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.