What is Corpus Christi? Does our church do it?

At last night’s meeting of St. George’s Buildings & Grounds Committee, the members were discussing and making plans for the upcoming renovation of the sacristy. The sacristy is pretty much a large storage area and closet and vesting room, used in preparation for worship. Most of the conversation, then, focused on counter-tops and cabinets and solutions to storage issues.  “When we do this, I’d like to add a piscina,” one member of the Committee – herself a member of the altar guild – spoke up.

“What’s a piscina?” others asked.

A piscina, they were told, is a drain used to return water and any other liquids that might be consecrated and/or involved in cleaning consecrated items directly to the ground. Once consecrated, or once mixing with consecrated substances, that item is not longer just a thing; it’s substance is also changed, made different, made into Christ’s real and living presence. And thus, last night, our church’s Buildings & Grounds Committee learned a little bit about our church’s understanding of what’s going on on the altar: what we mean when we talk about real presence.

Today in the life of the church is the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Thursday after Trinity Sunday, the eighth Thursday following Easter is technically known in the Latin church as Corpus et Sanguis Christi – the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

Not just a town in Texas, Corpus Christi is a venerable and relatively old Christian celebration, and a kind of counterpart to Maundy Thursday, now nine weeks ago. Maundy Thurdsay, that is, Thursday during Holy Week, that is, the Thursday before Easter, however, is a complicated and busy liturgical day. The liturgies for Maundy Thursday remember Jesus washing his disciples feet (found in John’s gospel, which, interestingly, doesn’t have a last supper) as well as the institution of the Holy Eucharist on that night. Congregations such as St. George’s, Valley Lee have some form of a community meal that night, as well, followed often by a night-long vigil at the altar of repose. In all, Maundy Thursday is about a lot of things, and one consequence is that the Holy Eucharist tends to recede into the background. What Jesus actually did on that last night in that upper room was a really fascinating thing, we believe. Not just the Last Supper, the Holy Eucharist is a profound gift wherein Jesus promised to always be among them “in scripture and in the breaking of the bread,” as we pray in a Collect, and he promises, literally, to show up in the present tense every time we, ourselves, break bread. The word remember in the statement “…do this in remembrance of me” is actually the Greek term anamnesis which is far more than a memorial or history lesson but, in fact, means something like ‘to make actually present again.’ That is, when God’s people in prayer remember (anamnesis) Jesus, Christ literally shows up again, and changes our substance and the substance of our assembly, including what was, previously, just bread, just wine.

Didn’t get that lesson at Maundy Thursday or during Holy Week? Obviously. You’re not alone if this never really occurred to you, and you are joined in this by a thirteenth century Augustinian religious woman named Juliana of Liege. Born in the 1190s in Liege, Belgium, Juliana de Cornillon developed a fascination with the Holy Eucharist. It was bound to happen, anyway, because Liege and much of northern Europe in the thirteenth century had a number of confraternities of the Blessed Sacrament, groups of persons who devoted themselves to adoration and benediction of the Holy Eucharist and, in many cases, had organized continuous prayers and vigils for its efficacy and power. Juliana was orphaned at the age of five and together with her sister, Agnes, they lived in the convent of Mont-Cornillon.

Visions came to her, she reported; the first in 1208 instructed her “to plead for the institution of the feast of Corpus Christi.” One particularly powerful vision was, for her, “the appearance of the full moon having one dark spot, which signified the absence of such a solemnity.” Juliana kept the visions secret but eventually confided in her spiritual director who, breaking all modern understandings of confidentiality (!), told the bishop. In 1246, Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liege, ordered the celebration of Corpus Christi on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, and declared that it should continue on that day and in that fashion ever since. This was only in south of Belgium, in the region of Liege, however. By 1251, Hugh of St.-Cher, a Cardinal, brought the celebration to his judicatory in Germany. And in 1264, Pope Urban IV – who as a young archdeacon named Jacques Pantaleon of Troyes served in Liege and experienced this growing feast – composed the papal bull, Transiturus de hoc mundo, and thus instituted the Solemnity of Corpus Christi to be celebrated the Thursday after Trinity Sunday. Apparently, Urban IV’s successors didn’t much care for this feast, and so it fell into obsolescence until it was re-introduced in 1311 by Pope Clement V at the Council of Vienne.

Corpus Christi is a day set apart to honor and celebrate nothing more, nothing less than the mystery that is the Holy Eucharist. Many churches and, even today, many communities feature outdoor processions in which the Blessed Sacrament is placed in a monstrance and carried under a tent throughout the neighborhood. These are honorable celebrations, and yet it would make just as much sense, for me, to actually go out there and celebrate the Holy Eucharist in a public place. Perhaps Corpus Christi could become the lively (and theologically better!) counterpart to Ashes to Go – going out into our communities and neighborhoods, shopping centers and street corners and doing nothing more, nothing less than celebrating Holy Eucharist, making Christ really and truly present.

And yet it should be noted that there is unsteady Anglican precedent for the observance of this celebration, perhaps the very reason it is not found in our Book of Common Prayer. The Church of England does list it as an optional celebration, and Anglo-Catholics in our tradition carry on this feast with special solemnity and, to me, a genuine and exciting missional attitude to their neighborhoods.

As wonderful as this celebration is, however, it also makes sense to me why our tradition, as such, has (at best) a tenuous stance toward Corpus Christi. The late-medieval nature of the origin of the celebration and the fact that in many cases these local communities of eucharistic adoration carried about them some measure of local pseudo-magical understandings of the Holy Eucharist render this a Feast day that is rich in theology but rather poor in practice. Sacraments have about them a real power, literally, to change the substance of things so that this creation becomes ordered, once again, to the precepts of the Kingdom of God and no longer the base concepts we often settle for, flesh and blood, bread and wine, scarcity and anxiety. Sacraments are not museum pieces or precious tokens of a bygone era. Sacraments are powerful. Sacraments are a kind of power unto themselves, thus they need to be used, lived in, radiated out: not ‘gazed upon.’ For those Anglo-Catholic congregations, say, that process through their neighborhood on Sunday (or today) and then invite that entire congregation into the eucharistic worship which immediatley follows – and especially for those congregations who are always, already engaged in the transformation of their communities through works of justice – a Corpus Christi procession not only makes sense but is a great outreach. Otherwise, however, it borders on magic-making and the theological evil that is ‘preciousness.’

For this reason, Article XXV (Of the Sacraments) of the sixteenth century Articles of Religion, central to our tradition, say as much: “Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him. …The Sacraments are not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.” (Emphasis mine.)

The theological, missional thrust underlying Corpus Christi is perhaps best expressed in the poetry and musical compositions of Thomas Aquinas. Personally, I love the fact that St. Thomas – who comes down to us in the academic tradition as the author, literally, of theological tomes and treatises and is regarded as one of the brightest lights of the scholastic period – was also, himself, a poet and a musician. Pope Urban IV, in fact, commissioned St. Thomas to compose the pieces for a mass setting as well as vespers for Corpus Christi. Thomas apparently did so during his residency at Orvieto from 1259 to 1265. One such poem/hymn is Pange lingua (literally: “Sing my tongue…”), and it’s hymn number 165 in The Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982. We sing it every Maundy Thursday at St. George’s, Valley Lee, during the time in which the altar is being stripped and the people are invited to remain for vigil all night. This congregation jokes with me, calling it “the dirge,” and the tune certainly sounds that way, although the text is rich, lasting, wonderful.

Make these words, then, your prayer on this Feast of Corpus Christi. And grant that, in so doing, you will not just receive, and certainly not ‘gaze upon,’ the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, but rather become what you receive: the Body of Christ.

 

Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing; tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring. Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as King.

 

Thirty years among us dwelling, his appointed time fulfilled, born for this, he meets his passion, this the Savior freely willed: on the cross the Lamb is lifted, where his precious blood is spilled.

 

He endures the nails, the spitting, vinegar, and spear, and reed; from that holy body broken blood and water forth proceed: earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean, by that flood from stain are freed.

 

Faithful cross! above all other, one and only noble tree! None in foliage, none in blossom, none in fruit thy peer may be: sweetest wood and sweetest iron! sweetest weight is hung on thee.

 

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend; for awhile the ancient rigor that thy birth bestowed, suspend; and the King of heavenly beauty gently on thine arms extend.

 

Praise and honor to the Father, praise and honor to the Son praise and honor to the Spirit, ever Three and ever One: one in might and one in glory while eternal ages run.

WHY DOES THE TRINITY MATTER?

Following Sunday School last week, I asked one of our kids what she learned.

“Nothing,” she said.  (That’s not an uncommon response from lots of kids, but this was strange for this particular child.)

“Nothing?” I responded. “Surely you picked up something?”

“It’s the same thing we heard last year,” she said, “the Trinity, God is three and also one.”

