Corpus Christi

Today’s feast is focused in the first place on a person, not on a doctrine. We celebrate Jesus, present to us as our food and the source of our communion in the Eucharist. This however is likely to prompt doctrinal reflection. How, we might naturally ask, can what seems to be bread be the Body of Christ? Indeed, in what sense of the word ‘body’ could this even conceivably be so? Nor are these questions merely possible: non-Catholic Christians ask them frequently, as do various non-Christian critics of Catholicism, often in less than polite tones. For many people, transubstantiation sits at the top of a list of ridiculous things believed by Catholics. This, it should be urged, is not unreasonable. (And I speak as a defender of the doctrine).

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As is so often the case, what critics reject with regard to the Eucharist is not what the Church believes. Roughly, their target is the thought that at the moment of consecration God makes some bread vanish, and replaces it with human flesh, disguised as bread. Thus all those pious stories about bleeding hosts and gushing prose about the ‘prisoner of the tabernacle’.

The Church rejects this view, in spite of the aggressively professed orthodoxy of some of its champions. Christ is not present on the altar as I am present at this computer keyboard. The ‘species’ of bread is not a disguise, but a sign. Christ is not vulnerable, or constrained by, his eucharistic presence. In fact, most of our talk of the Eucharist has to take the form of denials: ‘he is not present like this’, ‘this is not bread’. The purpose of these denials is to preserve the coherence of our trust in the Lord’s promise to be present with us in the Eucharist. We cannot understand the nature of that presence itself, because that would be to understand the Lord’s Risen Body and the nature of the creative act by which he is made present. As the hymn puts it, “thou art here we ask not how”.

And that he is here is central to the Catholic faith. We express it, not primarily in words but in a way of life – genuflecting, kneeling, burning incense, going from the Mass to be the Body of Christ in the world. However, we do need to believe the claim behind these actions (“This is my Body”). On that subject I can do no better than recommend Elizabeth Anscombe’s excellent essay On Transubstantiation.

There’s something about Mary

“May is Mary’s month” – thus Gerald Manley Hopkins. Or, as a rather less proficient poet would have us sing, “The happy birds Te Deum sing, ’tis Mary’s month of May”. The latter lines do capture what is undoubtedly the case: there is something more than a little naff about a lot of what happens under the umbrella of May devotion to our Lady. It is variously theologically dodgy, saccharine, and shot through with dubious ideas of Christian femininity. No sensible person should doubt these things. (It’s an unfortunate feature of religion in a fallen world that the Church contains people who are not sensible). The problem is, I think that in the years since Vatican II people have understood a correct criticism of pre-conciliar Marian devotion, but used it a diminish the role of marian devotion in the praying life of the Church, rather than to reform it.

 

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So it’s no bad thing to have a month during which we focus on Mary. Doing this is simply part of the Catholic ‘thing’. At one level we don’t need reasons for doing it at all. There’s a temptation towards didacticism in contemporary Catholicism that supposes we need to have a reason for everything we do. This is particularly apparent in discussions of liturgy. However, reasons are often superfluous. We just are this people, living out this relationship to God in this way. To ask, of many things, why we do this is to misunderstand the nature of our characteristic activities. It is akin to asking for a deep philosophical justification for a family’s Christmas routine.

With respect to many marian devotions I think this attitude of “this is just what we do” is all we need – the rosary, litanies, votive masses and so on. But as I hinted above, there are aspects of what gets seen as ‘traditional’ devotion to our Lady (although is generally of fairly recent vintage) which needs to be assessed in the light of God’s self-communication as this is witnessed to in scripture and the Church’s teaching. It is often when we have made a mess of the tradition we have been given that we need to step back and ask what is genuinely of value and what needs to be recovered. Here is a modest suggestion as to how we might go about doing that.

The Second Vatican Council chose to include its teaching about Mary in the document on the Church. This makes profound sense, since Mary’s role in the ongoing story with our salvation can only be grasped if we see that in her we see particularly clearly the Father’s relationship to his People. She stands at the culmination of the covenant with Israel, at the birth of the Church, and is the sign of the Church both in its pilgrimage (saying ‘yes’ at the annunciation, standing by the cross) and in its glory (conceived free from sin, assumed into heaven). There is a lot here. How then might we go about better relating to Mary in a way that better reflects this ecclesial focus of her significance? That, it seems to me, is the challenge the Council set us (all of us, in our praying lives and self-understanding, not just the bishops). I’m not sure we’ve faced up to it yet.

One body

During the prayer for peace at today’s Mass, which I was attending whilst on holiday in a very Tory-voting part of the country, I found myself pondering the fact that I’d probably be actively campaigning against much that my fellow congregants hold dear in the run-up to June’s election. Isn’t there some kind of tension here? We pray for, express (at the sign of peace), and are given as sacramental gift (in the eucharist) the unity amongst us and yet struggle against each other when Mass is over. I’ve written about this before: I think there is a tension, but I think it is a tension that goes with living in the in between times – between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ and its fulfilment at the end of all things.

