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I was thirsty and ye gave me drinkHallo again to all.

This week many Anglicans celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi in one way or another. Some did so on Thursday, the actual day of this pre-reformation holy day that honours the Holy Eucharist. Others kept it today, Sunday, on what is called the solemnity of the feast. (Still other Anglicans missed Corpus Christi altogether and had the Second Sunday after Pentecost, or even the First Sunday after Trinity. We are a people of many traditions and kalendars, to be sure.)

The feast began in late medieval Europe as a way of focussing directly on the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion. Much evidence points to the creation of the feast of Corpus Christi as the church's response to widespread popular interest in eucharistic devotion. Though Maundy Thursday is the natural place to thank God for this gift, the somber tones of Holy Week zero in on the last supper itself, the new commandment to love neighbor as self, and the agony in Gethsemane. In Corpus Christi, the Church's joy about the Eucharist overflows from Maundy Thursday past Easter, Ascension and Whitsun to give one last trumpet-blast of delight at the outset of the long season of Trinitytide stretching out before us.

It is fair to say that for most Anglicans in the 21st century Corpus Christi has become a bit of a niche feast. Some of us may never have heard of it, while for others it is one of the high points of our parish's liturgical cycle. It was not always so; British Christians were much like their continental cousins in being inspired to a 'lively [...] response, so much activity and creativity' in connection with the feast for centuries after it became popular.* Had it not been for sundry unpleasantnesses in the 1500s, it seems likely that Corpus Christi would be a public—and truly popular—celebration in many nations now inhabited by Anglicans, just as it is still a civil holiday in a number of traditionally Roman Catholic countries.

We marvel with a little disbelief to think that the people of an entire continent could have had a serious interest in the creation of a new liturgical observance. The beginnings of Corpus Christi seem all the more strange for having taken place in the midst of a period of fragmentation and change throughout the western church—when layfolk received communion with what by modern standards was extraordinary infrequency and the liturgy was celebrated in a language other than the vernacular. It may be that Anglican over-familiarity (itself only of a few decades' duration) with the real awesomeness of Holy Communion has bred not quite contempt but a bit of boredom. It is the rare parish indeed in our part of the world that clamors for a public parade centred on any of God's specific gifts, sacramental or otherwise.

It occurred to us this morning—whilst looking in rapt wonder at some stained glass windows in our parish church—that some of our disenchantment with the Holy Eucharist may stem from a lack of awareness that participation in that sacrament commits us in no uncertain terms to a life of extraordinary love and service toward others. This point was made some time ago by a bishop of some extremes but no unclear commitments who electrified a generation of churchfolk when he said 'You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.' And he went on:

You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

If we could begin to see anew that our baptismal vows and our participation in the eucharist not only support us in this work, but actually equip us for it and require it of us, we suppose there would be a vast regeneration of our common prayer and common life. There are church groups who do carry the blessings of Christ out into the world with 'the hands / that holy things have taken'. We've only just learned about ACROSS, working right now in Burmese cyclone relief, and the Johannesburg Anglican Environmental Initiative, whose name surely gives you a sense of what it does. They have inspired us to find new ways where we live and work to 'soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, and shield the joyous'. We'll keep you posted on how that turns out, with our watchword a fine saying of Teresa of Avila printed on the back of our service leaflets each week:

Christ has no body on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the world;
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.

See you next week, in highways and hedges, where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Happy Corpus Christi.

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Last updated: 25 May 2008

* Miri Rubin. Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture, page 5.

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