A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 23, 2019. The scriptures from the Book of Common Prayer Proper “For the Holy Eucharist” are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 34, 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, 16-17, and John 6:47-58.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
Today is a special day in the church that encourages us to think about Holy Communion. Whether we call it the Eucharist (from the Greek word for Thanksgiving), the Mass, Holy Communion, The Lord’s Supper, or the Last Supper—the Church invites us to think about our own experience of the Body and Blood of Christ. What does it mean that he offers himself to us? What does it means that we take Christ into ourselves and become his Body and Blood in the world?
Today, in some places, churches make outdoor processions with the Blessed Sacrament. They do so as a reminder that Holy Communion is not intended to be a rare, holy, obscure practice for the holiest of holy people. It’s for the world—broken, fallen, dirty, and distracted.
When I think about how far the Church has sometimes gotten AWAY from the original, simple message that Christ offers himself to us so that we can be his body in the world, I recall a musical piece that expresses this idea was great beauty and eloquence.
For the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, Leonard Bernstein wrote a work simply entitled, Mass. It was, and continues to be, a musical extravaganza, a mixture of styles and languages, of color and sound and movement… and it follows the form of the Latin Mass. There’s a Kyrie, an “Our Father,” a “Gloria,” and on it goes.
But there’s more, as the piece embellishes and reflects upon the liturgical prayer that has come to surround our meal of bread and wine, this sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Bernstein’s Mass begins in simplicity, with a young man in jeans and a guitar, a young man with a calling to be a priest. He sings God a simple song. But as the musical Mass progresses, the young man progresses. He becomes a priest. Gloria tibi is sung as though it were in a confirmation class. There are other songs of doubt, of thanks, of almost-blasphemy, and of poignant longing for love, for truth, for God.
Like many other musical settings of the Mass, the Bernstein piece begins to reach a crescendo and climax at the Sanctus. Bernstein pulls out all the stops. The music is louder and more complicated. The choirs are chanting and singing. And the priest character invokes the Hebrew of Isaiah, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,”, sanctus, “holy.” But in the complexity of the music, we begin to notice that the life of the priest has also become much more complicated. No longer a simple song by a man in jeans with a guitar, but one of dignified and learned prayer–an almost bishop-like prelate, surrounded and smothered by stuff. The music builds, the tension builds, the wine is consecrated, and then—something breaks.
The chalice breaks and smashes to the floor. The music breaks. The character seems suddenly broken, his faith shattered just as surely as the glass. “Things get broken,” the song sings. People get broken. And there, well into Bernstein’s Mass, a musical theatre piece for soloists, choir, boy’s choir, dancers, banner-bearers, and stagehands, it all comes down to something broken. Someone broken.
But not just the priest-character. Not just the theatre-goer who (whether a person of faith or not) somehow relates to the crushing force of the drama, but rather, we are pointed toward the One in whose name this drama is reenacted, the one who “took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”
It is only after the character in Bernstein’s Mass is able to feel broken, that he begins to understand the power of the Eucharist. He learns a great key to the sacrament, namely, that when we are at our most broken—whether we feel broken physically through sickness, disease or fatigue; or we are broken mentally by stress, worry or overwork; or possibly broken spiritually, through doubt and distance and dark nights of the soul— we can turn to the Eucharist.
We can turn to Christ’s Body and Blood, the very things left when Christ is broken. They are seeds of salvation, food and drink that are a foretaste of the fullness we will one day receive from God. Ignatius of Antioch referred to this as the “medicine of immortality.” It is the “medicine of immortality and the antidote to prevent us from dying …[so] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”
When we are famished, perhaps overfed on the things of the world but still going hungry spiritually, Jesus says, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” When we most thirst for God, Jesus says, “You who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise you up at the last day.” And even when we don’t know what we need, when prayer is working, when the church seems not to notice, and it feels like there’s no one we can count as a friend, Jesus says, “Come. Eat, this is my body which is given for you. Drink this, all of you, for this is my Blood of the New Covenant shed for you.”
In Bernstein’s Mass, after being honest with the broken pieces of faith around him, after identifying with the brokenness of Christ, the main character begins to be healed. He comes to himself, and turns again to God.
Oh, I suddenly feel ev’ry step I’ve ever taken,
And my legs are lead.
And I suddenly see ev’ry hand I’ve ever shaken,
And my arms are dead.
I feel ev’ry psalm that I’ve ever sung
Turn to wormwood, wormwood on my tongue.
And I wonder,
Oh, I wonder,
Was I ever really young?
It’s odd how all my body trembles,
Like all this mass
Of glass on the floor.
How fine it would be to rest my head,
And lay me down,
Down in the wine,
Which never was really red…
…But sort of…
And let not… another word…
How easily things get broken. “Things get broken” from Mass
Beauty returns. Simplicity returns, and he begins to hear again the Simple Song that began the whole drama, “Sing God a simple song, praise him, praise, lauda, laude.”
God doesn’t ask that we understand the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. God only asks that we receive what he would give us, and the Holy Spirit does the rest.
Let us bring our broken lives before God. Let us share one bread and drink one cup, and be healed. The medicine of immortality is ours. Let us be renewed through Communion to be Christ’s Body and Blood in the world.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen