Today is the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. When I was growing up in the good old bad old pre Vatican II days, the feast was known as Corpus Christi—the Latinate version naming the body and not the blood. In 1969, the feast was changed to the body and blood of Christ because there had been a special feast just for the blood, and the Church in its wisdom, decided to consolidate. The feast actually came into being through the sustained efforts of a woman, A sister Juliana of Liege who I the 13th century who had a dream of the moon with one dark spot in it: the dark spot being the absence of a feast honoring the Eucharist. Traditionally, the day was marked by processions; it was an occasion for genuine festivals, some of them noteworthy for their originality. In Catalonia, Corpus Christi is also known as the feast of the dancing egg; an egg is hollowed out and placed at the top of a stream of water gushing from a fountain so that it appears to dance In the small town of Murcia in Spain, the feast is marked by The Dance of the Babies also called Baby Jumping in which an old man dresses in yellow, carries oversize castanets and jumps in and out of an obstacle course made up of babies under one years old. No babies apparently have ever been hurt; the only reported injury has been a jumper’s pulled hamstring. Nevertheless, as a grandmother, I’m glad it’s not my home town. In my childhood, there was a procession; the children who had made first communion that May appeared in their white outfits, piously walking up the streets into the church .
Because I have been for all of my living memory, a reader and a writer, I associated the feast of Corpus Christi with a scene in a novella by Flaubert . Many of you may know Flaubert as the author of Madame Bovary but this scene occurs in an uncharacteristically tender fiction of Flaubert’s called A simple Heart, a story about a devoted servant whose life, in the dignity of her doing her job well and the pure love of her heart, is seen as heroic. At the novella’s very end. Felicite, the hero of the novella is dying. Flaubert’s choice of the name Felicite, the French for happiness, is deeply ironic, because she has had a life much more composed of difficulty than happiness. But one of the sources of her happiness was her parrot Lulu. Now Lulu was a perfectly terrible bird, he bit people, he caused Felicite enormous anxieties by escaping for long periods, he was given to embarrassing uttereanc s o f a blasphemous or obscene nature, taught him by a f order owner When Lulu dies, Felicite grieves him deeply, and a friend suggests that she have him stuffed. This idea gives her great consolation and she places her stuffed parrot on the table beside her bed, the first thing she looks at in the morning the last thing she looks at night during her final illness. As the feast of Corpus Christi approaches she knows she is dying, but she wants to participate in the feast which is an important event for the community. The custom is to decorate the altar with objects that are considered precious and valuable by the townspeople: fine lace, fine silver, precious glassware. Felicite asks that her stuffed parrot, now worm eaten and moldy, be placed on the altar because it is her most precious possession. The priest agrees, and as the community processes past her window, Felicite dies, smelling incense and happy in t he knowledge that her moldering parrot is on the altar. Her last vision is of the Holy Ghost who comes to her not in the form not of a dove, but a parrot.
Moldy stuffed parrots, jumping over babies, and dancing eggs. What does t his have to do with the body and blood of Christ? Well everything representing, as it does, the best of what Christianity can be but too rarely is. The particular genius of Christianity is that we worship an incarnate God, a god not only of spirit but of flesh, who is worshiped in our attachment to the material of this world: who is loved in all our loves, however unsublime and unexalted, even a moldy stuffed parrot or an obstacle course of babies. The ritual life of the church, its sacramental life, insists upon a connection to materiality. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oil of the anointing of the sick: these are not abstractions, and not merely symbols they are an insistence upon an understanding that makes holy the material of this world.
And so the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ is a feast that celebrates the Incarnate god. But let’s think of the word Incarnate. Incarnation. When I thought of it, the word that shares a root with it came to my mind and that word is carnivore, which means of course, meat eater. I remembered being in Italy and feeling a kind of shock when I heard the translation of the Word Made Flesh…La parola e carne…the word was carne, the word for meat, the same word I had used when I ordered at steak the night before at my local trattoria. When I heard these words, I made another literary association, and this was to the beautiful poem Love by the great 17th century poet George Herbert, himself an Anglican priest. It gives me great pleasure to share this with you now.
|LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,|
|Guilty of dust and sin.|
|But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack|
|From my first entrance in,|
|Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning||5|
|If I lack’d anything.|
|‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’|
|Love said, ‘You shall be he.’|
|‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,|
|I cannot look on Thee.’||10|
|Love took my hand and smiling did reply,|
|‘Who made the eyes but I?’|
|‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame|
|Go where it doth deserve.’|
|‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’||15|
|‘My dear, then I will serve.’|
|‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’|
|So I did sit and eat.|
“You must sit down says love and taste my meat”, the meal that does away with shame and guilt A meal of meat. .The shocking implication of the Incarnation like the words of the Consecration of the Mass have been blunted by constant use, like a coin whose image has been worn away by years of passing from hand to hand. We have heard the words thousands of times Take and Eat, This is my Body, Take and Drink, this is my blood. But what are those words saying. Eat my body. Drink my blood. Who eats human flesh and drinks human blood? Cannibals. Vampires. . Is this what Jesus is demanding of us?
You can relax. I don’t mean that we are vampires and cannibals. And, to use a phrase that has made its way to costume jewelry and chip clips, that’s not what Jesus meant. Because cannibals and vampires use violence to take the flesh and blood of unwilling victims, people who would much rather, thank you, hold on to their flesh and blood. What Jesus has done is to offer himself as gift most radically and completely, an offering of a total self made through love, an offering that insists upon our participation, our active consumption, an offering of the self as gift of food, to be taken in the most intimate way possible, for our nourishment and growth, for the very formation of ourself and our identities. Jesus does insist, in his words upon being consumed. So if we can free ourselves of the charge of being cannibals or vampires, we must accept the role of consumers. In participating in the ritual of the Eucharist, we are a community of consumers. It’s not about I pads or Lexuxes or Prada bags or Jimmy Choo shoes. We are consumers of the sacred. We take it into our bodies, where the sacred is already lodged, and we are transformed, or perhaps it is better to say, that the sacred which is necessarily always part of our bodily selves is nourished revitalized, reawakened. Maybe even fattened up.
In our hyper civilized world, our tidy and decorous religious practice, we lose sight of one of the major reasons why human beings have seemed, against all odds, to have continued in an impulse to worship. We need, as a species, to connect the visible and the invisible, not to separate spirit and flesh but to celebrate their inevitable connection. Body AND blood. Oh yes, it’s bloody, it’s not neat, it’s not quite safe. Transformation is never safe. Or predictable.The 14th century prayer anima Christi asks that the blood of Christ should inebriate us. Make us drunk. Get us out of our sure, safe, predictable cells into the radical uncertainty of pure gift. A pure gift that celebrates our impurity, that we are as creatures, hybrids, flesh and spirit, body and mind, and that we worship a God who manifested himself, like us, in an impure form: the incomprehensible infinity of God made visible: a baby, a wounded criminal, a host offering everything to us as a community of flesh and blood, knowing ourselves and the transcendent in the ordinary stuff of bread and wine.