From the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John: “At this the Jews quarreled among themselves saying:’ How can he give us his flesh to eat’”?
Who are these Jews? These are the co-religionists of Jesus’ time, those who could not bear to hear Jesus’ words about his flesh and blood as real food and real drink. But “the Jews” are also those who at any time and any place cannot bear to hear these words of Jesus. They are those who murmur in opposition, they who ask “What is the point of this feast of Corpus Christi? We have Holy Thursday to celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. That is a logical feast. Why this other feast, what is the point, and what does this tell us, what does this teach us, what difference does this feast make in my life?”
I will leave these questions of the murmurers aside for a moment and indulge in personal reminiscence. During my last year of study at Oxford, while I was an Anglican priest, I was appointed chaplain of Corpus Christi College, something I never dreamed would happen to me as a Yank at Oxford, for it is a glorious thing in so many ways to be a chaplain at an Oxford College, dining at high table, officiating at services in a lovely chapel, and knowing that you stand in a line of men that stretches back before the Protestant Reformation who served the college in this spiritual way. Corpus Christi College’s name, ever so Catholic, belies its strong role in the Reformation in England, for not only did Corpus, as it is commonly called, furnish a number of noteworthy Anglican divines, it was also the scene of the burning of Eucharistic vestments in the quad, signaling in the end of popish worship. There they burned: chasubles, albs, cinctures, amices, the whole lot, those symbols of the Mass as sacrifice. When I was told this story I was tempted to ask which way the smoke from this sacrifice went—up like Abel’s or down like Cain’s. But that would have been bad form, so I made up my own mind about this.
May came that year as every year it does, and in Oxford May is especially beautiful. On May 1st the Magdalene College choir boys sing a hymn to our Lady from the tower, less a religious gesture than a traditional and cultural one. The gardens in Christ Church, where Alice fell into Wonderland, are at their most beautiful. And that year the feast of Corpus Christi fell in late May. What to do, I asked myself, as chaplain of Corpus Christi College on this feast day which had not been celebrated there since the Reformation. I decided that there was nothing else to do than to celebrate this wonderful day with a Solemn Mass presided over by the Anglican suffragan Bishop of Oxford whose High Church sympathies were well known and a man of personal holiness. And so we did. The chapel was packed, not its usual condition, for the word was out that the crazy American chaplain was going to celebrate Corpus Christi. We had to borrow vestments for the Eucharist—needless to say, there were none in the college sacristy. The service was wonderful, the singing, the flowers, the candles and incense, the beauty, the sense of the worshipping community in Corpus Christi chapel linked at that time to eternity.
Needless to say, there was some consternation among some college members. I remember a group of Evangelical Anglicans and some Protestant students who met with me to discuss the very idea of celebrating Corpus Christi at all and the way in which we celebrated it. Their leader was an earnest young man who was studying for the Presbyterian ministry. I had talked with him often and liked him very much. This is what he asked me: “What does it all mean, what does it teach us, why would you do this? There is no reason to celebrate this feast, since Christ is in heaven and not in a piece of bread. What can all of this mean? What is its purpose? And furthermore, this smacks of Catholicism.”
To that charge and all the others I pled guilty, but I had no answer for this young man, as I have no answer to the many murmurers who in my life as a priest, and even more often as a Catholic priest, who when confronted with liturgy celebrated solemnly and beautifully, ask: “What is the point? What are you trying to do with all of this business, these vestments, the incense, the singing, these gestures, all of this that can could be done in twenty minutes?” That they ask what are YOU trying to do blocks any answer that I could possibly give, for in that question there is such a basic misunderstanding of the Liturgy that I can only be speechless. “How can he give us his flesh to eat and his blood to drink?” He cannot if the purpose of the Liturgy, the Mass, is the moral elevation of the people, teaching people how to manage their lives. He cannot if the Mass exists so that people feel good about themselves and learn how to interact with their neighboring pew-person. He cannot if the Mass is the manipulation of the congregation by the “presider” to whip them into some sort of frenzy of participation which is measured by how many people are doing things within the liturgical celebration. He cannot if the Mass is focused on who is in the congregation, having special Masses for certain age groups, religious organizations or clubs. In fact he cannot—murmur,murmur,murmur—as long as the Liturgy is seen as something with a purpose at all, in the sense of something with an aim, such that if that aim is met we can say: “That was a good Liturgy” and then congratulate ourselves on a job well done.
Some of you know that this past week I was in New York City as one of the two organizers of the international Sacra Liturgia Conference, a conference on the state of the liturgical life of the Church. The speakers, including Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Cordileone, were excellent. The Vespers and Masses each day were of the epitome of worship in spirit and in truth, where beauty and truth kiss. The Conference ended with a Solemn Mass of Corpus Christi and a procession through streets of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, from the parish of St. Catherine of Siena near Sloane Kettering to the magnificent church of St. Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue. There are some here at this Mass who were part of this procession: choir, altar servers, musicians, priests, members of the Knights of Malta, lay men and women. There were over 125 priests and seminarians in cassock and surplice, at least that number of laity, and Bishop Perry from Chicago carrying our Lord in the monstrance. Everyone who was part of this procession agrees that it is something that each of us will never forget. The New York police blocked off the streets on our route: 1st Avenue, then 2nd Avenue, then 3rd Avenue, then a long stretch of East 66th Street as we made our way to St. Vincent Ferrer. The New Yorkers along the route stopped in their tracks, some took photographs, but all were silent and respectful. Listen to what one policeman who was assigned to the route said: “Do you realize the peace you’ve brought here?” He pointed to the way people were stopping and taking it all in. Even the cars forced to stop to let the procession go by refrained from honking their horn in frustration. A moment of peace in the midst of the frenetic pace of New York. Another witness said: “The procession was magical. We clearly need more of these….It almost felt like this “new evangelization” that everyone speaks about”.
As the procession crossed Third Avenue on 66th Street to approach St. Vincent’s, the large choir in the procession began Fr. Faber’s Eucharistic hymn, “Jesus my Lord, my God, my all”. Everyone in the procession joined in: “Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore, O make us love thee more and more.” And the sound bounced and reverberated from the stone apartment buildings flanking the street, filling the air with this soundful song of praise, as the voices of nearly 300 Catholics of faith filled the air. We processed into the church of St. Vincent Ferrer, the high altar ablaze with candles, and Bishop Perry from the magnificent altar gave Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to the crowd assembled there.
We here at St. Mary’s will go from this Mass to process through the streets of Norwalk with the Blessed Sacrament. What will people say or do or think as they see on going down West Avenue, singing, led by the Cross and candles, smoking censer and the priest carrying the Blessed Sacrament under a canopy? And what will you say when someone you know stops you tomorrow or the next day to ask: ”What was that all about? What were you doing? What was the point of it all?” Will you be able to tell them the truth? There is no purpose. We were just being children of God playing before the Lord in joy.
Photos courtesy of Sacra Liturgia 2015 and Society of St. Hugh of Cluny.