Transferring feast days to Sundays is an ecclesiastical concession to capitalism I have yet to come to terms with. I like allowing God to encroach on the working week. None the less, transfer we do, and the feast of Corpus Christi began with vespers this evening.
Corpus Christi is a highlight in the calender for me. The feast seems to have been introduced in response to a certain kind of medieval devotion to the Host which lacked theological balance – too many processions and stories of bleeding hosts, not enough taking and eating. Fortunately, what was lacking was restored (at least potentially) by St Thomas’ beautiful liturgy for the feast. This tells us amongst other things that Christ is not (contra the bleeding host tradition) present under the corporeal mode (or we could not sing ‘Whoso of this host partaketh, Christ divideth not nor breaketh’), and is present under the form of a sign (‘Here beneath these signs are hidden priceless things, to sense forbidden’); that the meal we share is (amongst other things) the memorial of a crucified man (‘At the last great supper lying’); and that the eucharist is a foretaste of the Kingdom (in fact, ‘the bread of angels’). That is Catholic belief about the eucharist summed up nicely: Jesus, condemned to death, gives his followers a meal. That meal is to be a sacrament of the risen Lord, looking back to his betrayal and death whilst celebrating his resurrection. In this meal he is really present (not metaphorically – there is no bread and wine on the altar) as priest and sacrifice, not as one human being is usually present to another, but under the form of signs. These signs remind us that we are still on a journey, this is food for the journey, manna in the desert, but also that our journey will find fulfilment in a Kingdom which scripture can find no better image for than a massive party with abundant food and drink. This understanding is neither reductionist, nor pietistically detached from the gritty stuff of day-to-day life and the animal acts of eating and drinking, which are the equal and opposite dangers in approaches to the eucharist. And for that reason, I always enjoy today’s feast.
In celebration, some chant (even if the images aren’t entirely agreeable in the light of my thoughts above):
This week, I liked Sara Maitland in the Guardian on the (Anglican) Walsingham National Pilgrimage.