Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Brother James Michael Dowd, OHC
Corpus Christi - Thursday, June 23, 2011
1 Corinthians 11:23-29
Revolution in a Loaf of Bread
Several years ago, I was blessed to have spent a bit of time in central Italy and found myself, very early in the morning, on a beautiful spring day, in the town of Orvieto. Now Orvieto was originally a medieval walled town at the top of a not very high mountain and in the center of that town is found the Cathedral of Orvieto which was begun in the fourteenth century.
Orvieto's Cathedral plays a prominent role in the Roman Catholic observance of Corpus Christi which is one of the Cathedral's most important festivals of the year. In fact, within the Cathedral is the Chapel of the Corporal which contains the Corporal of Bolsena which was at the centerpiece of a miracle which is reported to have occurred in 1263. The story surrounding the miracle involved a traveling priest who had stopped in Bolsena – a village near Orvieto, and celebrated the Mass. The priest, however, is reputed to have doubted the truth of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, and while consecrating the host, it began to bleed on the corporal – creating an image of the face of Christ.
At the time I was visiting Italy, I was in the process of being received into the Episcopal Church, having been raised Roman Catholic. Well, you can imagine the ire and fervor that rose up within me as only a new convert can summon. There we were, being led around by a tour guide, being taught what was nothing more than medieval mythology. We were filled with tales of great Corpus Christ processions to commemorate this so-called miracle and throughout the tour, it seemed that all I could think of was, which – and how many of the Thirty-Nine Articles did this particular story violate.
So imagine my surprise when, just a little later that spring, back home in New York and listening to the Sunday announcements of the upcoming events, I heard it stated that my new Episcopal parish was celebrating a High Mass followed by Benediction on none other than the feast of Corpus Christi the following Thursday.
You see, I am what the sisters liked to call a Vatican II baby. I was literally born during the height of the Second Vatican Council and remember the “changes” as they were so often called not as “changes” but as the norm. So, in fact, as a Roman Catholic, I had never been to Benediction, the Feast of Corpus Christi had been de-emphasized, and all the carrying-on with processions and the like was a distant memory I heard about only from older Catholics or read about in books.
I was taught that the Eucharsit was a shared meal and that the only context it had any real meaning in was that meal. Yes, Catholics still reserved the Sacrament, as most Episcopalians do today. And yes, appropriate “respect” was to be paid to the Reserved Sacrament by genuflecting as you pass by the Tabernacle. But that was it. No Benediction, no processions, no Holy Hours. Nothing so “pre-Vatican II.”
But I also believed something in the secret of my heart that all those post Vatican II teachers and priests did not seem to believe anymore – or at least would not admit to. That secret involved my prayer while receiving the Eucharist or venerating it in the Tabernacle. That secret involves mystery and myth and leads to revolution, all of which is contained in the Eucharist.
When folks start throwing around “facts” about the Eucharist my skin begins to crawl and I desperately want to get out of that conversation mode, and get into a praying mode. Whether it is someone saying that they know for certain that the Eucharist has been transubstantiated, or transignified, or contains the Real Presence, or is just bread and wine symbolizing Christ's Body and Blood, I find myself thinking, 'please, can't we just pray into the Eucharist.”
Praying ourselves into the Eucharist, whether that is during the Mass or in front of the Blessed Sacrament, is an invitation to the central myth of our faith.
Now I've used the word myth several times already and at this point I probably need to explain what I mean by that. The word tends to frighten people in the context of the modern world because it can contain, in common usage, a sense of falsity or untruths, if not outright lies. We have come to believe that myths are stories, legends, often geared to children or more “simple” people than we like to think of ourselves as.
But I am using the terms myth in a more classic sense of the word as updated by the late Joseph Campbell. Campbell, the great twentieth century thinker and educator, has had an enormous influence in helping contemporary humanity, especially in the developed world, to regain an understanding of the role of myth and mystery in our lives. From the Enlightenment forward, our great thinkers, including our theologians, have insisted, rightly so, on using historical, scientific, linguistic, and archeological evidence to search for the meaning of life. This approach has helped us tremendously.
But we humans so often throw out the baby with the bath water. And in this case, the baby was the important role that myth plays in our lives. But Campbell says that what we should be seeking is not the meaning of life, but that what we should be seeking is “an experience of being alive.” That's what a myth is. Not fact, but Truth. A Truth that gives us an “experience of being alive.”
And having an experience of “being alive” sounds a lot like the Gospel passage that we have read this morning. In those short eleven verses, just listen again to the invitation that Jesus offers each of us for the “experience of being alive.”
“I am the living bread which comes down from heaven.”
“Anyone who eats this bread will live forever...”
“...the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
“I tell you most solemnly, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life within you.”
“Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life...”
“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.”
“As I who am sent by the living Father myself draw life from my Father...”
“...so whoever eats me will draw life from me.”
“...Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.”
We want, it seems to me, to be desperately able to define the meaning of the Eucharist and we have done that from so many different points of view. But when we are factually trying to understand the meaning of the Eucharist, all we can seem to come up with is a loaf of bread and a cup of wine, to which we then ascribe a particular theological point of view. But when we attempt to have an experience of the Eucharist, then we find ourselves plunged into the great mystery that is Christ's gift of himself to each one of us.
For what we are called into is mystery. We are, as a people, famished, desperately starving and dangerously parched and we long for an experience of life. An experience of the life that dwells within us. And the life that dwells within us is the life of Christ. Jesus invites us to draw life from him, just as he has drawn life from the Father. And the mystery that he has given us for the source of that life, are bread and wine, his body and blood.
The invitation into that mystery is available to us here in the monastery in the daily celebration and reception of the Eucharist, in the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle, or in the occasional rite of Benediction. That invitation is not an invitation to discover the meaning of life. It is an invitation to actually experience being alive.
When we enter into the mystery of the Eucharist, however we do that, we enter into an experience of God from whom we draw life. But being alive has consequences. Entering into the mystery of the Eucharist is to begin a revolution. A revolution of conversion, a revolution of loving our enemy, a revolution of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner. When we enter into the mystery of the Eucharist, that revolution allows us to have an experience of life that comes from the very source of life itself. I am not talking here about the “mystery” of a bleeding host. I am talking about the deepest, most profound mystery of our lives - and that is God.
God's invitation to us is an invitation to allow God to live within us. Feeding our starving souls with himself, God invites us into God's life, a life that is filled with mercy, love, peace, hope, and mystery. A great deal of mystery. AMEN.