Feast of Corpus Christi
Sermon given by Fr. Martin Edwards, MA, STL, on the occasion of the first Missa Cantata for 37 years at St. Mary’s Church, Ryde, on the Saturday within the Octave of Corpus Christi, 21st June, 2003.
My dear people, I am grateful to Fr. John Catlin, the parish priest here at St. Mary’s, Ryde, for allowing us the great privilege of celebrating this Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist, in this the Octave of the feast of Corpus Christi, in this beautiful church of St. Mary’s, here in Ryde, where the tabernacle containing the Truth and the Reality of the Mystery that we worship today has a fittingly honoured and prominent position, (although slightly obscured today by the central altar card). You have with you the texts today for the Mass and the other devotions prepared carefully as usual by Peter Clarke, your Latin Mass Society representative here on the Isle of Wight, and just one or two further words of thanks before the sermon; firstly to Bishop Hollis of Portsmouth for giving permission for this Mass, which we believe, is the first Missa Cantata, here on the Island for 37 years, and also thanks to the “Schola Nicholai” choir from the mainland and all those who have assisted in any way in organising this historic Mass and in preparing the food for our lunch.
It is fitting I suppose to begin with a few words of thanks because this is the Votive Mass of the Holy Eucharist, and as you probably know the word, Eucharist comes from the Greek and means “thanksgiving”; and each year in Holy Week on Maundy Thursday, we give thanks for the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament, the Holy Eucharist, the sacrifice of the altar. On that day naturally and appropriately the shadow of Good Friday looms over our worship. On Maundy Thursday, the night before He suffered, the eve of His Passion, a sombre note sounds in the Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which gives our devotions, even our devotions of the altar of the Host, a certain austerity, a certain sadness. It is not a time that lends itself to full thanksgiving for and celebration of this great gift. The Blessed Sacrament is forever rooted in the Lord’s Passion. Where the Mass is, there is the Cross. You have a wonderful, visible reminder here in St. Mary’s, Ryde, with this crucfix over the tabernacle, but perhaps for this very reason, the Church’s devotion needed another outlet, another more exuberant mode of expression. And in addition to Maundy Thursday, the “sensus fidelium”, the sense of the pious and faithful, instinctively sought another day, in which to glory in the Eucharist; a day without the immediate shadow of the Cross, a day without the darkness of Gethsemane, a Summer’s day, far removed from the agony in the garden. This feast began, we believe, as a local devotion in the French Diocese of Liege. It really started with a procession, and that is why it is fitting that we have a procession of the Blessed Sacrament this afternoon. In the year 1264 Pope Urban IV extended this to the universal Church and in the same year, at the Pope’s request, the angelic doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, himself, composed the liturgical texts, which are used both today in this Votive Mass and on the feast of Corpus Christi. These texts have unfortunately been messed around with in the present vernacular translations. Urban’s idea was that the feast should express, above all, our joy in Christ’s abiding presence among us, in this most Holy Sacrament. There was to be, on this day, a distinctive note of joyful triumph. To some people, triumph is a dirty word, but at the heart of it is the reason why we go out of the church on Corpus Christi. And so grew up the custom of marking the day itself, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, to mark it not only with a particularly ornate celebration of Holy Mass, but also, and perhaps particularly, with an outdoor procession of the Host. It is as if the church cannot contain her joy at Our Lord’s real presence. It literally overflows into the streets. And the monstrance containing the Sacred Host was carried in triumph under the canopy. Flowers and candles were used in abundance with clouds of incense and music; all the delights that art and culture could devise used to express the church’s astonishing conviction of our faith, that in a consecrated host, God the Son is truly and personally present.
Pagan and (let’s be frank), Protestant observers, have long had the greatest of difficulties in understanding this aspect of Catholic belief and devotion. God, the maker of all things, actually present in a thin wafer that dissolves on the tongue. As Calvin said in his characature of Catholic belief in the real presence, “a God summoned by a formula and dismissed by digestion”. It seems incredible, and to many non Catholics and sincere Christians, it seems, I think, worse than that, because they consider it nothing short of gross idolatry; the worship of creature above God. Indeed to the unaided eye of reason or logic, it would seem both incredible and idolatrous; but the miracle that we adore today in the Blessed Sacrament far surpasses reason and logic, though it is based and grounded in them. That is why the texts come from St. Thomas Aquinas, our greatest doctor of the Blessed Sacrament. St. Thomas put it so well in the Office hymn that he wrote for this great feast, part of which we will be singing soon in Benediction, namely, the Tantum Ergo. “Praestet fides supplementum, sensuum defectui”. In our usual translation, “Faith, our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear”.
