Sermon for Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 03 2018, 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; 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 – which, with Trinity last week, gives us two Sundays in row looking at theological concepts, and concepts which people often find difficult.
Rather than get into the fine details of theological speculation about exactly how we might think about Christ being present in the elements of the Mass, I’d like to start with a bit of the history of the feast, because I think that will take us some way towards the meaning. 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 added 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 has 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 Christ, 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, 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. And 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. 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. And yet, at the same time, we are shown that God comes most of all in and to the expendable bodies, the bodies in trouble, the rejected bodies.
And the eucharist demands of us that we come forward helpless, alone, with nothing to offer, and hold out our hands like beggars, like panhandler Jesus outside.It must be an act of surrender. We must come with that bare need; 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 even the most difficult as a person not in any way different from us, all of us hungry and needy and forgiven. 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 of power which that body demands. We need not have much power at all to cling to the small illusions of it, and harm ourselves and others by so doing. We are called to keep trying to lay it down, to lift up empty hands.
We must love the blood and the meat and the dirt, the permeable boundaries, the chemicals and electrical impulses at the base of our consciousness, the hard edges, all the confusion of the physical world, love it enough to desire it all to be redeemed.
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, try to 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.