Corpus Christi

Sermon for Corpus Christi, Sunday, June 06 2021, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116:12-18; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16,22-26

In Paul’s letters, which are in fact the earliest Christian writings we have, even earlier than Mark’s gospel, although there is much discussion of what Jesus means to us, there is only one story told about him. Remarkably, it is not the story of any of his miracles, or of his crucifixion, or any of the resurrection appearances. It is this story. That, at dinner with his friends, he took bread and declared it to be his body; took wine, and declared it to be his blood; and instructed the church to do likewise.

And this we have done, ever since. It has been done in caves and in homes and in cathedrals and in every kind of gathering place, it has been done in hiding, and sometimes alone, and now in this strange electronic commons. We continue to celebrate the eucharist, even when we are physically 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, in every kind of style and form, that thing we are commanded to do, however we are able. It is our great thanksgiving, no matter what, it is 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. Even when only one of us may touch the bread, still we are all, as community, lifting up creation as a gift from, and to, the creator of all things.

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 bodies. 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 and sharing of food and drink, each one of us a Corpus Christi, made so at creation, declared so in our baptism.

But if each of us is a Corpus Christi, then the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, is also all of us. It may be the most important metaphor of our tradition, for it speaks of our simultaneous diversity and interdependence, the inability for any of us to exist fully without the other, the suffering of every body as the suffering of Christ. In each dead child or broken spirit in the residential schools, the church was once again crucifying the Lamb. Each essential worker in Brampton struggling for breath in intensive care is Christ, and a part of our own body.

This feast, as I’ve observed before, is the only one known to have been added to the church calendar through the efforts of a woman, the nun and scholar Juliana of Liege, during a time when women, in particular, were fostering an intense devotion to the eucharist as Christ’s body in a very vivid way, including visions of bleeding hosts. It is strange to us now, but there was something very radical going on there. 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, in a patriarchal society, to insist upon the flesh and the blood, the overt physicality of Christ, to return to the absolutely literal imagery of the Exodus and the blood thrown upon the people to bind them to their God, is means for them to reinsert themselves into the narrative of salvation. And it is, even more than that, 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, between what is powerful and what is vulnerable.

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 blood and dirt, 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 blood and hunger, understood the needs of the body, were involved in the care and feeding of vulnerable bodies every day. Many of them, lay and religious, were working in urban centres, in the emerging merchant economy, with the casualties of that emergence, the desperately poor and ill. Their stubbornly physical visions of the incarnate God bleeding 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, struggling, beautiful, fighting for their truth or buried in unmarked graves, all of the bodies.

And so we do this thing, and must do it still, even in this strange way, and in this strange time. So we must let ourselves be made and remade into the image of God, redeemed by the body which died and rose, bonded by blood, bound to the world, to the bread, to the work in all its forms. This year again, we cannot come forward as community and take the bread and wine; we cannot kneel together. But we gather, and we too recognize bread and blood and hunger, and we try to understand that, even now, we are offered life, and given the strength to offer in return.