Depending on the tradition of your church, you may hold Communion in high esteem or you may not. For some churches 23 June is a day to particularly think about Holy Communion and what it means to us. When thinking about this we not only remember Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciples, blessing bread as his body. We also should remember that we are the body of Christ and consider what that means.
The readings were Psalm 116:10-end, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 6:51-58. My reflection follows.
Today, for some churches, it is the feast of Corpus Christi, meaning the body of Christ. It celebrates the institution of Holy Communion by Christ on Maundy Thursday and for that reason is usually celebrated on a Thursday. Although mostly a Roman Catholic celebration, it also finds its way into the calendar of the Church of England, some other Anglican provinces and a few Orthodox and Lutheran churches. Roman Catholic churches place the emphasis on the real presence of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine. There is often a procession through the streets with the consecrated bread in strongly Catholic countries.
We owe the beginning of this celebration to an Augustinian nun called Juliana of Liege. She was particularly devoted to the Blessed Sacrament at a young age and longed for a special celebration of it. Later she had a vision of the full moon which gleamed beautifully except in one dark spot. She heard in the vision that this spot was because there was no feast of the Eucharist in the church year. In 1208 she had her first vision of Christ in which she was instructed to plead for the institution of Corpus Christi, which she did. This vision was repeated for 20 years. Juliana began a celebration to honour the Eucharist around 1230. Pope Urban IV commanded that this feast be universally observed in 1264. His death delayed the spread of the observance but it was mandatory for the Roman Catholic Church by 1312. Eventually processions became part of the celebration and attracted indulgences. There were often performances of mystery plays at this time also.
The Anglican Church, born out of Catholicism and the Reformation, seems often to want to have its cake and eat it, to sit on the fence, to take the both/and option in disputes if at all possible. Corpus Christi highlights a problem it has with the doctrine of the Eucharist. Accusations of being too high church or popish may arise if we focus too much on this festival. Alternatively we could take the low church route of ‘this is just a memorial’ if we play it down. (The word used for remembrance or memorial in the Gospel is actually anamnesis, meaning making real in the present something from the past.) What the Church of England historically decided is that the Real Presence of Jesus is there in the consecrated elements, though it doesn’t attempt to explain how. Perhaps Queen Elizabeth I expressed this best when she said: T’was God the Word that spake it, He took the bread and brake it; And what the Word did make it, that I believe and take it.
The Eucharist has an important place in Anglican churches, in most being the principle service on Sundays. From very early in the life of the Church this sacrament, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, has been celebrated. Many of the great teachers of the Church have acclaimed it. Ignatius of Antioch in the second century AD called it ‘the medicine of immortality’. Thomas Aquinas said it was the greatest of the sacraments. The Catholic Church calls it ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’.
When Jesus first instituted Holy Communion he was bringing to the notice of his disciples things that had been there in their scriptures all along, pointing towards that day in the Upper Room. First there is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. He is described as ‘King of Salem’, or King of Shalom, meaning King of Peace. His name means King of Righteousness. He brought forth bread and wine in front of Abraham and is described as the priest of the Most High God. There is no beginning or end to his life given in the Bible, but he continues as a priest forever, just like Jesus.
From the time of Moses there was the Bread of the Presence in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle. The bread for the Passover points in many ways to Jesus. As we know the bread at the Passover is unleavened. Leaven, yeast, is often associated with evil, but this bread is pure, just as Jesus, the Bread of Heaven is free from evil. The bread has dark lines on it from the cooking, reminding us of Jesus’ back after he had been scourged. The bread is pricked to stop it puffing up, reminding us of the piercing of Jesus on the cross. The head of the household uses three pieces of unleavened bread, rather like the Trinity. It’s the second one, like Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, which is broken in two. One piece, the afikomen, is wrapped in a white cloth, as Jesus’ body was wrapped. It is then hidden from sight as Jesus’ body was hidden in the tomb. It is later found by the youngest in the family, just as Jesus was seen again after his resurrection. Finally this piece of bread is broken by the head of the family and all take a piece to eat, as Jesus commanded us to do.
The sacrifices at Passover used lambs, their blood being used as a sign which saved the people of Israel in Egypt. Isaiah points to the Messiah being like a lamb led to the slaughter. Unlike the sacrifices of animals, Jesus’ sacrifice was once and for all, doing away with all other sacrifices.
I don’t suppose that the disciples thought about such things at the time. It was probably only looking back and thinking about their experience that allowed them to see the connections.
It can be the same for us also. Although we don’t have sacraments here in SL, many of us are able to share in Holy Communion in RL churches. Like the disciples, perhaps we don’t see how what happened in the past is connected to the present. We take the bread and wine, looking back and remembering Jesus and his sacrifice, remembering the Upper Room and the Last Supper. In doing this we also look to the future, as St Paul tells us: ‘as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ We are assured by Jesus that we who eat his flesh and drink his blood have eternal life and will be raised up on that last day. But what about the bit in between Maundy Thursday and Christ’s second coming?
Jesus said, ‘This is my body that is for you’ and he handed them the bread to share. Jesus’ body is not just the bread, important and life giving as that may be. We too are Christ’s body; we who meet here are the Body of Christ, the Church. In the same way as Jesus gave the bread to share, we are shared out to the world to bring life and hope and love and joy to it. In the same way that Jesus suffered, we can expect that we also will suffer before we experience a share in his glory, as St Paul says: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs–heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’
When we next receive communion, or think about Jesus instituting Holy Communion in the Upper Room, let’s remember how that involves us as bread given for others and pray to be strengthened as members of Christ’s body, Corpus Christi, here on earth.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor