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Corpus Christi
June 23, 2019

 

 

    An old Russian chronicle called "The Tale of Bygone Years” tells how, at the end of the first millennium (in the year 988, to be exact), Vladimir, the Prince of Kiev, made a decision that would have profound consequences for the peoples of Russia and the Ukraine.

     Prince Vladimir was a pagan – which made him fair game for missionaries and proselytizers, whether Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.  They were all eager for him to give up his pagan ways and convert to their religion and, of course, to bring his people along with him.

     So, the prince decided to do some investigating. He sent a delegation abroad to observe their respective worship services.  When the delegation arrived in Constantinople, they entered the great cathedral church of Hagia Sophia and witnessed the solemn liturgy of the Mass.  As the story goes, they quickly wrote this report back to Prince Vladimir in Kiev:  "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe what we witnessed.  We know only that God dwells there among the people!"

     Legend has it that the beginnings of Christianity in the Ukraine and in Russia can be traced to that one splendid celebration of the liturgy in the Cathedral of Constantinople.     So, never underestimate the power of liturgy! At its best, liturgy draws back the veil that hides heaven from earth, blurs the barrier separating time from eternity. At its best, liturgy gives us a glimpse of God.

     Take today’s liturgy. Today, and every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we get to touch eternity. Every time we break the bread and eat it; every time we bless the cup of wine and share it among ourselves, we are touching divinity, tasting divinity – receiving as our food and drink the Body and Blood of Christ given as food for our journey. In this and every Eucharistic liturgy we are meant to experience the awesome presence of God or, to use the words of the Prince Vladimir story, we come to know that “here God dwells among the people.”

     Given the greatness of this sacrament, then, is it any wonder that we lavish such care on the way we celebrate it?  Is it any wonder that down through the ages people have built great churches and towering cathedrals, thinking no effort too great, no cost too much?  Is it any wonder that we surround the celebration of the Eucharist with only the finest and the best that human effort and human genius can provide whether in music, architecture, art, artifact, or ritual?  Why would we ever settle for second best?

     The Corpus Christi procession that has become such a marvelous tradition here at St. James is yet one more sign of just how seriously we take all this, one more sign of our belief and our joy in the real and abiding presence of Jesus who comes so close to his people in simple sacramental signs: in bread that is his Body broken for us, and in the cup that holds his blood poured out for us.

     But, my friends, Corpus Christi celebrates and speaks of not just the blessed sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, the Eucharist; it celebrates and speaks of another sacrament, too - the Church – which, while we may not always think of it this way, is itself a sacrament, the sacrament of Christ, the living embodiment of the presence of Christ.  It is no accident at all that Church and Eucharist have the same name. Both are Corpus Christi, both are the Body of Christ. And you can’t have one without the other.  Without the Church, the holy People of God, there can be no Eucharist because Jesus makes himself sacramentally present only when the Church gathers for prayer in his name.  But the reverse is also true: without the Eucharist there can be no Church because the Eucharist builds up the Church and nourishes it - nourishes us who, without the Eucharist, would soon die of hunger.

     My friends, I am not playing with words here. I am pointing to a profound mystery.  Our Catholic faith affirms the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, yes, but no matter how great our faith in that Presence of Jesus, if his presence is not every bit as real for us when it comes to people - all people without exception, but especially the poor – then we are involving ourselves in an glaring contradiction.

     In one of his sermons, the great St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople and Father of the Church, said all this in a most memorable way.  “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ?” he asked.  “Do not neglect it when you find it naked or in need.  Do not do it homage here in the church with gold and incense and silk fabrics, only to neglect it outside where it suffers cold and nakedness.”

     Mother Teresa of Calcutta said the same thing in a slightly different, but no less striking, way.  “The Body of Christ,” she once wrote, “is one. In the Eucharist we find Christ under the appearances of bread and wine.  And each day of our lives we find Christ under the appearances of flesh and blood.  It is the same Christ!”

     Make no mistake, my friends. Mother Teresa is right: it is the same Christ!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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