‘My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink’, says the Lord,
‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them.’ John 6:55-56
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday the Church of England keeps the ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’ and this is the solemnity we celebrate transferred to today under the more common name of Corpus Christi.
Churches in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England tend to stand out a little bit more than the others during this feast; but while it would be easy to think that this is all down to the solemnity of our liturgy, or the ancient customs that we observe today, the thing that make churches like ours to stand out is, in fact, the faith and devotion that should inspire our celebration. In other words, what should motivates us to pull out all the stops for this feast is the fact that today we make the point to reaffirm our belief in the most precious of all the gifts we have ever received from the Lord Jesus; the gift of his own very self – body, blood, soul, and divinity – under the simple and very ordinary forms of bread and wine. Faith in what is called the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is what makes us stand out today from others Christian communities where the Eucharist is considered a disposable add-on to the faith.
But in today’s gospel we hear how a number people at the time of Jesus were already uncomfortable and sceptic about this teaching, and how some of them were even scandalised by it, and because of it they stopped following the Lord.
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they said (John 6:52). A legitimate question from non-believers that prompted Jesus to affirm many times how his own body and blood are true nourishment from those who receive them, and the principal means of union with him. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them’ (John 6: 56), say Jesus, and the Lord’s own word, should be enough for us.
Again, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that, although we cannot see him face to face in this present age, he is always going to be with us. And the Church has come to interpret his words to be a promise that the Lord is indeed always with us in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, in the consecrated elements of Holy Communion.
In the Blessed Sacrament, in the Host we place on the altar after Mass Jesus truly dwells with us; his silent and unassuming presence brings comfort and healing to those who approach him; his humble self-giving to us under the appearance of Bread teaches us to give ourselves for others… A traditional hymn says, ‘Thou art here, we ask not how’ and yes, although we cannot fully contemplate or express this mystery, I do hope that those who took part in the 40 Hours of Prayer two weeks ago, managed to experience what it means to spend time in the presence of the Lord Jesus, the Prince of Peace, in the Blessed Sacrament.
The past weeks have borne witness to a considerable number of needless tragedies culminating with the harrowing disaster of Grenfell Tower in the last few days. Confronted by these events, where it seems that it always the poor or innocent people to pay the highest price, it would be easy to despair, to lose heart, or worse, to let sorrow fester into violent anger. But as we sit in this place we should remind ourselves of the words of a beautiful hymn about the Eucharist,
Sweet Sacrament of rest,
ark from the ocean's roar,
within thy shelter blest
soon may we reach the shore;
save us, for still the tempest raves,
save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
sweet Sacrament of rest.
Here, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is the very place where the Lord wants us to be so that by feeding on him and adoring his presence among us, we may go out and be strengthened to work in diffusing anger, striving for justice, begging for mercy, fostering love, and bring the life and peace of this Sacrament to a suffering world.
Lord Jesus Christ, we worship you living among us
in the sacrament of your Body and Blood.
May we offer to our Father in heaven
a solemn pledge of undivided love.
May we offer our brothers and sisters
a life poured out in loving service of your kingdom
where you live with the Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This morning we continue our Lenten journey through the Ten Commandments, and we turn our attention to the third one;
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy,
as the Lord your God commanded you.
For six days you shall labour
and do all your work.
But the seventh day is a sabbath
to the Lord your God’ (Deuteronomy 5:12-14)
Last Monday evening, as we begun the Pilgrim Course, we started with the simple exercise of remembering the Ten Commandments as a group, but try as we may, for a couple minutes we only managed to get up to nine. That is, until divine inspiration struck one of us and she said, “Keep the Sabbath holy”. But the forgetfulness of our little group about the third commandment is pretty much indicative of what has been happening for decades within the Church – the idea that corporate worship is somehow optional for a Christian coupled with changes to Sunday trading regulations have severely weakened the religious and moral obligation to attend Sunday worship, and particularly to attend a Communion service; to the point that many people have even forgotten (or never even heard) that there is a commandment about this.
Yet, the commandment to observe the Lord’s Day and to keep it holy remains. Shabbat, the word from which we get the Sabbath, simply means “rest” and it connects us to the primordial origins of a day of rest found in the book of Genesis, when God is said to have rested on the seventh day, after having completed his work of creation (Cf. Gen 2:2-3). The Sabbath also embodies the celebration of how God later rescued the children of Israel from slavery at the first Passover, and it is still celebrated as such by the Jewish people. Both of these Scriptural events – God’s rest after creation and the redemption of Israel – form the backdrop to the new Sabbath, the new Lord’s Day, we keep as Christians. On Sundays we celebrate the salvation Christ won for us through his passion and death, and we rejoice in the new creation being inaugurated in him through his resurrection on the first day of the week.
Then, how should Christians ‘observe Sabbath and keep it holy’? The third commandment does not require us to do anything extraordinary or convoluted. In fact, Jesus says, ‘The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:27). And with this Jesus shows his followers that the point of the Sabbath is not to abide to strict regulations about precisely what to do, or how far one ought to walk, and so on. On one hand, to keep the Lord’s Day “holy” means precisely to set it aside, as it were, from normal or working days, in order to use the free time the Sabbath affords us to nurture our relationships with God and with his people, enjoying the company of the church family, and to recharge our batteries for the new week. Thus, Christians should not work on a Sunday, wherever that is possible and not essential; and we ought to avoid those trivial activities that deprive other workers of the Sabbath rest with their families – even if these should not be Christians themselves. On the other hand, to “observe” the Sabbath means to participate in the corporate worship of the people of God and to remember together the Lord’s redeeming acts for us all. This is particularly relevant in the celebration of the Eucharist, or the Mass, which is the everlasting memorial (the making present in our midst) of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection.
But I think there is more to this. The Mass holds a special place in the Sunday pattern of worship as this is the only thing the Lord ever directly told us to do so that he might be present among us;
‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ (Luke 22:19)
Do this. Not café church, or sweaty church, or praying at home, or whatever else. Jesus says, “Do this.” And as a consequence Christians have gathered on Sundays to celebrate the memorial of the Christ’s own Passover, which we now know as the Eucharist or the Mass, since the earliest times. Indeed, the Acts of the Apostles tell us this at several points saying that disciples “broke the bread” together every Sundays at the very least, in not more often.
At this service we find ourselves gathered from every walk of life in the presence of the risen Lord as the new people of God. This is “source and summit” of our life as a Christian community; and it really should be regarded as the focal point of our week – the one thing we cannot do without, no matter what. Above all, the “this” the Lord tells us to do is the true fulfilling of the third commandment.
‘Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.’
May we use this season of Lent to deepen our love and appreciation of the Mass, both on Sundays and on weekdays, so that through this sacrament we may grow ever closer to the Lord. Amen.