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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Corpus Christi

Is kept as a public holiday in Germany, one of many "religious" holidays no longer kept in the UK, though the feast is marked an kept by the Anglican Church. The feast is a marking of the institution of Holy Communion, not a popular one in anti-catholic cicles since there is always an argument between Protestants and Catholics (Note; I include all churches with the three "orders" of clergy, that is Bishops, Priests and Deacons, as "catholic.") as to what the Holy Communion actually is.

One of the stumbling blocks for Protestants is the concept of Christ's presence in the consecrated Host and Wine. Probably deliberately, the Calvinists, Knoxists and their offshoots, misrepresented the concept of "transubstantiation" and played down the importance of the Eucharist. Even now, there are many who misunderstand the concept of "transubstantiation" and what it represents. Theologians do NOT suggest or believe that the bread and wine are somehow 'magically' transformed into physical flesh and blood. Nor is that what Christ himself meant when he instituted the Eucharist at the Last Supper. To understand the origins of what he did and the significance of what he said, we have to look at the Judaic "Friendship Offering" set out in Leviticus. Essentially this is a meal shared between a man and a priest in which elements, primarily bread and wine, are first offered on the altar before the tabernacle in thanksgiving, and then consumed as a "meal" before it.

Reading Leviticus one sees a long list of sacrificial "offerings" to be made for atonement or thanksgiving for an equally long list of actions or events. In the Last Supper, Christ swept all of this away, making himself the ultimate sacrifice, offered once and for all time for everything and everyone. Hence his command that we "do this as often as you eat/drink it in memory of me."

So what is "transubstantiation" all about. In the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest invokes the Holy Spirit, using words to the effect of (there are a number of different forms for this prayer) "send down the Holy Spirit upon these your gifts of bread and wine so that they may become, for us, the very spiritual food and drink of Christ's Last Supper." In so doing, catholic theology infers that Christ is present in spirit in the consecrated bread (referred to as "The Host") and in the consecrated wine. In every form of the consecration prayer (and in every language)  Christ's own words are used as the Words of Institution; "this is my Body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me" followed by "this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sin. Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of me."

One thing to be aware of here is that this doesn't suggest that every time we eat bread or drink wine we are essentially having communion. It is only when it is in the context in which Christ performed this action that it is. The Last Supper followed the traditional Jewish Sabbath meal at which the women first bring light to the table at which all the family, friends and servants are gathered. Prayers are offered for the light and for the home. The head of the household then give thanks for the bread, blesses it, breaks it and shares it with everyone at the table. That is followed by the meal and finally a special cup of wine is brought to the table, thanks offered and the cup is shared by everyone present. The Early Church followed this sort of pattern for probably the first 200 to 300 years, but gradually the gatherings became too large and the Eucharist took place outside of the context of a meal. In some ways this is a pity, but we must also acknowledge that it was probably the only way to keep the sense of the special nature of the Eucharist without losing it entirely in a sort of mega-dinner party.

In the "Great Thanksgiving" prayer the "elements" are transformed spiritually to become, for the faithful, the outward visible sign of the inward spiritual grace to be found in Christ's spiritual presence. Now we come to were the various factions part company. To a catholic, once consecrated, the bread and wine remain consecrated and therefore Christ is present even after the service is over. To a Protestant, it is purely symbolic and you can tip it all in the bin or down the sink afterward. As a catholic, I find that abhorrent, but I recognise the difference in perspective.

Corpus Christi (the Body of Christ) means different things to different people, but the celebration of the Eucharist is, quite possibly, the single most significant act of worship for any and every Christian.


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