Sunday, May 31, 2009

5-25-2008: Corpus Christi

Deuteronomy 8:2-3,14-16/Psalm 147/1 Corinthians 10:16-17/John 6:51-58
The Feast of Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ – is meant to help us focus on the great mystery of the Mass as well as all those other mysteries to which the term Body of Christ might allude. References range from the body of Jesus of Nazareth which first became flesh and blood in the womb of Mary and was ultimately crucified on a cross - the body which still belongs to the risen Lord - to the host we receive at Mass, to the Church herself as the Body of Christ, to a city in Texas, to the nuclear submarine Corpus Christi (so named for the Texas town and not for the Prince of Peace, one hopes).

There’s a fine line that separates the mysterious from the magical. If you’re following Showtime’s The Tudors this season you’re seeing how the English Reformation managed to cleverly confuse mystery and magic, resulting in the iconoclasm that destroyed a significant part of the medieval patrimony of the English Church. Using the excuse that it was necessary to eradicate superstition from the Christian Faith, Cromwell and the Puritans (soon to become Pilgrims) denuded churches of art and statuary, stained glass and iconography, and ultimately of all semblance of sacramentality, including the consecrated host as Body of Christ; in order, as they said, to purify the faith. The magical term hocus-pocus was a popular and successful attempt to denigrate the mystery of transubstantiation, hocus-pocus being a bastardization of the Latin formula used by the priest for the consecration of the bread into Christ’s body (hoc est enim corpus meum). By deliberately and mistakenly equating magic with mystery, superstition with sacramentality, the Radical Reformation robbed people of their expressly human need to allow for the possibility of unseen realities: where divine and human intercourse and nature is modified by grace -- the hint of heaven in ordinarie.

Equating mystery with magic results in a rejection of both. But as we human beings possess an affinity for mystery, we will continue to seek it even in its pseudo-expressions like the occult or Gnostic fantasies. How often do we hear someone say: I’m not so religious, but I’m a very spiritual person. Embracing the spiritual with less and less regard for the physical, can result in an abhorrence of the corporeal -- disdain for the body and the beauty that it makes manifest.

I remember vividly the lower church of St. Rose in Brooklyn where I became an altar boy at age ten. As altar boys we would come to serve Mass through the back basement of the church and had to pass the huge coal furnaces where Walter the Sexton spent hours shoveling coal that heated our church and school. And it was in the warm atmosphere of that low-ceilinged basement church, fueled by Walter’s coal, that I felt most at home, where I can still see in my mind’s eye the gilded letters of today’s gospel enframing the sanctuary: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” All authentic spirituality is grounded in the physical: bread for the soul comes first as bread for the body. And it is that warm feeling of being-at-home in your body and in the body of the Church - the Body of Christ - which satisfies the heart hungry for both mystery and warmth.

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