Corpus Christi (transferred) (OF)
18 June 2017
First Reading: 
Deuteronomy VIII. ii-iii, xiv-xvi.
Second Reading:  I. Corinthians X. xvi-xvii.
Gospel:  S. John VI. li-lix.
Collect:  O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Passion: Grant us, we pray, so to revere the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood, that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign with God the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Blessed Virgin Mary is shown worshipping her immortal Son in the Blessed Sacrament in this painting by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1852). She is flanked by S. Louis, the great crusader-king of France, and S. Joan of Arc (?).

OUR first reading this morning comes from the Old-Testament book of Deuteronomy, which records the last teachings of the Holy Prophet Moses. The children of Israël are preparing to enter the Promised Land and Moses is preparing to die in the wilderness: for God has revealed to Moses that he will not enter the Promised Land. The book of Deuteronomy therefore has a special poignancy and power, representing as it does the last commands and prophecies of the man to whom God entrusted the giving of the Law. The prophet looks back on the history of the Jewish nation to that point, and prepares them for what is to come. Speaking, furthermore, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, Moses prophesies about the New Testament which will come in Christ.

Let us therefore be most attentive to the words of the Old-Testament saint: “And thou shalt remember all the we which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no. And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna.” In these opening words, Moses gives some of the reasons that God condemned the children of Israël to wander in the wilderness so long, but one reason stands out above the others, because it is repeated. Now, repetition is significant in the Holy Books, and this is no exception. “God led thee these forty years in the wilderness to humble thee”; and again, “He humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know.” Part of God’s purpose in exiling the children of Israël to the wilderness for half a century was to break their pride and to teach them humility, and, strangely, one of the means by which he taught them was through manna, the bread from heaven that appeared on the ground each morning to feed the whole nation of Israël.

The reading that we have heard read is slightly abridged, and so I will read to you some of the omitted verses together with the ending of the reading, since the force of Moses’ words is clearer when they are read together. The prophet says to the people,

Beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God, in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes, which I command thee this day: lest when thou hast eaten and art full, and hast built goodly houses, and dwelt therein; and when thy herds and thy flocks multiply, and thy silver and thy gold is multiplied, and all that thou hast is multiplied; then thine heart be lifted up, and thou forget the Lord thy God, which brought thee forth from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage; who led thee through the great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the rock of flint; who fed thee in the wilderness with manna, which thy fathers knew not, that he might humble thee, and that he might prove thee, to do thee good at thy latter end.

In the same way, then, that God had used the sojourn in the wilderness to teach his people humility, his stern warning is that they should guard against pride once they have entered the land of his favour. For pride and humility are opposites, even enemies. The Lord even goes so far as to explain how to recognise this sin, when he says that pride consists “in not keeping his commandments, and his judgments, and his statutes”. Pride expresses itself in disobedience: the proud soul sets himself up as a rival with God. Thus we can see that pride is the chief sin of the devil of hell, since his defining characteristic is to defy God, his Lord and Maker, and to pretend to be his equal.

Let us therefore not be under any false ideas about the danger of pride. To elevate oneself in pride is to place oneself on the same pedestal the proudest spirit of all, even the devil, and we know that, on the last day, the devil and his pedestal will both be thrown into the fire. If, then, we are found on that pedestal with him, we will likewise be thrown into the fire with him. This warning, then, is not some trifling matter. The Holy Ghost, through Moses, is preparing his chosen people to face the spiritual dangers of the world. We, the heirs of the promise, face the same dangers, and more so, and must heed the same warning. The solution for us is also the same as it was for the Israëlites: To be humble, and to obey God, knowing that he, in the words of the Holy Book, will “do [us] good at [our] latter end.”

The sixteenth-century English composer Thomas Tallis has set today’s Gospel to music.

With this in our mind, we turn ourselves to the Gospel assigned for this holy feast. In the very first verse, our Lord Jesus Christ refers to the first reading, and shows how he is the fulfilment of Moses’ prophecy, saying, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” God sustained the children of Israël in the wilderness by sending manna from heaven for them to eat. Now, God the Son, united in purpose with the Father and the Holy Ghost, has come down from heaven to feed mankind of himself. The temptation for those who hear Christ’s words, not only today but also in the moment that he uttered them, is to believe that he is speaking metaphorically. The Lord does not permit such a reading. For he immediately says: “The bread that I will give is my flesh.” Moses says of manna that neither the Israëlites nor their fathers had known manna before God sent it to them. How much more is this the case with this new bread that has come from heaven! Verily, neither we nor our fathers could have conceived that the flesh and blood of a man would be the bread of life, come down from heaven!

