Discerning the Body

Corpus Christi

The feast of Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) is observed in the Roman Catholic and many Anglican Churches on the Thursday (or Sunday) after Trinity Sunday. The feast was inaugurated in the thirteenth century, originally at Liège, where an Augustinian nun received visions in which Christ pleaded for its institution and her bishop established the feast, and then in 1264 throughout the Latin Rite at the order of Pope Urban IV, who had been Archdeacon at Liège. As the solemn evening Mass on Maundy Thursday focuses not only on the Institution of the Eucharist but also Christ’s giving of the new commandment, His agony in the garden of Gethsemane, and His betrayal, and is celebrated with foot-washing and stripping of the altar, this new feast was established to focus solely on thanksgiving for the institution of the Eucharist.

There is no Feast of Corpus Christi in the Kalendar of the Episcopal Church, but bcp1979 does provide a Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist, ‘especially suitable for Thursdays’ [201], using the traditional Corpus Christi Collect and Epistle and an expansion of its Gospel, with the addition of a Lesson and some other options for the Epistle.

The Gospel for this Mass comes from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St John, which begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and continues a bit later with the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse:

‘Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
     The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’

     Jn 6.47–58

Food, being a basic necessity of life, figures prominently – centrally, really – throughout Scripture, and if it provides the occasion for sin and the necessity for toil [Gn 2–3, not to mention the questions about meat sacrified to idols and to unworthy practices concerning the Lord’s Supper], it is also a great sacrament of encounter with the divine, of redemption, fulfillment, of God’s superabundant love. And all of these aspects and accounts – from Abraham’s welcoming the angels unawares, the Passover, the manna in the wilderness [Dt 8.2–3, the Lesson for this Mass], the accounts involving Elijah and Elisha of food that does not run out, to the pre- and post-Resurrection feeding accounts in the Gospels, the banquet parables, and finally the Last Supper and the Supper of the Lamb [Rv 19.1–2a, 4–9, one of the Epistles for this Mass] – are gathered up in the Eucharist, the central act of Christian worship.

St Thomas Aquinas had a hand in the compilation of the liturgy for this feast and is traditionally credited with the Office hymns for Lauds (‘Verbum supernum prodiens’ [the last two stanzas of which are at 311]) and Vespers (‘Pange lingua gloriosi corporis’ [329]), a devotional hymn (‘Adoro te devote’ [314]), and the Sequence (‘Lauda Sion salvatorem’, [320]) (all somewhat redacted in the Hymnal to avoid mention of transubstantiation). A particular focus of these texts as they stand in the Hymnal is the necessity to have faith to discern (though it is quite real) Christ’s Presence in the Eucharistic banquet, until such time as that Presence is fully revealed:

...types and shadows have their ending,
     for the newer rite is here;
faith, our outward sense befriending,
     makes our inward vision clear. 
     Pange lingua

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee. 
     Adoro te devote

But the faithful are called to discern the Presence of the Body of Christ not only in and as the Bread, but also in and as the Church; the two are part of the same reality, as the embedding of the account of the Institution of the Eucharist within a discussion of the ‘etiquette’ of the Lord’s Supper – the other Epistle for this Mass – shows:

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way 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.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
     Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.

     1Co 11.23–29

Indeed, concern for the Body and the unity and cooperation of its parts is a – perhaps the – major theme of St Paul; the next chapter of I Corinthians is all about this, as is much of the Letter to the Ephesians (and of course much of the dominical discourse and prayer in the Gospel of John).

The Prayer Book Exhortation to Communion [316] expounds this beautifully:

Beloved in the Lord: Our Savior Christ, on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood as a sign and pledge of his love, for the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of his death, and for a spiritual sharing in his risen life. For in these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another...
     But if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup. For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord.
     Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments, that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life, being ready to make restitution for all injuries and wrongs done by you to others; and also being ready to forgive those who have offended you, in order that you yourselves may be forgiven. And then, being reconciled with one another, come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food...

Christians would do well to heed the Apostle’s warning that a failure to ‘discern the Body’ in all its fullness leads to weakness, illness, and even death. The Lord’s Supper, he says, is no ordinary meal, and the Church no ordinary gathering, and when either is treated with anything less than the profound respect it deserves, we can expect to wither spiritually and institutionally as much as individually and physically (the Christian tradition strongly affirms the continuity of individual and corporate, and spiritual and physical, health / salvation).

Another Communion hymn [321] is particularly concerned with the disrespect and disuse of the Sacrament. Philip Doddridge inscribed this hymn ‘God’s Name profaned, when his Table is Treated with Contempt; Mal. 1.12 Applied to the Lord’s Supper’, referring to the verse that follows a much more famous and oft-quoted one:

For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.
     But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and the food for it may be despised.

     Ml 1.11–12

Concerned that the Sacrament was being neglected in his own day, the Nonconformist author* caught the prophetic vision that the Lord’s Table might ‘honored be, / and furnished will with joyful guests’, praying, ‘in countless number let them come... till with this Bread shall all be blessed / who see the light or feel the sun’. In a stanza omitted from the Hymnal, this concern that ‘all nations should stream to the mountain of the Lord’s house’ [Is 2.2, to quote just one representative verse] is placed in the context of appropriate preparation and the perception of Christ in the Sacrament and its fruits in our lives:

Let Crouds approach with Hearts prepar’d;
     with Hearts influenc’d let all attend;
nor, when we leave our Father’s Board,
     the Pleasure, or the Profit end.

Thus we are reminded that the need for the discernment to which we are called does not end when the Mass does. Discerning the Body in the Eucharistic species, in the act of Communion with God and man, and in the Church more broadly, are still only part of the picture, for these contexts are but concentrated instances of Christ’s Presence, which is really to be found far and wide: they are places where (ideally) we cannot help but see that Presence, so that, having learned what the Kingdom looks like, we may seek it and find it all around and within us, for the healing of the nations [Rv 22.2]. This is what Christians pray for on Corpus Christi and every time the Sacrament is received:

God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament hath left unto us a memorial of his passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption; who liveth and reigneth...
     Collect for the Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist
     (recast, addressed to the Son,
     as the ‘Prayer after receiving Communion’ [bcp 834])

O God, whose blessed Son did manifest himself to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open, we pray thee, the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord...
     Collect for Wednesday in Easter Week
     and the III. Sunday of Easter

*  We must remember that more frequent and more meaningful reception of Communion was a concern of Reformers of many stripes who ended up both within and outside the Church of Rome; that Eucharistic practice and understanding was not always so different within and outside the Established Church of England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and that a certain strain of Evangelicalism has always been characterized by a remarkably catholic contemplative spirit. The seriousness with which these divines (ecclesiological issues notwithstanding) treated the Sacrament as they understood it should be an inspiration and challenge in our own day, when the Eucharist – with frequent Communion of the People – once again stands at the heart of not only Anglican but many other Christians’ liturgy, but too often with wholly inadequate preparation or understanding.