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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Thursday 20 June 5.15pm – Corpus Christi
1 Corinthians 11.23-26 & John 6.51-58
It was 1984 in St Michael and All Angels Church, Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire, the church where Dom Gregory Dix, a monk and academic wrote a seminal work on Christian worship called ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’. I was 26 years old and presiding at Communion for the first time. There was a good congregation, my mum and dad and other family members were sitting on the front row and close friends were in the congregation or helping out at the service in some way. My training incumbent graciously took a minor role. The guest preacher was my college principle, David Hope. I was very nervous – this was a big deal. This was my First Mass. I had been ordained in Christchurch, Oxford’s Cathedral, the day before. I was wearing vestments I had seen thousands of times but never worn myself, saying words I had heard thousands of times but never said myself, doing actions I had watched thousands of times, but never done myself …. I had practised, but had I practised enough?
All went well fortunately …. until we got to the prayer of consecration …. I said the prayers over the bread and then I lifted the chalice and prepared to speak the prayer over the wine. Suddenly, as I looked into the ruby red liquid, my breath was taken away and I stopped – staring up at me from the surface of the wine was a nervous, inexperienced young man who had been a priest for just over 24 hours ……. what was I doing here?
I have reflected on that moment a great deal in the years that have followed. As a young priest I knew that it was wrong to talk about ‘my ministry’ that I should only talk about sharing in God’s ministry but, to be honest, I was arrogant enough to think, a lot of the time, it was all about me and being surrounded and supported by encouraging parishioners didn’t help! My reflection in the chalice seemed to reinforce this way of thinking. After a number of years as a parish priest I now know for sure that it’s all God’s ministry and my job as a priest, most of the time, is simply to get out of the way, so God can work, God can create, God can love.
We think of our bodies as one thing – this skeleton covered in this flesh identified by this face. We talk of the body of Christ as many things – using images from the Minster – the body of Christ is the tiny, naked, vulnerable baby lying in a box on the floor of a dirty smelly stable in the picture of the nativity in the Lady Chapel. The body of Christ is the tortured figure on the huge crucifix hanging in the south transept. The body of Christ is the feet we see on the boss in the centre of the nave aisle roof as the body of Christ ascends into heaven. The body of Christ is pieces of bread we are given when we come to communion. And, of course, to return to the reflection in the chalice, the body of Christ is you and me. It is not just the presiding priest whose reflection is seen in the chalice – because our chalices are silver and we have excellent vergers, if you look really hard when the priest lifts the chalice, you could see your own face reflected in the silver. As we share in the body of Christ we become, or should become, the body of Christ in the world today.
Usually, on the Feast of Corpus Christi, we reflect on Jesus, present in the sacrament of bread and wine. I think we tend to overcomplicate our thinking about this – in the end I think this is actually all very simple and down to earth. The sharing of bread and wine is often made incredibly beautiful and ornate – this evening the sacred ministers are wearing fantastic vestments, there is beautiful liturgy, careful choreography, fantastic music and incense – all of this helps us to worship, to be moved and inspired by sharing what we share – but in the end, all we are doing is sharing food with people we love. Whether you are sitting down to a 7 course meal at the Ritz to celebrate a family birthday or eating beans on toast on your lap watching Eastenders with your spouse, partner or children, you are just sharing food with the people you love. That is what we are doing here.
Ted, a friend in my previous parish, was a good carpenter. He is a very gregarious, energetic elderly gentleman, a widower with four grown up children. He made his daughter a refectory table for her kitchen and, when he had finished it, he asked for it to be blessed. He always came to our early morning communion on a Thursday, so one Thursday after church the little congregation who always came on Thursdays all went to his house – we had breakfast on the new table, dropped crumbs and marmalade on it and then blessed it. Ted knew that the kitchen table is where, for many, life and love are shared. It’s where arguments take place, memories are shared and jokes are told – it is where people who love each other share food together. He wanted his daughter’s kitchen table to be a holy table, like a church altar is a holy table, because that is where love is shared and it is in that simple, every day sharing that Jesus is present.
God is love – where else would God incarnate be but in the very place where people who love each other (even when they sometimes don’t always like each other) gather to share food and to share life?
We are Corpus Christi – the body of Christ – not just when we are being really holy gathered around a magnificent church altar with a fair linen cloth on it and candles and music and incense, when we can see our reflections in the beautiful silver chalice. All of this should remind us that we are also Corpus Christi – the body of Christ – when we gather around a messy kitchen table covered in crumbs, spilt tea and blobs of marmalade – we are the body of Christ wherever we go, whatever we do.
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