There is a type of politics, sadly current in Britain and affirmed frighteningly by today’s French presidential election result, which does seem to me as incompatible with Christian peace and unity in the here and now, however. This is opposition to migrants. When I receive the eucharist alongside people of different political allegiances, I take myself to be part of an ongoing human project with them, to be living alongside them, and to be part of a local church with them, in communion with our bishop, and with him with Rome and the church internationally. When an adherent of anti-migrant politics receives the eucharist alongside a migrant they simply cannot take this attitude consistently with their beliefs, which set them in opposition to what that sacrament both signifies and effects.

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Catholic churches in Britain are amongst the most diverse communities in the country. This is as it should be: we are a sign of the coming Kingdom, where people of all races and language worship before the Lamb. Sadly, I suspect, the very clear symbolism of our congregations doesn’t always have the impact it should on the ideas of some of their members. The question is: how do we change that?

People of the Empty Tomb

The connection between Easter and baptism isn’t as established in our minds as it should be. It was brought home to me when I attended an Easter Vigil at a university chaplaincy some years ago, during which numerous adults were baptised by total immersion. There, in the still dim light of the chapel, amplified by the newly lit paschal candle, there was a real sense that these people were entering the tomb with Christ in order to rise again with him.

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It is baptism which, in the usual course of things, makes Easter real for us. Through it we become members of the Church, the mystical Body of Christ, by which the Risen Christ continues to be present in the world, and through which his saving work is present. We are, as St Paul put it, dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

For through the sacramental life, lived out in the Church through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the celebrations of the past three days are not simply commemorations. We, as Catholic Christians, are not in the business of merely recalling past events (although we are at least recalling them: the messy drama of Holy Week being a unique feature of the liturgical year). In our participation in the sacraments we enter into those events, they become our events.

It is our job then as Christians, as people who have died to the old order of hatred and injustice through the waters of baptism, to make Christ present in a world that sorely needs to see that death is not the last word on human existence (I write as Donald Trump is sabre-rattling over the Middle East and North Korea). This is not a moralistic imperative, a call to staunch godly effort, but rather an invitation – only made possible by God’s loving action towards us – to be consistently what we are, people who have entered the tomb sacramentally with Christ in order to rise with him. We are living proof that the idea that the combination of fear and force is the only way to live alongside our fellow human beings. Fear and force brought Jesus to the Cross, and his Father answered with the Resurrection.

 

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To be what we are, an Easter people, is indeed – as the hymns have it – a joyful experience. But joy is not the same thing as fun. A world still in love with the old Adam will not welcome the good news that its work of destruction is frustrated, “he is not here he is risen”. The Jesus of John’s gospel tells us that if the world hated him, it will hate us too (the ‘world’, of couse, means here not the physical creation, nor the human race, but rather those structures that resist God’s offer of love through his Word). The celebrations of the past hours hint that even this hatred might be the occasion for joy. The priest places incense grains into the Paschal Candle, signifying the wounds of Christ; and the whole of which they are a part becomes the sign of Christ’s presence in our midst. We respond to our wounded, risen , saviour, the light of the world Deo Gratias – thanks be to God.

He descended into hell

Today has an in-between feel. After the liturgical busyness of the past two days our church buildings are quiet. The office continues to be said, as though it were the heart beat of the Church, but the sacraments are not celebrated. Tabernacles lie empty; there is no holy water in the stoups.

This silence reflects the nature of the what we recall today. Not only does it demand silence, but it would be difficult to know what to say about it if it did not: a corpse lies in the tomb, the corpse of God made human. Yet somehow we want to say that in this apparently senseless end of a life there rests freedom for people far beyond the immediate earthly touch of Christ. This instinct finds expression in the Church’s belief that Christ’s soul, united to his divine person, descended into hell, and in the tradition that he preached to and released the souls of the just who had died before his coming.

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The point is one about the universality of Christ’s mission. It is for all people; the events of Easter spread out like a ripple through human history. For, in the words of the homily read at the Office of Readings today, we were not created to be slaves in the underworld.

A good death

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God cannot die, whatever Nietzsche might have thought. Nor can God suffer. It is worth emphasising these points, since a well-intentioned trend of recent decades has it that God is susceptible to emotions and, in some sense, suffers alongside us. It is understandable enough why, faced with the carnage of contemporary human existence and the private tragedies that accompany the business of simply living, someone might want to rebel against an image of God as passive and uncaring. However, there is already a mistake here: to assume that if God does not suffer, God is passive, that if God does not have emotions, God is cold, is to assume that God occupies the same logical space as ourselves, that the options available to God – so to speak – are those laid out before us. Whereas the creator of all things lies beyond our capacity to grasp; God’s nature is hidden from us. So we speak of him conscious of the inadequacy of our words, in analogy and metaphor (including, of course, metaphors involving suffering and emotion).

And yet, what God cannot do as God, God does as a human being. The Word of God, incarnate as a human being, dies a human death in Christ and suffers human sufferings in Christ. Because of the events the Church celebrates today, our God, incarnate as human and risen and ascended into glory, can empathise with our pain. Because he has died a human death he has transformed death itself. In undergoing the worst that human beings do to one another and uttering words of forgiveness he has opened the way to breaking out of the deadly cycle of revenge.

