Sunday, 7 June 2015

Corpus Christi

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Psalm 116; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

‘If it’s just a symbol to hell with it.’ This is the shocking comment attributed to American writer Flannery O’Connor in argument with a fellow author, Mary McCarthy, who was happy to accept a liberal understanding of what the Eucharist means, ‘just a symbol, but a good one’. One can imagine the churning guts of Flannery O’Connor as she tried to be true to the blazing truth that she knew. She has this commentary on her own response:

That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

Some years ago the Irish Times, writing about the Eucharistic Congress taking place in Dublin at the time, expressed the view that what it called ‘cultural Catholicism’ is not such a bad thing. It understood this to mean people making up their own minds about spiritual and moral questions while maintaining deep respect and affection for Catholic tradition. One wonders what the contents of that tradition are if not answers to spiritual and moral questions – as well as a few questions we would not have thought of ourselves. What would be left would be nostalgic liturgy and associated paraphernalia increasingly remote from the experiences of life. We would presumably still have the painful sentimentality of the First Holy Communion industry as well as some fine buildings, artworks, poetry, and prayers, mostly from the very distant past of Irish Catholicism. ‘Please keep Catholicism in some shape or form so as not to impoverish Irish culture’ was the plea of the Irish Times.

One is tempted to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor and say ‘if it is just about enriching culture then to hell with it’.  Curiously one can imagine ghettoising, counter-cultural Catholics (of whom the Irish Times also speaks) and liberalising, cultural Catholics, meeting at the same (culturally rich) liturgies that would simultaneously re-assure each group that it is not the other!

Of course the Eucharist is a symbol. You only have to open your eyes and look at what is going on and you see that it is symbolic, ritual action. When a man holds up what looks like bread, feels like bread, smells like bread and tastes like bread (though a very strange kind of bread) and says ‘this is the Lamb of God’, then you know that either he’s lost his head or there is some kind of drama going on.

The question is what kind of symbol is it, and here we do come up against central and distinctive (at least in the West) teachings of Catholicism. For the Catholic faith it is not just a symbol, essential as symbolism is for human experience everywhere. It is a sacrament. It is the Sacrament. So what’s the difference? One answer to that question is to say that a symbol represents a reality that is for the moment elsewhere whereas a sacrament is a symbol that also makes present here and now the reality it symbolises. I hear voices saying ‘but every symbol does that, it’s the point of symbolism’. In a way, yes, it helps us to understand something of how sacraments work: we have a natural capacity for poetry and for ritual.

But it brings us to a second answer: the term ‘sacrament’ refers to a symbolism invented by Christ, and so a use of the realities of this world that is not simply within our power. These mundane realities are made to represent and make present the life of the kingdom that is coming. One of the dangers of ‘just a symbol’ is that we bring the Eucharist within our own control and think that it’s meaning must be exhausted by our normal invention and use of symbols. We are at home with symbols, use them all the time, and understand their function (see first answer above). But if the Church’s sacraments are instituted by the God-Man in the mysteries of his suffering, death and resurrection – making those mysteries present and realising their power in every time and place – then they are theandric realities, extending into our times and places the presence and power of the God-Man (theos, God; andros, man). Just as the Word became flesh, emptying himself to take the form of a servant, to be present with people healing, teaching and feeding them, so, as the Welsh Catholic poet David Jones says, ‘he placed himself in the order of signs’. In that way he continues to be present to us healing, teaching and feeding us.

Obviously the Eucharist is a symbol and our capacity for symbol making, as for all kinds of language, equips us to understand something of it. But a sacrament is a symbol that incorporates us rather than we incorporating it (which is why people sit or kneel in front of it, seeking to appreciate what it brings to them rather than what they have placed in it). There is a rich Catholic tradition about this incorporation. We become what we eat, Saint Augustine says. When we say ‘amen’ to the minister giving us communion we are saying ‘amen’ not only to the mystery of Christ’s presence under the forms of bread and wine but also to the transformation of ourselves that comes about through our participation in the bread and the cup. In the Mass we twice call down the Holy Spirit, once to transform the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and later to transform all who participate in his Body and Blood so that they become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Thomas Aquinas says that the point of the Eucharist is the unity of the Church. His analysis does not stop at what (if it did stop there) might seem like some kind of supernatural magic but extends to seeing that the presence of Christ under the forms of bread and wine (in elements consumable by us, he makes himself our food) is in order that this food will change us into members of His body, living by His life. St Thomas wrote remarkable things about the Eucharist not least an antiphon which speaks of the Eucharist as a sacred banquet in which Christ is received, the memory of His passion is renewed, our souls are filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

Christ; past, present, and future; salvation, grace, and glory, all in one. Is it any wonder that poetic souls like David Jones and Flannery O’Connor would come to see in the Eucharist not just another example of their own craft but, mysterium tremendum, the work of a creating (‘poetic’) God who is creative not just with words but with the things of His own first creating?

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