Corpus Christi Sermon – Dean Reginald Leeuw, St Cyprian’s, Kimberley

SERMON by the Very Reverend REGINALD LEEUW: CORPUS CHRISTI: 14 June 2020.
For the Anglican Church, today’s festival of Corpus Christi is a modern revival.* In the calendar or table of lessons, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday may be celebrated as a Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion. The festival of Corpus Christi in the whole of the Western Church is also – comparatively – of recent origin. It became a universal feast in the Roman Catholic Church only in the 13th century. One of the great 13th century theologians St Thomas Aquinas, known as the angelic doctor, wrote the texts for the feast. One of his texts we heard on Saturday in the service of Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.
Corpus Christi is simply the Latin for the Body of Christ. Today we celebrate the gift of God to the Church of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Here God feeds us with the bread and wine which are the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and doing so incorporates us into the Church, which is the Body of Christ. As part of the Body of Christ, we become part of the very life of God himself. This is a wonderful and sacred mystery and is at the heart of our life as Christians. In celebrating the Holy Eucharist, we are being obedient to our Lord Jesus Christ, who said the night before he died, and as he took, blessed, broke and gave the bread, and took, blessed and gave the cup of wine: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
From the very beginning of the Church, the regular and frequent celebration of the Eucharist was central to the life of the Church. We see it in the Acts of the Apostles as one of the four marks of the Early Church. The group of followers of Jesus after they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” [Acts 2: 42] “The breaking of bread” is a clear reference to the celebration of the Eucharist. We see too in St Paul’s instruction to the Christians in Corinth the moment when this celebration began to take on a life of its own as a devotional act. “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?” [I Corinthians 11: 20-22]. Thereafter, the celebration of the Eucharist became separate from the community meal.
The importance of the celebration of the Eucharist from the earliest days and its centrality to the life of the Church can be seen in two of the accusations that were levelled by their persecutors at Christians when they were a little known and somewhat secret society. They were accused of incest and of cannibalism. It is easy to see where the charge of incest originated. Christians were told by St John and others to “love their brothers”. The charge of cannibalism could only have been sustained if it had become known that one of the strange and terrible things these Christians did was to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. The gospels are clear that our Lord Jesus Christ was explicit in his instruction to that effect. As we heard Jesus say in today’s Gospel reading, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” [John 6: 53-57]
So, even in times of persecution, when Christians from all backgrounds, slaves and free, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, would assemble in the largest room in the house of one of the wealthier members of the Church, Sunday by Sunday, to celebrate the Eucharist together, the Church has known the centrality and importance of this act in which we participate at least Sunday by Sunday. In the early days Christians would generally take home enough of the consecrated species to allow them to receive Holy Communion at home each day until they could come together again the following Sunday. Do this as often, said the Lord, as often as you eat and drink. Perhaps even the discovery of a fragment of the consecrated bread by a magistrate on the person of a Christian would be enough to condemn him to death. Fed with the Body and Blood of Christ, they defied death.
Before lockdown, we for whom the reception of Holy Communion is weekly or more frequent, the risk is of over-familiarity with the Eucharist. We tend to take for granted the wonderful gift we receive. Too easily we ignore the reality of the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ. We become careless as we approach him who gives us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink. We fail to recognise in the bread and wine the body and blood our Lord gave on the Cross for the life of the world. We must always guard against this complacency. If there is a silver lining in this Covid 19 lockdown it is the fact that the staying away from the Eucharist will increase our yearning and devotion.
Three things for me during this lockdown that we can learn from Jesus in this feast of Corpus Christi:
1. Assurance that we will not hunger physically or spiritually. Jesus gives us his own body and blood so that we may not hunger but have everlasting life. We see long lines of people looking for food; many are worried about where their next meal will come from. Corpus Christi is a reassurance that we will not hunger nor thirst either physically or spiritually.
2. Self-sacrifice. We see Jesus giving of himself so that we may live. This speaks to our behaviour during Lockdown. Is it life-giving or life-risking? How are we giving of ourselves to preserve and assist life, or are we just adding to the problem? How are we helping the poor and the needy?
3. Unity. I’m happy his morning: Fr Setesho, the husband the Reverend Martha, has joined for this celebration, as also members of the Anglican Student Federation, from all over the diocese, on this day. ‘Eendrag maak Magt’. God bless us as we seek to be more united in a world that struggles with unity.
*Note: Corpus Christi including a procession (along with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament) has been observed at this Cathedral for at least half a century.
Image: Benediction on the Feast of Corpus Christi, 2015.