For over 800 years it has been our chance to be joyful and even exuberant about that which we see every day in silence and reverence: the Eucharistic Miracle, which we see with our very eyes when the bread beneath its outward appearance becomes the Lord himself - present in the thing, present to us, present for us. For 800 years this has been our occasion for taking the Miracle out, so that the world may see what we see - to show it something so ordinary and common place, yet something that with the eye of faith is what we love the most, are proudest of, and would serve the utmost.
This is our feast of witness, when we tell the truth about ourselves and how we are unashamed to show and call ourselves religious people. And for 800 years it has kept its name.
It is hardly remarkable, because, even in our ex-spiritual society, Corpus and Christi remain very well known words. We know what a corpus of writings, artwork or music is. It is the same as a body of writings, artwork and music. And we certainly know what Christ is. It is the most commonly used expletive for exasperation in the English language. I even heard “Christ” used in this way in the lift at Covent Garden Tube station on the way here. So Corpus Christi, translated through the thought patterns of the world around us, means every petty, ill-tempered frustration coming in one go. But to the Lord in the Host, who is the same as the Lord in the Manger and on His Cross, it is nothing new; it is to be expected and endured. As G K Chesterton once put it, “God abides in a terrible patience, unangered, unworn.”
Nevertheless, Corpus Christi’s title gives us the opportunity to give our fellow members of society a fresh translation. For the Christ of the Eucharist is the anointed One of God, His chosen, His Beloved on Whom His favour rests (anointed is what Christ and christened mean), anointed at His baptism with the Holy Spirit, anointed by Mary the sister of Lazarus whom He had raised from death in preparation for His own Death and Resurrection; anointed by Nicodemus for His burial, anointed in the love of St Peter after His Resurrection and anointed in His Ascension and exaltation to His throne as King. The Body of Christ, the Corpus Christi, is none other than One coming into the world, Who promised to remain with us always, to the end of time, waiting for us to see Him for what He is, waiting for us to realise Who He is, waiting for us to come with Him, to leave all our sin and preoccupations to fall away to one side, to grow in holiness, to long for the Kingdom to come, and to find that we live in it even now. We sing of this gift of Christ in His Body every Christmas:
How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
We stand in a great long line of those for whom Christ thus waited to receive Him. To Mary Magdalen He was the gardener, until she literally grasped Him as her Teacher. For St Thomas He waited, until his belief could follow his touch and he agree with the others, “We have seen the Lord.” To St Peter, confused by the Lord’s repeated questioning on whether he truly loved Him, Christ waited for the right heart and mind to see the divine purpose and meanwhile was content to ask him, as once He had asked him and Andrew on the shores of Galilee, “Follow me”… “Bear with me, walk in the steps I have trodden, become for others what I have been to you, take up your cross and follow me. Feed my sheep with My own Body; build them up to be My Body the Church. Feed them up to be Me in the world, with it always to the end of time, enduring, abiding in terrible patience, unangered, unworn. Let them be Me, waiting for all the children of My creation to see Me for what I AM, waiting for them to realise Who I AM and why I have come.” As St Augustine told his people who they were, pointing to the Lord in His Eucharistic Oblations – “There you lie on the altar”. It is we who are the Body of Christ, not just for our own fellowship and spirituality, but anointed for sacrifice, and faithfulness, and service to the end.
When Cardinal Manning founded this Church, he meant for it to be a great National Shrine of honour and service to the Lord in His Blessed Sacrament, so that all the indignities done to the Mass, to the priesthood and to the faithful in England could be repaid not with recrimination and resentment, but with the outpouring of love and devotion. He meant it to be at the core of witness to the truth of the Catholic Church’s Catholic belief in her Master and Teacher; and he meant it to stand as the place where all this love and duty poured out would make reparation for the greatest of sins against the Providence of our Sovereign God and loving Father – the acts in the sixteenth century that, despite a millennium and a half of unity according to the mind and prayer of Christ on the night before he died in sacrifice for the world’s salvation, ruptured the Church in two in this land and inflicted division among Christians in the one Body of Christ. Of course, no human deed or failure can take away the unity with Christ and His saints that belongs to the Church which is His spotless Bride. Still, in the world, because of our sin and wilfulness in refusing to obey the will of Christ except on our terms, Christians remain divided at the altar. Last weekend, a small charity founded 100 years ago by Church of England Christians, who saw their Church as separated from the Catholic communion from which it came and to which it truly belonged, and who wanted to work for reconciliation with the successor of St Peter in communion with the Apostolic See of Rome, donated a beautiful monstrance in keeping with the period and design of Corpus Christi Church, in support of its renewed work in the vision of Cardinal Manning. Thanks to the Ecumenical Movement, and the Catholic Church’s energetic efforts towards the fullness of unity in faith and life ever since the Second Vatican Council, that little Anglican charity, known as the Catholic League, had itself opened up and welcomed Catholics as members to pray for unity in the Body of Christ alongside each other. In what may be one of its last acts before it ends its work, it decided to mark its hundred years of patient witness with a gift to this Church of Corpus Christ on Maiden Lane as it recovers its work and purpose as a Shrine of the Presence of the Lord in and for the world in His Most Blessed Sacrament, and as a place of reparation for dishonour to the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, dishonour to the Body of Christ in His Priesthood and dishonour to the Body of Christ in the Unity of his Church. This monstrance will bear the Eucharistic Lord at the heart of the prayers and devotions to be poured out here, whenever the Sacrament is exposed for veneration and lifted over the people and the world in blessing. It is a gift to this parish in the hope of visible Christian Unity, because the Lord prayed that His disciples may be one – so that the world may believe it was the Father who sent Christ to bring it to eternal life. And nothing need divide Christians in their adoration of the Lord, after all.
So in this Feast today, which has been our great celebration for 800 years of all that the our faith means to us, of all that the Mass means to us, all that the Miracle of the Eucharist and the Blessed Sacrament mean to us, whenever we stand out as the parish of Corpus Christi, Christ’s own Body, and whenever we lift up the Blessed Sacrament in the hands of the priest at Mass and in the monstrance with our hearts full of adoration, we will be saying like the disciples and St Mary Magdalen – “we have seen the Lord”. And what we will be showing to the world is the Lord who abides with us, in all his patience, unangered, unworn, waiting “in this world of sin, for meek souls to receive him still.” O Dear Christ, enter in.