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We are the body of Christ

Corpus Christi: 7th June, 2012
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Since the Middle Ages the Church has dedicated a day to venerate the mysteries of the sacrament of the Eucharist. We have an Augustinian nun, Juliana of Liège, to thank for this festival. She lived in a time when the doctrine of the Real Presence was the latest new thing in theology. Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours who died in 1133, had coined a new theological term: transubstantiation. He articulated a common belief that the bread and wine of Eucharist were quite literally changed into the body and blood of Christ. All that remained were the "accidents" or physical appearances of bread and wine. A century later the Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) officially pronounced that: "[Christ's] body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God's power, into his body and blood".

Around this time Juliana of Liège had a repeated vision. She saw a clear image of the full moon, which shone in all its reflected glory, but there was always one dark spot present. Juliana saw the vision year after year and at first was unclear what it meant. She wondered if the devil was trying to deceive her, but in time came to a spiritual understanding of the meaning of the vision. The patch of darkness on the moon was the absence of a feast dedicated to the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. Even though she had been elected prioress of a convent, by this stage, she clearly did not have the power to bring about such change in the church, but that did not stop her petitions and prayers for change. She told her confessor, Canon John of Lausanne, about her repeated visions and he in turn petitioned friends he had in high places including Archdeacon Jacques Pantaléon, who later became Pope Urban IV, and Robert de Thorete the Bishop of Liège.

Twenty years of petitioning paid off when in 1246 Bishop Robert convened a synod which ordered an annual celebration of Corpus Christi in his Diocese. In 1264, twelve years after Juliana's death, one of her advocates, now Pope Urban IV, issued a papal bull by which the feast of Corpus Christi was instituted throughout the entire Latin Rite. The moon now shone in its full glory.

There is certainly something about the sacrament of Eucharist that draws us into relationship with God. Early in my Christian walk as an adult I remember being overcome with tears as I put forward my hands to receive the host. It was a very simple service, nothing special, but I became aware in a new way of the presence of Christ in this ancient spiritual discipline. Each day of the week at St Peter's members of our parish break bread and share wine together; it becomes for us the bread of life and our spiritual drink. Christ is present for us.

Of course we don't always feel or experience the truth of that we partake in. It may feel very ordinary, uneventful, mundane even; our thoughts may drift to grudges or anxieties or shopping lists. But every now and then we catch a glimpse of the enormity of what we are doing. Those are graced moments. I'd like to close with a poem by J. Janda. It depicts powerfully something of that which lies at the heart of our celebration of the mass.

"Ignatius Collapsing at the Altar"
by J. Janda

that Jesus could love everyone
even false lovers and eat
with them in peace and mercy
and create of them a family
whose body he was — and
teach them reverence without fear —
caused his body to first shake
and then collapse at the altar grasping the
white linen
and pulling candles chalice
paten hosts and flowers upon himself
to wake to find Christ's blood
had soaked through the gold brocade
the white alb
staining his stomach
purple red.


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