The Church was not idle when she gave us these two passages side-by-side. Look even closer at the first reading, and you will see that the Holy Ghost that was speaking through Moses already knew what a miracle he would work through the flesh of Christ. For it is written, “And he humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that he might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.” Hear what the same Holy Ghost says through mouth of S. John Evangelist who, speaking about Christ, says: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.” The bread that Christ is offering, namely, his own flesh, is therefore literally the Word of God, since the Word of God (which is to say, God the Son) was made flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.

Moses also prophesies that man will live when he eats the Word of God. The Lord Jesus affirms this when he continues:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is the bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.

What a great and strange mystery!

In other words, when we eat the Body and drink the Blood of Christ, we are being prepared to live in heaven with him forever. And, notice, the life that we will live is not a mere continuation of this earthly life. For he says: “As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” The life that we who have eaten the flesh of Jesus will have in the world to come is united to the life that the Blessed Trinity has within himself. In the same way that the three Persons of the Godhead are forever united in a fierce and fiery and infinite act of love, so, too, we will be united with him and with each other, albeit in a limited way, since we are finite. This is what we mean when we say the words, go to heaven. To go to heaven is to be in intimate communion with God, and, by God’s grace and sovereign plan, that intimate communion begins here in earth, in this life. For, as the Lord teaches us, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.” This, to dwell in God and to have God dwell in us, this is what it means to be in heaven. Each time that we receive Holy Communion, we have a foretaste of the everlasting life of heaven.

This wondrous mystery does not remove the warning that Moses gave to the Israëlites. If anything, it makes it even more urgent. For Christ himself says, “If ye love, keep my commandments.” We must cultivate humility in our hearts, and obedience to the commandments of God. The devil would have you believe this to be difficult and, what is more, unjust. Hardly! Already in the time of Moses, God declared that he was working “to do [us] good at [our] latter end”. His commandments are not harsh or unjust, but are ordained in love for our good. He, furthermore, does not expect us to grow in humility by our own strength, but has left us certain helps and means of grace, the chief of which are the sacraments, and above all the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

This beautiful hymn, based on a Greek hymn ascribed to S. John Chrysostom, symbolically describes the descent of God to the altar escorted by the hosts of heaven.

As touching humility, I wish to stress one matter more. As I have said, each time we receive Holy Communion, and even each time that we devoutly hear Mass, we begin to grow into that relationship with God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, that will be the defining characteristic of our heavenly life. The Sacrament by itself, however, is worthy of the highest possible worship: for it is the Body and Blood of our Saviour. When we are in the Presence of the consecrated Host or the blest Chalice, we are truly and really in the Presence of God the Son made flesh, every bit as much as if we were with him at his Nativity in Bethlehem, or in the synagogues, or on the Mount of Olives, or on Mount Calvary. When we are face-to-face with the consecrated Host, we are face-to-face with the living God. S. John Chrysostom, the fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, says:

For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshippers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth? Are you not, on the contrary, straightway translated to Heaven, and casting out every carnal thought from the soul, do you not with disembodied spirit and pure reason contemplate the things which are in Heaven? Oh! What a marvel! What love of God to man! He who sits on high with the Father is at that hour held in the hands of all, and gives Himself to those who are willing to embrace and grasp Him. And this all do through the eyes of faith!

When, therefore, you find yourself in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, bow down, cross yourself, kneel, prostrate yourself! For you, truly, are then in the presence of God. Now, there is nothing magical in bowing or kneeling . Nevertheless, when we do these things with our body in the Presence of his Body, our souls are conformed to the humility which these actions symbolise, and we are drawn into a deeper and more intimate love with God, who was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, and who has ordained good for us at our latter end, if only we accept him in faith. Thanks be to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.

This Russian icon of S. John Baptist helps us reflect on the truth of the Real Presence. It is traditional to portray S. John with a lamb, since, when he saw Christ, he declared, Behold the Lamb of God! In the East, some began to discourage this practice, since it could imply that Jesus is, in fact, a sheep. S. John is thus here shown holding a paten (the sacred vessel that holds the Host), and in the paten, in the place of the Host, lies the Christ-child, since the consecrated Host is Jesus Christ. The poetry of the icon is further heightened because what we call a Host in the West (which word means Victim in Latin), the Eastern Christians call a Lamb. When the priest elevates the Host at Mass, therefore, S. John is saying in heaven, Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!