St Albans 2018
It was my first year as a priest at St Pauls Symond Street. Fr David Balfour had gone on leave, and left me in charge. It was the day after Christmas, the blessed martyr St Stephens’s day, I got a call from a stranger who desperately wanted to meet me on Symond Street outside the church, he was very specific. I drove to the church, and as I walked across the road I saw him, he was well over six foot tall, he stood upright and proud, but seemed on edge. As I got closer to him I could see his eyes, they seemed to be ablaze with evil, I had never seen this before. He stood looking at me, I was dressed in a clerical shirt as was my custom. He looked directly at me and said in a blunt and aggressive voice, “I am the leader of the Satanist movement”. I was startled, and the hairs on the back of my neck appeared to stand on edge. I quietly asked him what he wanted. He told me that he went into the church and a force had thrown him onto the ground, a power of the like, that he had never experienced before. What is it he demanded? I said, “let us go into the church, sit down, and explore what it is you have experienced”. Suddenly fear covered his face and he seemed to diminish in appearance. He refused to come into the church as the power may throw him on the ground again. We stood at the entrance of the door looking in I asked him to point to where this power had come from. He pointed to the side of the front of the church at the Aumbry, where the Blessed Sacrament was reserved; this was the source of power that threw the leader of the Satanist movement flat onto his face.
Two men two thousand years ago after the death of Jesus were walking on the dusty road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We are told that they were downcast because of all that had happened; they were followers of the Lord. Suddenly a stranger joined them and they told him of all that had happened, even though he was a Jew, he seemed unaware of all the events surrounding Jesus execution. Eventually they stopped at a place to rest and eat. Still melancholy of spirit they continued their lament. Then the stranger looked at them with love, gave thanks and broke the bread, suddenly as if scales had fallen from their eyes, they recognised that it was the Lord, he had risen, they knew him in the breaking of the bread.
An elderly woman that I knew at St Pauls Church Symond street. Told me how as an agnostic neither believing nor rejecting the faith she walked into, All Saints Church Margaret St, London. A very Anglo Catholic liturgy was taking place. She knelt and prayed, in this moment of silence a bell rang thrice, and she heard a voice, as if a person was standing next to her, although she could see no one close by, the voice, said ‘Rhona look up it is me the Lord’ She explained how she looked up to see the priest holding the bread above the chalice, and immediately I knew this was the Lord. I recognised him in the breaking of the bread.
Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, a feast that defines what it means to be Anglo Catholic.
Today we are celebrating the real presence of the Lord, in the most Holy Sacrament of His body and blood, in the simple elements of bread and wine. These elements are transfigured through the consecration of the liturgy and prayers.
This is a mystery that we will never fully understand, but we can in all its fullness experience its power.
The early church to begin with struggled to understand the incarnation of God as Christ, Many debates raged as to how Jesus could be fully man and fully God at the same time. They knew him as a man, and they experienced him as God.
Just as Jesus was fully divine and fully human at the same time, so the elements of the Eucharist when consecrated remain fully bread and wine and at the same time become fully the body and blood of Christ.
We know they are wine and bread because they still taste as such, but we experience in them the full power of God.
Just as the Satanist leader did,
just as the men on the road to Emmaus did,
just as Rona did at All Saints Church London did
And just as we can as we open ourselves to his presence.
Both inside and outside the church many struggle with this understanding of the Eucharist. This is nothing new.
In today’s Gospel reading When Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, his words met with less than an enthusiastic reception. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (V 52). “This is a hard saying who can listen to it?” (V60). In fact so many of his disciples abandoned him over this that Jesus had to ask the twelve if they also planned to quit. It is interesting that Jesus did not run after his disciples saying, “Don’t go – I was just speaking metaphorically!”
Here’s an interesting fact of history. One charge the pagan Romans lodged against the Christians was cannibalism. Why? People heard that this sect regularly met to eat and drink human blood. Did the early Christians say: “wait a minute, it’s only a symbol!”? Not at all.
When trying to explain the Eucharist to the Roman Emperor around 155 AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: he said “For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.”
Not many Christians questioned the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist until the middle ages. In trying to explain how bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, several theologians got themselves into a right tangle.
Then St. Thomas Aquinas came along and offered an explanation that became classic. In all change that we observe in this life, he teaches, appearances change, but deep down, the essence of a thing stays the same.
We all experience this as we age we change on the outside but we are still the same person on the inside.
St. Thomas said, the Eucharist is the one instance of change we encounter in this world that is exactly the opposite. The appearances of bread and wine stay the same, but the very essence or substance of these realities, which can’t be viewed by a microscope, is totally transformed. What was once bread and wine are now Christ’s body and blood.
A word was coined to describe this unique change. Transformation of the “sub-stance”, what came to be called “transubstantiation.”
What makes this happen? The power of God’s Spirit and Word.
After praying for the Spirit to come (epiklesis), the priest, who stands in the place of Christ, repeats the words of the Christ: “This is my Body, This is my Blood.” A bit like in Genesis 1: the mighty wind ( “Spirit”) whips over the surface of the water and God’s Word resounds. “Let there be light” and there was light. It is no harder to believe in the Eucharist than to believe in Creation.
We heard these words this morning from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
“Lord Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of me.’ In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said: ‘This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood.”
But why did Jesus arrange for this transformation of bread and wine? Because he intended another kind of transformation. The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ which are, in turn, meant to transform us. Ever hear the phrase: “you are what you eat?” The Lord desires us to be transformed from a motley crew of imperfect individuals into the Body and Blood of Christ.
This understanding is expressed in the hymns we have been singing this morning.
“Oh, may we all one Bread, one Body be, One through this Sacrament of unity”
“To be your body to be your blood; how hard to learn Lord; to die and live”
This is the wonderful mystery of the Eucharist of Christ.
Each one of the stories I told in the beginning saw people transformed by Christ through his Holy Body.
The Satanist became a good Christian man his eyes shone with love not hatred and fear.
The men on the road to Emmaus ran back to Jerusalem to tell the disciples they had seen the risen Lord, their downcast fear had gone.
Rhona after experiencing the risen Lord in the Sacrament at All Saints Margaret St London became a wonderful Christian witness to the risen Lord.
Christians speak often of an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus. But I ask you, how much more personal and intimate can you get? We receive the Lord’s body into our physical body that we may become him whom we receive!
All through the ages many Christian writers have expressed the wonder of this gift of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body. And his real presence within it.
In his little book the Imitation of Christ Thomas A Kempis writes, “paid by me and by all Christian people in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and in receiving the most worshipful body of Christ”
Many through the ages have also recognised how this sacrament can empower us through Christ’s special presence within it.
Again I quote from Kempis,
“Indeed, so powerful is the grace of this Sacrament, so full the outpouring of devotion, that sometimes not only the mind but even the feeble body is aware that greater strength has been given it”
This understanding is at the heart of the prayer on the banner at the front of the church this morning. This prayer has been adapted from the writings of St Catherine of Sienna. A prayer that I use every time I receive the sacrament. I invite you to allow this prayer to become a part of your life with Christ.
As it is a true example of the incarnation of God
When the priest places the wafer, the Body of Christ in your hand, Stop, reflect, and pray.
With my eyes I see bread, and with my spirit I see you
With my hand I touch bread, and with my love I touch you
With my tongue I taste bread, and with my desire I taste you
Lord, as I receive you, receive me.