wine physically. We will share this eucharist spiritually and electronically; we will forgo some of our usual elements of the liturgy, like Devotions, which does not adapt well to being broadcast from a tiny cluttered office. But we do still celebrate this day, and it does still have meaning.

This might sound dismayingly academic, but I’d like to start with a bit of the history of the feast, which is actually quite fascinating. It is quite a late addition to the calendar, added in the fourteenth century, and, not accidentally, it is the only church feast known to have been created largely due to the lobbying efforts of a woman, the nun Juliana of Liege. She was an intriguing and accomplished woman, a composer and a liturgist, as well as the leader of a double convent, which means that she exercised authority over monks as well as nuns. She lived at a time when the lay women’s movement called the Beguines was beginning to become a powerful force in the new cities, teaching and providing food and medical care for the poorest urban residents, and although Juliana was not herself a Beguine, her life suggests an awareness of, and a consonance with, their work. She also lived at a time when women, in particular, were developing and spreading a special devotion to the eucharist, with a very powerful, even sometimes shockingly visceral, sense of the elements as Christ’s body and blood, and some of the implications of that.

There is something radical going in that devotion. Western thought—developing out of Greco-Roman ideas mostly—and in fact many other cultures around the world, have traditionally assigned those bodies identified as female to the category of matter, of flesh, of physicality, and have been deeply dubious about that physicality, while those bodies identified as male are assigned to categories of mind, intellect, spirit, and valued more highly because of that. Both this gendered assignment of qualities, and the ranking of spirit as intrinsically “better” than flesh, are fundamentally Gnostic ideas, and ought to be no part of Christianity, but in fact they have been very deeply part of our thought for a very long time.

So for these medieval women to insist upon, to foster devotion to, the flesh and the blood, the overt physicality of that Christ who demands that we eat him, is, in a complex way, to reinsert themselves into the narrative of salvation. And it is, even more than that, to point towards the Word who became flesh, who claimed the messy, material world, our mud and meat, as the site of divinity. It is to point towards the Jesus who, in a body identified as male, takes on the work of women, washing and nursing and feeding, takes on a permeable and bleeding body, a killable body, a body considered expendable by power. And a body which is to be consumed, which is, in and of itself, our food and our life. A body which confounds not only our binary categories of gender, but our limited ideas about the distinction between body and spirit, between ordinary matter and the unnameable God.

The incarnation tells us, the eucharist tells us, that God is not in some special spiritual place, bright and pure and different, but here in this ambiguous earth, in dirt and in darkness too, in our eating and drinking, in the confusions and beauties of our flesh, in even the frustrating limits of the body, sickness and age, the stuff of it all. In the wilderness of this world, God comes to bodies as food—and the meaning of this is first and foremost literal food. We need to remember that when Jesus talked about himself as the bread of life, he had just fed a hungry crowd, out in the hot sun, with real, physical bread.

The women of medieval Europe understood bread and hunger, understood the needs of the body, were involved in the care and feeding of vulnerable bodies every day, and their stubbornly physical visions of the incarnate God in bread put this experience in front of the eyes of those in the church who might have been able to forget it. If we are to encounter this same God, we too must remember the body first, our own bodies and the bodies of the world.

We are given bread as the means to encounter God because we understand the body’s hunger, because we must all eat, because at some point we will all, even those of us with privilege, know what it is like to lack food and need it – and in that lack we will find our way to God, if we can only let hunger teach us. 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 weak bodies. And we may be even more aware of that now, in this pandemic time. On the one hand, we may feel disconnected from the bodily world, as most of our encounters now take place in the electronic world. But in the very lack, we know the reality. Our little structures of breath and flesh, longing for touch, at the mercy of a virus too small to see, the fragility of our tree-shaped lungs, the tiny vessels which carry our blood. We know the need for bread, as that food and its component ingredients have become the place of specific scarcity, as the practice of making bread at home has, in our culture, a sudden revival. It is one of these bodies which the Word was pleased to become, and the real presence of Christ in the bread and the wine means as well the real presence of Christ in our own flesh and our own blood, our own producing and consuming of bread, each one of us a Corpus Christi, made so at creation, declared so in our baptism.

And we continue to celebrate the eucharist, even when we are separated, even when most can only receive in desire and spirit, because it continues to be our sign and our tether, the re-creation of the story which our flesh inherits, under whatever conditions it is offered; that thing the church has done from the earliest time we can document, has done at all times and in all places, under all kinds of strange restrictions or conditions, that thing we are commanded to do, however we are able. That great thanksgiving no matter what, that movement towards the centre of creation which is the offering of our selves, our souls and bodies, which is, in this time when most of us cannot consume the bread of the eucharist, the making of our own bodies into bread for the world.

The sick elder in a long-term care home, the migrant farm worker struggling to breath, the Black man tortured and killed by police, the refugee on the ocean, the criminal or the terrorist, the indifferent oil executive or the power-drive politician, and all of us somewhere in the middle of the struggle, we are all 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. And to say this is not to say that we should let everyone behave in whatever way they happen to choose, or let the powerful go on abusing the weak because we know the final weakness of their power, but rather that they and we are all held accountable to the bleeding body which is our heart’s food, to the surrender which that body demands. We are called to keep trying to lay it down. 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.