This is a feast of Faith. It is the church’s faith in the Real Presence that we affirm and more than that, that we are celebrating gloriously on this feast of Corpus Christi. This cult of the host is special and unique to the Catholic Church and in particular to the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. Eastern rite Catholics and the indeed Orthodox churches, certainly share our Eucharistic faith. They have the Real Presence of Our Lord in Holy Mass, but they do not share our Eucharistic cult, the worship of the Blessed Sacrament in quite the same way. As the psalmist said, “He has not dealt thus before the other nation”.
The story is told of Cardinal Kaspar, who heads the Vatican Congregation for Dialogue with other religions. He recently attended a Greek Orthodox service. Some of you may know that their services go on for a very long time. Afterwards the celebrant said to him, “I hope that you were not bored”. The Cardinal replied, “no, not at all”. “It did not go on too long for you then? Perhaps you think we might modernise it or make it simpler”, the celebrant asked. “No”, replied the Cardinal. “It should stay exactly as it is. It is very beautiful”. So the celebrant said, “so why did you do all that you have done to your Mass then”? And it is quite true of course, that many people now look towards the east to recover that sense of the mysterious and spiritual in a religion that has sometimes been stripped bare to its essentials and sometimes even beyond. That’s why we need the traditional liturgy. But in this celebration today, we really don’t need to look to the east. We have something unique here in the worship of Our Lord in the host, because the public and unambiguous worship of the Blessed Sacrament is, and should be, our pride and joy as Roman Catholics. Our pride because the Redeemer has placed himself in our unworthy hands until the world ends. Till then the Catholic Church will rightly glory in this unique privilege. It is our joy because in the host we know that our creator and Saviour delights to abide within us. This is, I think, the greatest proof of the greatest love that the creator could ever show to his creatures; to dwell with them in self imposed captivity; to be wholly at their disposal; to subject Himself totally to their every wish and to exist, it seems, for no other purpose than to offer them love, while at the same time waiting in extreme humility for whatever meagre devotion we might extend in return. And how meagre that devotion is sometimes. We can’t judge people’s hearts but we can see how they worship with their bodies. We see in our churches, as soon as Mass is over and the Sacrament scarcely consumed … talking … laughing …. joking. How many Catholics do we see making a thanksgiving or even a proper preparation before Mass begins? In your pamphlet for this Mass you will read a description of the Blessed Sacrament processions in Ryde in the past. Of course for hundreds of years it was absolutely impossible, with death as the consequence for anyone attempting to convey the Blessed Sacrament through the streets of England. Those restrictions have now gone, and with the lifting of restrictions, where are our processions? How many processions, I wonder, are taking place now. This is not because the government won’t allow it, but because as Catholics, – religious, priests, and people, we simply can’t be bothered.
For at least once a year, around this time, we Catholics should, as we do today here in Ryde, emerge in triumph from our churches carrying proudly that priceless treasure. No matter that onlookers will stare sometimes in idle curiosity. My own church in London is on a traffic island and we go right the way around it and motorists think that something very bizarre is happening. It doesn’t really matter because we know that in this Sacrament, Christ is passing by. He has not dealt thus with other nations. If those who stare in curiosity only knew that close at hand is the entire source and means of their salvation; a salvation perhaps that they haven’t ever seriously considered. They go about their daily business untroubled by such sobering thoughts that keep us Catholics on the straight and narrow, – thoughts of sin, redemption, holiness, salvation and grace. They persue their course through life unaware that in this Sacrament, Christ is passing by. And this procession and this feast is for them too. It is for such souls for whom we should pray today as we proudly process through the streets of our towns and cities, through the lanes and fields of our countryside, bearing aloft mankind’s priceless treasure, as our Holy Father has recently called the Eucharist. The Roman Catholic Church alone has been given the grace to honour the Lord in this special way. He has not dealt thus with other nations.
The Blessed Sacrament exposed is our foretaste of Heaven, where we shall gaze, please God, and gaze for ever on the Lord. Let us prepare for that eternal bliss by rejoicing now in this wonderful feast; a feast whose sole purpose is to glory in the real presence of Christ in the His Eucharist, His gift of love. As we glory let us worship what St. Thomas Aquinas did not hesitate to call, “the greatest miracle that Christ ever worked on earth …my Body …..my Blood”.