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Corpus Christi

Preached at the evening High Mass for Corpus Christi, 15 June 2017
Bishop Ian George, former Archbishop of Adelaide

"Of the making of books there is no end" (Ecc. 12:12). And there is no end to the books and sermons which have been written on the significance of the eucharist for which we are gathered to give thanks today. There are only two aspects of the mass, the Lord's Supper or the Holy Communion, about which I want to think with you today. They both come from the depths of the Jewish tradition which is so much part of our own. The first is the significance of blood and the second is the profound meaning of remembrance.

BLOOD

Many of you here are old enough to remember how when we were children we used to prick our finger — usually our thumbs. When the blood oozed out we would squeeze thumbs with each other and declare everlasting loyalty as blood brothers and blood sisters.

This probably disappeared in the age of AIDS, when we became so sensitive to the transfer of bodily fluids. But its atavistic origins take us back to the origins of human life as we know it.

Blood has always been an incredibly important part of life — and remains so today as the Red Cross constantly appeals for more blood donors. From the earliest periods described in the OT we learn that the drinking of the blood of any living thing is absolutely taboo, absolutely forbidden. Why? Because in the blood was the life of the creature. (Gen. 9:4)

We still sometimes speak of a person's lifeblood, and we all remember those historical (sometimes hysterical) novels where a character is fatally injured in battle or a duel and we hear that his lifeblood drained away upon the ground!

In the OT period we hear of kings making treaties. Unlike today when handshakes are exchanged and documents signed, then the kings would call for a bull to be slaughtered and they would walk hand in hand through the steaming blood of the beast. In this way the treaty was sealed.

A treaty is a contract—or to use a more ancient word—a covenant. Those of you who have some familiarity with solicitors' offices will no doubt know something of making contracts under seal. They used to be sealed with red sealing wax. These days they use a rather pathetic substitute by way of a little round piece of red paper. The person making the contract puts his or her finger on the red seal and declares "this is my sign and seal". You will quickly see that the red represents blood. For the sealing of any important contract, blood must be shed.

In the OT reading today we hear of Moses sealing the Old Covenant between God and God's people by throwing the blood of a sacrifice first over the altar (representing God) and then over the people. That is after the people have verbally promised to do what God requires of them as set out in the Ten Commandments. An agreement, a contract, is made and sealed. We call it the Old Covenant or the Old testament. The Ten Commandments are its lasting and constant reminder. What is the result? A totally new relationship between God and God's people which in its subsequent centuries of working out we hear about in the whole of the first half of the Bible, the Old Testament.

Now let's move on some 1500 years to what we live in—the Christian era. What constitutes that? Of course it is the work of God the Father in his beloved Son whom we call Our lord Jesus the Christ. What does God do in Jesus? God creates a totally new contract or covenant between God and God's people. And this great covenant of love and forgiveness is sealed by the shedding of blood in the greatest of all sacrifices, Jesus' giving of himself for us on the cross.

So what is the connection with the eucharist? Just as the Ten Commandments are the abiding record or reminder of the Old Covenant, so the eucharist is the ongoing reminder of the New Covenant. It is what Jesus commands us to do when we gather as his Church to remember him. More about that in a moment, but we need to say something crucial (note the word) about blood.

St Mark records (14:12-16,22-6) — as we heard in the Gospel reading — that at the Last Supper Jesus blessed bread and gave it to them to share. Then he blessed a cup of wine by giving thanks and they all drank of it. Notice what he says as he distributes it: "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many." Luke is a little more fulsome. He has Jesus saying: "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Luke 22:20).

If we bring all the things we have been thinking about and put them together, especially the ancient teaching about the lifeblood and the taboo in drinking it, we realize that Jesus is actually saying "this is my lifeblood which I am giving to you — with this I have sealed the new covenant between my God and Father and yourselves for all time." Every time I hear those words, there is a tingling somewhere in the hairs of my neck. Can you imagine a more astonishing thing for Jesus to say — or for us to hear? No wonder this eucharistic action has been the core activity of Christians for over 2000 years.

REMEMBRANCE

Finally, a word about remembrance. When St Paul talks about the Last Supper and what Jesus did there, he says: "he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'" (1 Cor. 11:25). The Greek word Paul uses for "remembrance" is "anamnesis". Our English word is rather weak in this context.

Once again we have to go back into the atavistic origins of the Hebrew tradition long before the rigid definitions of past, present and future dominated Western thinking — and ours. Our indigenous Australians are much more flexible in this respect than we are. So what does "anamnesis" mean? It means a kind of remembering which not only recalls an important event in our lives, but does it so vividly that the event opens up again in our present experience and we can relive it. Sadly, many of those experiences are tragic. Once upon a time people used to ask: "where were you when you heard about John F. Kennedy's assasination?" For years most people could remember with great clarity and detail where they were and what they were doing when they heard. I can certainly still do so. But I am talking about something deeper and more profoundly affecting than that.

In the 1970s, a writer called Gary Kilworth wrote a science fiction short story called "Lets go to Golgotha!". A young couple went to a tourist agency specializing in history tours and offering to place people in the midst of past historical events. The couple decided to go to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' crucifixion and find themselves in the crowd at the trial and death of Jesus. It has a profound effect upon them.

But that is fiction. I am talking about our deepest personal remembrances, events into which — with very little effort — we can be plunged into the event itself, and the associated feelings, with astonishing, perhaps traumatic results. Post traumatic stress syndrome victims would know all about that!

In the understanding of anamnesis I am struggling to describe, the life, death, teaching, and resurrection of Our Lord become vivid present realities in our own lives. It is not too much to say that Jesus' sacrificial death, his shedding of blood, is not only real in the present but that we are carried to the foot of the cross in psychic recollection of the event and its consequences.

St Paul is using this kind of conceptuality to help us come to terms with the significance of the event of Jesus' sacrifice and shedding of his blood. And it is this liturgical rite which regularly brings us to the foot of the cross. This holy meal, perhaps a foretaste of the heavenly banquet foreshadowed by the prophets to include all peoples when God's purposes are finally worked out, is what we do when we gather as the Church of God. It is in this rite that we are remade by remembrance and the life of Christ himself to be truly members of his body. Here we are regularly commissioned to go out and be the Church devoted to serving the world as Jesus envisaged.

Thank God for the eucharist!


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