For these reasons we dare to call today, the day on which we murdered the man who is God, Good.

Guinness against gnosticism

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St Patrick’s Day fell yesterday, as it often does, during Lent. This coming together of a festival not known for quiet celebration and a penitential season has been the cause of some anxiety. Is  it really the done thing to be so baccanalian during a time of reflection, some ask? The US bishops were divided over relaxing the Friday abstinence rules.

This all strikes me as very strange. There is something profoundly right about Lenten observance being put on hold by feasts (as, of course, it is every Sunday during Lent). The Christian understanding of the world is not one where happiness and sorrow, good and bad, feast and fast, are to be kept in balance, as though if we don’t have a thoroughly downbeat and uninterrupted Lent we risk upsetting the tuning of the cosmos. Even our most unsettling periods of self-examination take place in the light of the empty tomb; even our mourning takes place in the knowledge of Christ’s victory. It is as thought there is a happiness always just beneath the surface, bubbling up constantly and pressing to burst through. The irruption of feasts into fast times enact this liturgically. They remind us of the important truth that, as Barth put a related point, “the first and last word is Yes and not No”.

St Joseph’s day on Monday provides another occasion to recognise this. Now, this won’t be greeted with nearly as much controversy as was St Patrick. There are good reasons for that; St Joseph is a solemnity of the universal Church. But there are also bad reasons, namely a disdain for the way St Patrick’s day is celebrated in many places. To be frank, there’s quite a bit of class and ethnic based sneering in the background, and a nonsensical concern about the ‘Christian roots’ of the feast being lost (we hear this a lot about Christmas as well, of course: would it be better then if people didn’t celebrate at all? Doesn’t the occasion for celebration always pose the possibility of a question about its reason? And isn’t natural human joy an intrinsic good?): but at heart it is the beer-drenched, riotousness of the festivities that worry people.  We are, I assume, to suppose that the wedding at Cana presented in John’s gospel was a quiet affair at which people politely shared family news and played parlour games. All I can say here is that a good party and a good beer are excellent, and soundly Catholic, responses to any suggestion that the world is evil or that fun is to be regarded with suspicion. In a culture where the allotted role of the religious is as prudes, we should bear that in mind.

You are dust

I try to read Lent books every year and spent the afternoon browsing my local Waterstones for this year’s selection. En route to the religion section, I chanced upon a table full of books about death:  death from the perspective of a surgeon; the memoirs of an undertaker; collections of writing about death etc. The notice on this table had as its central feature a quotation (I can’t remember who it is from): “it is only mortality that gives meaning to life”.

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Like Death Cafes, these are secular attempts to terms with the reality of our mortality. As such they are no bad thing, and certainly good deal better than the culture of repression and euphemism that has been a stable feature of particularly English and American culture for centuries. Yet there is a sense in which we can never fully come to terms with death. Built into the fabric of our materiality, it nonetheless confronts us as something alien. It is an end: the frustration of hope, the fracturing of relationships, the loss of the familiar. There is ultimately no sense to be made of it, because it marks the absence of sense. To move on from here would take a miracle, which is precisely what Christianity holds out to us.

Lent is, I think, a way of practising death. Its denials are lettings go of the things of life in anticipation of that final letting go which, in virtue of our baptism, we can now undergo trustfully. Whilst our faith points beyond death, our nature still fears it, and we cling superstitiously to possessions and position, in the hope that we might somehow cheat our own cosmic irrelevance and make a permanent mark on the universe. Through giving up time, food or comfort during Lent we try, under grace, to break the grip of these attractions. Indeed in a way we attempt to loosen our grip on life itself. For anyone who wants to save their life must lose it.

Eagleton on Materialism

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At the moment, I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s latest, Materialism. It’s a useful setting out of a particular account of what it is to be human, drawing on Aquinas, Marx, and Wittgenstein and amongst others. As you might imagine, I’m a sympathetic reader. Like much of his recent work, it engages with theological topics at some length. One passage in particular struck me:

The doctrine of the Incarnation means that God is an animal. He is present in the Eucharist as the everyday stuff of bread and wine, in the mundane business of chewing and digesting. Salvation is not primarily a matter of cult and ritual but of feeding the hungry and tending the sick. Jesus spends much of his time restoring damaged human bodies to health, along with a number of deranged minds. Love is a material practice, not a spiritual sentiment. Its paradigm is the love of strangers and enemies, which is unlikely to generate much of a warm glow.

The kind of materialism in which Eagleton is interested is not the belief that nothing exists other than material entities, which would obviously be incompatible with Christian faith. Rather, he espouses what he calls somatic materialism, the taking seriously of the embodied, fragile, historical, and conditioned nature of human beings. His immediate target is, I suspect, the tendency to overlook these aspects of ourselves on parts of the contemporary left. But Christians too need reminding of the materialism at the heart of our faith, and I commend this book warmly.