Sermon for the Sunday after Corpus Christi

June 6, 2010

Holy Trinity & St. Anskar


But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.

+In the Name of God, the Holy and Undivided Trinity,


The sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. 

Thus saith the25th  Article of Religion. This is found on p 872 of the Book of Common Prayer, In small print, so as not to overemphasize its importance, which is just as well, because today we shall gaze upon the B. Sacrament, and carry it about  We lost something valuable, when we stopped doing that 500 years ago, I think,  and I want to defend reviving the practice today.

                Radical church reformers always say that they are going back to the way things were originally – the way Jesus Christ ordained them.  We look about us and see all kinds of dissension and even corruption in the Church, and we conclude that something is wrong. We need to get back to the state of original righteousness. Of course, we err in thinking that such a state ever prevailed (as Calvinist reformers – especially – with their lovely doctrine of total depravity, ought to know). What reformers really want to get “back” to is some ideal of their own imagining.

                In the 16th C., there was plenty of corruption to notice and there was a new ideal to imagine: a world in which everyone would have direct access to the written word, in which God-given human reason overruled  superstition, and in which people, freed of superstition, would no longer be easy prey to the venality of corrupt clerics and hucksters. This was, indeed a noble project, and the reformers carried on with it as best they could, according to their own understanding. Their new paradigm did not have much room for the mystical dimension of medieval imagination. That was seen as obscurantism, to be sanitized by the pure light of ancient practice as understood by modern reason, as they imagined it.

                Of course, the ceremonies that surrounded the Holy Eucharist in the medieval West were certainly not ancient. And those observed on the Feast of Corpus Christi were almost a novelty. The Reformers were aware that the Feast itself was (and is) unknown in the Byzantine East; and they also knew that it had been instituted by a Pope only in the 13th century. This was an undisputed matter of historical record.  So it had to go, as part of the general project of purifying the Church of later corruption and getting it back to original righteousness.

                I find it interesting to note that the Feast is increasingly popular in our own time. We have concerns quite different from the 16th C. reformers. We have a different cosmology, a different physics, and a very different paradigm of thought, which is – in some ways – more hospitable to the mystical imagination.  In pursuing our rational, scientific inquiries, we have come to recognize that rational nature has limits. At the same time, we recognize that our rational capabilities may turn on us and bite us – like the old fable of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or the romantic tale of Dr. Frankenstein. What we once saw as the light of rationality can also confront us with a horrifying darkness.  Just look at the Gulf. Some see it as the beginning of The End. Well, maybe. But it sure is one more nail in the coffin of poor New Orleans, and is certainly the end of affordable shrimp!

                What does that have to do with Corpus Christi? Well, I can think of a couple of things. The late medieval imagination saw everything as connected. We all participate in one another. The Bl. Sacrament is the epitome of creation as tended by Adam. The little wafer, which we will shortly enshrine in a sunburst and gaze upon, is a microcosm: the whole world summed up and glorified, the created universe become the Body of Christ. This is much more than the token of our own rescue from everlasting punishment, as many of the reformers thought. It is a vast Transfiguration, beyond imagining. That is what the outrageous, excessive, golden monstrance symbolizes: the world transfigured into unimaginable glory.

                That is worth beholding – or “gazing upon” – and it gives a good, joyful reason for “carrying it about”- out into the world, for whom it is just as much intended as for us human beings. Adam is Creation’s priest – the microcosm of creation and the mediator between God and the world. But the sacrament is not just for us; it is for us as participants in all creation, which now participates in the Life of God. That is what our present paradigm can see in the feast of Corpus Christi. Our outdoor processions symbolize our priestly role in bringing this participation into view for the rest of our Brothers and Sisters – as St. Francis, in that same 13th Century, called every creature.

                The animals, too, get to “gaze upon” the Bl. Sacrament. The trees and flowers and rocks and hills can also rejoice, as the ancient psalms foretold. It is worth noting that the medieval imagination attached more importance to vision than the early modern reformers.  To “gaze upon” something was to participate in its being.  The Byzantine East understood this very well. They had a sophisticated theology of ikons, and that may be one reason they didn’t develop anything like the Western ceremonies of Corpus Christi.  They gaze upon” their ikons, we “gaze upon” the Bl. Sacrament. The notion of the Vision of God was so strong, that it came to be considered unnecessary to receive the Sacrament more than once a year. Still, one was expected to come to Mass regularly and to adore the Sacrament by sight. That may be the reason for the Sanctus bell (also not found in the East, where they are very into bells, but not for this purpose). The bells at the elevation of the Sacrament call attention to the opportunity to “gaze upon” the transfigured world, and to participate in it. This came to be called “spiritual Communion”.  Many nowadays consider this an abuse, but I am not so sure.

                Maybe it was not so much a minimalistic abuse as a consequence of a more spacious religious and mystical imagination. The 13th Century preserved something of the ancient mentality , which considered goodness and truth to be the same as beauty. The good, the true, and the beautiful, were all one and the same.  Furthermore, the contemplation of Beauty was transformative. “The eyes are the windows of the soul,” as the saying goes, and the window goes both ways. What we gaze upon enters our soul and changes it. As a medi                                                                eval mystic wrote, when we gaze upon the beauty that is God, “we become conformed to the beauty gazed upon.” And as it happens, this idea is entirely scriptural, for St. Paul wrote (in 2 Corinthians 3:18):

But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory.

So maybe the notion of “spiritual communion”, by seeing , is not such a corrupt and abusive idea after all. Maybe it was, in fact, the faithful preservation of the Apostolic tradition, in its inmost, mystical expanses –  a Eucharistic Mysticism, in which the Real Presence of God in the world – in the fullness of His Humanity as well as His Divinity – is visible, and thus transfiguring. That same medieval mystic, the Bl. Jan van Ruysbroek, put it this way, in his remarkable treatise entitled the Sparkling Stone:

For out of our highest feeling, the brightness of God shines into us, which teaches us truth, and moves us towards every virtue and in eternal love towards God. If we follow this brightness without pause, back into that Source from whence it comes forth, there we feel nothing but a quenching of our spirit and an irretrievable down-sinking into simple and fathomless love. Could we continue to dwell there with our simple gaze, we should always so feel it; for our immersion and transformation in God continues without ceasing in eternity, if we have gone forth from ourselves, and God is ours in the immersion of love.

The brightness (or beauty) of God shines into us, when we gaze upon the Sacrament. This, in turn teaches us truth, and moves us to every virtue (goodness). Beauty, truth and goodness are the same. Reading the scripture, by itself, is an excellent and edifying practice. But most people couldn’t read. And even those who could easily got it wrong. This was the context of Paul’s comment – what he called the veil that obscures our reading of Holy Writ. The same veil obscures our vision.  It is faith that opens our understanding of what we read, unveiling our sight, to behold in the Bl Sacrament Him in Whom dwells all the “Fullness of the godhead bodily.”


SACRED banquet, in which Christ is received,

the memory of His Passion is renewed,

the mind is filled with grace,

    and a pledge of future glory given to us.

V. You gave them bread from heaven;
            R. Containing in itself all sweetness.