I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people, like that 9-year-old, are so far beyond being tired of Christian preachers asserting dogmatic truths that they’ve started to feel as if Christianity is nothing more than a wierd code language, and some of us some of the time as part of our commitment to grow deeper and help change the world are forced to listen to words which don’t actually convey meaning.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that those who are not in churches and not likely to darken the door of any church are a lot like many within those sanctuaries — wondering about the purpose of their life and how they can help make this world a more just and equitable place and if they care, whatsoever, about what Christians are doing on Sundays they’re probably wondering “Why? What’s the big deal? So what? What’s the point?”

It’s not important whether one understands Christianity.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance — that God is one and in three persons.  For starters, this is hardly comprehensible.  And, on another level, understanding it doesn’t really matter.  Ask yourself, instead, what difference it makes.  That’s what the world’s asking, and it’s a very good question.

In short, the Trinity makes a difference, a big difference.

The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t officially settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 381 A.D.  That doesn’t mean that everyone still agreed, but it’s interesting that a lot of years passed between Jesus and this church council.  In that time, there was a lot of wondering and figuring stuff out and discerning and talking but, if you haven’t figured out by now, there was also a whole lot of arguing, screaming, kicking out and fighting.  The story of Christianity, in many ways, is also the story of a big, drawn-out family argument.  Perhaps you’ve experienced or, maybe, started one.  The table erupts into contention, everyone’s involved even if they don’t want to be, and as much as you want to walk away and scream and say “I’m done with all you people!” you don’t.  No, they’re still your family and as much as you don’t know why you love them you still do, in spite of your radically differing opinions about whatever it was that started that argument.

That’s a real gift, the gift of different opinions and arguing parties.  A brief journey through the story of how early Christians wondered and wandered toward a definition of the Trinity might highlight some of this.

In the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doctrine of the Trinity, but there is a threefold understanding of God and in places where the context wouldn’t otherwise demand it.  The Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early-second centuries, such as Ignatius of Antioch, didn’t concern themselves with figuring out dogma – they were too busy tending the lives of growing congregations – but God is clearly affirmed as creator and Jesus is not only Son of God but also “our God” (as in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians) and a triadic formula is often used.  Justin Martyr and other Apologists of the early second century began to develop an understanding of how the one God can be both eternal and, at the same time, also revealed in the Son.  Using logos — Greek for ‘word’ and ‘speech’ – Justin affirmed that God is one but, just as your own speech comes from within your own mind, so too does God bring forth something of Godself from time to time.  Building on that, Irenaeus (late second century) developed a more thought-out understanding of how the Spirit plays in all of this: there’s an economy in God, Irenaeus taught; God’s nature is one but, at various points, God’s Word (Son) and God’s Wisdom (Spirit) are disclosed.

Irenaeus’ “economic trinitarianism”, as it’s called today, sparked fervor because many felt it denied an essential part of the Christian faith: monotheism.  And in the third century there was a backlash against emergent trinitarian thinking, leading to the belief that there was no distinction in the Godhead.  Into this argument stepped the third-century theologian, Tertullian, who not only affirmed the one-ness of God but, going beyond Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, also showed that in God there are three unique, distinct persons.  Tertullian’s synthesis of Latin and Greek philosophy with emerging Christian doctrines remained central for some time, until in the fourth century a preacher from Alexandria named Arius returned the original fear that all of this denies the belief in one God.  Arianism was so popular that it led, in time, to the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D., figuring out the relationship between the Son and the Father) and Chalcedon (381 A.D., addressing the first question as well as dealing the Trinity).  Both Councils officially denounced Arianism as heresy and proclaimed that the Son is fully God (so we say in the Nicene Creed: “…God from God, light from light, true god from true god…”) and that there are, in fact, three distinct persons in the one God.  This we call the Trinity.

Perhaps this sounds like one of those big family blow-outs in which everyone’s argued about something for so long that someone, at some point, says “What is it we started arguing about again?”, at which the entire table erupts in laughter.  Surely, parts of the story I just told do sound a lot like starting World War III because someone forgot to put out the salad dressing!

But there’s a reason why this conversation got started, and there’s a reason why it turned into an argument and why it took so long to get worked out.  There is a why?, a so what? to this entire story and that is far more important to know than the answer itself.

The Trinity is essentially a very profound and progressive understanding of God.  The desire which fuels all of this is the search for a way to understand with some degree of comprehension that God is both eternal, true, for all time and, at the same time, new and fresh and living.  You know that God is, and if you’ve ever flirted with atheism – or tried it out for a while – you know, I’ll bet, the limits of cutting off all possibility of something beyond, something else, something more to life.  But just because you experience an open-eyed wonder you might not be entirely comfortable with feeling locked into a belief system which seems to assert with dogmatic authority that there are things you must believe about God.  You want to be rooted in something true, something lasting, something real … and yet you don’t want to get stuck.

