Celebrating Corpus Christi

Today is Corpus Christi, Latin for ‘the body of Christ’ and one of the biggest festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Always held on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, it is the day when Roman Catholics celebrate the ‘real presence’ of Jesus in bread and wine. The roots of this festival go back to 1193, when Juliana of Liège (sometimes called Juliana of Cornellon) claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary asking her to put on a big party to honour the body of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Not surprisingly Martin Luther abolished this celebration of ‘transubstantiation’. In one of his homilies, he declared: “I am to no festival more hostile … than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment.” In 1548 the celebration of Corpus Christi was also abolished in England, but it later re-appeared as an optional festival in the calendar of the Church of England as a ‘Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion’.

Frankly I cannot see how in any way consecrated bread and wine literally become the body and blood of our Lord. When Jesus in the Upper Room broke bread and said ‘This is my body’ and later took the cup of thanksgiving and said ‘This is my blood’, he was effectively saying in a dramatic way: ‘This is what they’re going to do to me – and what is going to happen to me is for you’.

And yet although we Protestants may not believe in the Catholic doctrine of the ‘real presence’, the Lord is most certainly present when we break bread and drink wine. It is not that he comes nearer to us, but that we come nearer to him. As we gather around his Table we become more conscious of his presence with us. Ralph Martin, a British Baptist New Testament scholar, put it this way: “‘In remembrance of me’ is no bare historical reflection upon the Cross, but a recalling of the crucified & living Christ in such a way that He is present in all the fulness & reality of his saving power”. Similarly that great Puritan stalwart and Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon. Spurgeon, said in one of his communion sermons: “At this table Jesus feeds us with His body and His blood. His corporeal presence we have not, but his real spiritual presence we perceive. We are like the disciples when none of them durst ask Him, ‘Who art Thou?’ knowing that it was the Lord. He is come. He looketh forth at these windows – I mean this bread and wine; showing Himself through the lattices of this instructive and endearing ordinance.” Or in the words of a communion hymn penned by Horatio Bonar, a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, found in The Baptist Hymn Book (1962): “Here, O my Lord, I see you face to face; here faith can touch and handle things unseen; here I will grasp with firmer hand your grace, and all my helplessness upon you lean”. In other words, even Baptists have accepted that the Lord’s Supper is more than a mere ‘commemoration’ of the death of Jesus:  for when we do not just remember the Christ of Calvary, we also encounter the Risen Lord of Easter Day. For us too, the Lord’s Supper is a ‘celebration’.

Last night I had a strange dream – and thought I was drinking champagne at the Lord’s Table! To some that may seem sacrilege. But is it? Markus Barth, a German New Testament scholar – and a son of the great theologian Karl Barth – wrote that the drinking of wine “demonstrates the need or the permission to be glad to relax and to forget the misery in which one is caught (see Psalm 116.13) and added, “The people of God need not always eat and drink with tears in their eyes”. Similarly Edward Schillebeeks , a Roman Catholic Dutch theologian described wine as “the symbol of the joy of life”. For the purpose of clarification I hasten to add that I am not proposing that we replace wine with champagne – or in Baptist terms, grape juice with the fizz of Schloer – but I am proposing that we ensure that within every communion service there should be an element of celebration.  One simple way to do that is to follow the breaking of bread and the drinking of wine with the singing of one of the great hymns of resurrection.

As for the Anglican custom of ‘thanking’ God ‘for the institution of Holy Communion’, I find that a little odd. The focus surely needs to be on Jesus.  Much as I appreciate the Lord’s Supper, first and foremost we thank God for his Son, who loved us and gave himself for us. Yes, it is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus we celebrate – and not a liturgical rite, however meaning it may be!

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