What does Corpus Christi celebrate?

Last week I wrote of the three wonderful ways in which God is present for us. In the beauty of the Universe – Yes. In Jesus alive in a new way for us – Yes. In the depths of our being giving us love and courage as the Holy Spirit – yes. But Jesus in his wisdom gives us one very special yet simple way in which God is present, but which also brings us together as a people. What is it? We take bread and wine, because he told us to, for he said that in some mysterious way he would be present as we do this in memory of him. This is what we celebrate in the great feast of Corpus Christi which simply means “The Body of Christ”.

Our Readings today explain why Jesus chose bread. There were other foods on the table. He could well have chosen Lamb, because he is the sacrificial Lamb of God who died for us, but he chose bread. I guess one reason for that was practical. He clearly wanted us to do this regularly as his disciples did right from the beginning, as we hear in Acts (2:42)  “They devoted themselves to the teaching and..  to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” You can’t roast lamb and serve it every day, but you can eat bread; and that is why every Catholic priest like me, aims to do this every day, just as the apostles did, hoping that some people will gather with him, (as they usually do) but still doing it even if no-one comes, doing it for God.

This is why we think that every Christian should be present for this great celebration every Sunday if that is possible. In some places (as in a prison) Sunday has to be on another day! At Campsfield we do this on a Monday. Indeed that is why I say to people, that if they really cannot get to Mass on Sunday, perhaps because of their work, then they should find a weekday Mass that suits them, and make that their Sunday Mass.

But our Readings point to another more important reason why Jesus chose bread. Deep in the history of his people is their experience of leaving their slavery in Egypt and travelling to the Promised Land. That journey was one of many years of struggle, trying to survive with their sheep and goats in the desert lands of that part of the world. They had first had a narrow escape from Egypt, when death passed over them and they ran for their lives. But as they did so they carried with them bread for the journey, and then when that ran out, they manged to find a different kind of bread that they called “manna”

This is what we hear about in our First Reading. (Deut 8:2-3.14-16) The writer is telling them never to forget how God supported them through this tough time; a time when they were often in despair, with no idea where they were going, or whether they would ever find a settled home again.  The manna, the bread they had to eat, should be for them a reminder now they have plenty, that everything that gives them life comes from God, and that without God, they are nothing.

We Christians believe that this is what life is like now. It is a journey towards heaven, towards the promised land, towards eternal life. It is for this reason that Jesus deliberately chooses bread as the way he would be present for us, as the way he would support us on our journey, however hard that journey may be. Thus we heard him say in the Gospel (John 6:51-58)  ‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever” and then a little further on, “This is the bread come down from heaven; not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead. But anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.”

We do not need to ask how God can be present for us in a small piece of bread. We simply trust what Jesus said, that as we do this in memory of him, he is present. God is present within. But we should note that the word “memory” or “Memorial” actually does not mean what we mean by it. We think of it as a way we remember the past, a past loved one perhaps, but in the Bible, it means the way the past is brought into the present. So as we take the bread and break it, all that Jesus did for us, in his life, in his teaching, and finally in his sacrificial suffering and death, is made present. We do not simply remember the past, but know that the powerful loving action of God in Jesus is present for us now, to support us on our Christian journey, whatever that may be, and bring us eventually to eternal life with him.

As the Hymn says, so we pray “Guide me O thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land.. Bread of heaven…. Feed me till I want no more.”