The reason why Christians stumbled upon the idea of the Trinity is to explain these real-life issues.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both rooted in God but not bound by that rootedness, tied to something real but not restricted by that tether, not cut-off to the ways in which God is revealing new riches and, yes, challenges.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both religious and spiritual, both rooted and open.

A catch-phrase for many is that they’re “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  Ironically, there are so many ‘SBNR’s that even though it feels to them like something avant garde it’s a lifestyle which is so caught up in the mainstream that there’s no real substance, if anything there’s a palpable absence of meaning.  (It’s not dissimilar to the experience of buying some new fancy outfit that everyone says is the latest in fashion while you also know, as you’re making the purchase, you’re going to dump it in the second-hand shop box in less than a year.)

We are living in a new apostolic age, and it’s much more similar to the early centuries of Christianity than these latter ones.  This is not to say that the answers and the doctrines are invalid or, somehow, less valid.  I am saying, though, that the challenge for us is to get underneath our dogma and listen and respond attentively to the voices and experience of real women and men, people who are really searching and quite honestly struggling to make meaning in a relatively unmoored world.  The democratization of technology and widespread availability of information in our western, internet-connected world has not only led to a greater dissemination of knowledge but also, ironically, a profound disconnect for many with what it feels like to have an intellectual, spiritual home — a native language, a base-line understanding of how the world works.  The challenge and, I’d say, gift is that we live in a world in which people are free and sophisticated enough to ask, with integrity, why? and so what difference does that make?  And when they ask this question they are really, truly wondering and searching and yearning for something that sounds like a refreshing place to lay their spiritual and intellectual heads … but not get stuck there.

This also means that we are free, in fact we are expected to no longer simply give the answers to the test but share with a compelling narrative that our faith is progressive and open-minded, that we are spiritual people who are seeking and, when we stumble upon the Holy, we pause in the presence of a living God.  Because of that, then, we’re unafraid to put down roots and journey deeper into the heart of that mystery, that God who is eternal and true and yet, at once, involved in this world and revealing something new, indeed “new every morning.” (Lam.3:23)

…..

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on, you guessed it, Trinity Sunday. May 26, 2013.  For the full text, click here.

FREE TO WORK BENEATH THE SURFACE OF THINGS

Christians do a great job of celebrating Christmas and Easter, but it’s really Jesus’ ascension which ‘seals the deal.’  Forty days after Easter, Luke tells us in the sequel to his gospel, Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11), Jesus ascended into heaven in front of the eleven disciples: “…as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (v.9)  They stood there, watching and waiting.  At that moment, similar to Easter Day, two men in white robes appeared and said to them, “Why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go.” (v.11)  Immediately, they set about to work, no longer dependent on Jesus’ earthly presence.  Immediately, they did what they knew they were capable of doing, spreading the good news in word and deed.

That’s a great question: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?”  Most of us are conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere, not within.  Why do you stand looking up to heaven?   Because we’re so conditioned to look for direction from elsewhere we’re also lousy at practicing freedom. When we talk about freedom, then, we tend to think about being free from something — from others, from expectation, from binding laws.  That’s not what God means by freedom.  For God, freedom is not being free from something.  It’s being free for something.
Christianity is a religion of freedom, but be careful: what Christians actually celebrate is that we are free, in fact, to exercise the better angels of our nature, to borrow Abraham Lincoln’s phrase.  We are free, truly free for the exercise of higher spiritual values.
All of this, we say, is because Jesus took up our nature, our humanity, with him.   Without the Ascension, we’d never get around to doing what we’re capable of doing.  Without the Ascension, we’d be sitting around, drifting aimlessly, acting like wild-eyed children, practicing the freedom which is really lawlessness, or waiting for another leader, monarch, dictator, self-help guru or diet commercial to tell us what to do.
The 16th century reformer, John Calvin, taught that our material nature is already in heaven, at least in part: “Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already ‘sit with God in the heavenly places in him’ so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.”
And Brooke Westcott, the 19th century Bishop of Durham (England), wrote: “By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words ‘in Christ,’ the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. … He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
It could be said, in a sense, that Christians gather to re-learn and practice a freedom which this world does not, cannot teach.  We gather and enjoy and engage, as Bishop Westcott said, “the surface of things” — we make friendships, build community, serve the needy and oppressed.  But we are cognizant, at the same time, that we’re also, everyday, “working beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration.”  A freedom such as that is not to be missed.