Sermons from St
Fr Dennis Smith, Corpus Christi, June
Memorable in a writer’s recollection was a simple service of the breaking of Bread which he’d shared with a small group in a hotel bedroom in Kiev in what was then the Soviet Union. This was long before the collapse of communism, At that time what the group were doing was illegal.
In that atheist state religious observances were only permitted in registered churches, Those churches which were prepared – quite literally – to toe the party line. Had they been caught celebrating their unlawful Eucharist, they would have been put on the next flight home. Had they been local Christians discovered doing the same thing, they might have found themselves spending years in an unpleasant place in Siberia.
Recalling that clandestine celebration one thinks of the most moving words ever written about the mass. Dom Gregory Dix’s monumental study of the Eucharist, “The Shape of the Liturgy”, was published on the Festival of Corpus Christi 1943.
Towards the end of this great work, Dix’s measured prose suddenly takes flight. In a soaring passage of surpassing power he offers his own thanksgiving for the countless different ways in which Christians had heeded Christ’s words, “Do this in remembrance of me”: “Was ever another command so obeyed?”
For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it, to extreme old age and after it, from pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth …. Towards the end of this sublime passage, too long to quote in full, there are the words which are poignant in recalling that little service held behind locked doors in a hotel room behind the Iron Curtain. Dix is rehearsing the myriad ways in which Christians have obeyed Christ’s command: “Tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; Furtively by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; Gorgeously for the canonization of St Joan of Arc … .” Why do we give thanks for holy Communion? We do so for many reasons and to list them is to risk intoning all too familiar pieties.
Cognisant of that mass offered secretly in Kiev and by the thought of the sacrifice offered – for once the words must carry their full weight – by a bishop in Murmansk – one dwells on another reason for giving thanks for Holy Communion. What we do is always an act of defiance. Holy Communion is rooted historically and theologically in the celebration of Passover. Passover begins when a child asks, “Why is this night different from other nights?” The Eucharist too is different, defiantly different. It’s a defiant enactment of an alternative way of don things, the counter cultural way of life which Jesus described as “the reign of God.” Those who break bread in memory of Jesus affirm what in every age the world had denied, that “we who are many are one body.” The Eucharist creates, if only for an hour on a Sunday morning a society ruled bty love rather than power. By partaking of “one bread”, we defy the devil to divide and conquer us. St Paul writes, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, thee is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ.” (Galatians 3 : 28).
Every Eucharist refutes the cynical assumption that it can never really be like that. Sadly, what we assert at the Altar is often contradicted by how we are and what we do. Paul’s words to Galatians would need to be rephrased if addressed to us, with whom there is still Jew and Greek, still slave and free, still male and female - and, we might add, still child and adult – for we are not yet one in Christ.
It’s essential that we pay attention to the context in which Paul describes “the institution of the Lord’s Supper.” If we take that account out of context, as our lectionary does, we draw its sting. Paul mentions the Lord’s Supper, only because he wishes to highlight the scandalous infighting that was going on in the church at Corinth. Such conduct was making a mockery of the meal. Such conduct still does. What we affirm in liturgy must be exemplified in life.
We thank you that in this wonderful sacrament you have given us the memorial of your passion; grant us so to reverence the sacred mysteries of your body and blood that we may know within ourselves and show forth in our lives the fruits of your redemption.