“Christ’s supreme gift of love”. These five words are the best I can do to summarise what the Eucharist is, and why we celebrate this feast day. That’s a summary but let me share some of the thinking which underpins it.
1. UNIQUE SACRAMENT First, the Eucharist is not just a sacrament, it is The Blessed Sacrament. Other sacraments are gifts from God but the Eucharist is unique because it is the gift which contains the Giver. All sacraments are signs. But while other sacraments are signs of Christ’ action — Christ healing, Christ forgiving and so on — only the Eucharist is the sign of Christ’s very Presence among his people. Uniquely, the Eucharist is the sign of God’s Presence because it is God’s very Presence. This is why the Eucharist is supreme for it is nothing less than the gift of God Himself. And, above all else, Scripture tells us, God is Love. Thus the Venerable Fulton Sheen once said “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white host”.
2. LANGUAGE “Christ’s supreme gift of Love”. These five words say something of what the Blessed Sacrament is. They say something but they do not say everything — far from it. For it’s impossible adequately to describe the reality which we encounter in the Blessed Sacrament. More than anything else I can think of, the Eucharist exhausts our vocabulary; it transcends our human categories; and it taxes superlatives. Consider the innumerable titles, think of mystifying descriptions of Divine love made flesh, recall the maximal language: Sacrament Most Holy and so on. Ultimately, God and the gift of his Presence in the Eucharist, cannot be reduced to 5 words, or even 5 million words. St. Thomas Aquinas, for his part, had a good stab. He is said to have written 10 million words about faith, including much about the Eucharist. It’s not for nothing that Pope Urban IV in a masterstroke commissioned him to compose the beautiful proper texts for this Mass of Corpus Christi. But even St. Thomas admitted, and I quote, “No one can fully express the sweetness of this sacrament”. And, many would say – myself included – that St. Thomas expressed the sweetness better than any other theologian. It is then against a background of the impossibility of saying everything about the Eucharist that the lesser though still unenviable task of saying something today falls to me. So how should I – how should any of us? – say something about this gift? It’s easy to feel lost for words?
3. PRAYER-POEM: ADORO TE DEVOTE Well, when ordinary language seems inadequate, we often turn to poetry. That’s what St. Thomas did at any rate. He composed a Latin prayer-poem, an oratio, that we call by its opening line “Adoro te devote” and which continues “latens deitas”. Those Latin words might be rendered in English— with a hat-tip to his Jesuit poet translator, Gerard Manley Hopkins — as “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore”. The prayer’s soaring beauty comes not only from rhyme and meter but from its sheer intimacy. Unusually for a prayer especially of the thirteenth century, it is addressed directly to Jesus Christ. More specifically, it is addressed to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and was written to be prayed sotto voce between the consecration and the Our Father. When we say or sing St. Thomas’ words, when we make his words our own, there’s a sense in which we join the Master-theologian on his knees in awe at the gift of the Eucharist.
4. PARADOX In the opening words of the oratio St. Thomas puts his finger on a beguiling paradox: Christ is utterly present yet also concealed — hidden under the appearance of bread. And so, to receive Christ’s supreme gift of Love properly, we need the eyes of faith to unwrap this gift, as it were,. And even faith only takes us so far, since we can only hope to see God face-to-face, as he really is, in heaven. In this world, we can only treasure the glimpse of God under the appearance of bread and wine.
5. BITTERSWEET And of course, at the moment, most of us cannot even do that! So the paradoxes multiply. This year, the Feast of Corpus Christi feels ironic, it feels remarkably bittersweet: bitter, because we cannot gaze be in His Real Presence, let alone receive Holy Communion, and sweet because Christ remains present even when we cannot see Him. Watching Mass your computer screens is nowhere near the same, I know — just as a Skype, Zoom or Facetime call isn’t the same as being with someone in person. And yet, Corpus Christi remains sweet because the gift is still there, is still offered in this Chapel this evening, even if we cannot receive it for now. So we continue to celebrate what the Corpus Christi Sequence, Lauda Sion, written again by Aquinas, calls the “beautiful joy”of the Eucharist. Ultimately, Christ’s supreme gift of love remains real, remains sweet, and is offered lovingly even when we’re deprived of receiving it sacramentally.
6. MEANING & FIRST READING What then might be the meaning of this deprivation, of this bittersweet paradox, this “loss and gain” to borrow words of St. John Henry Newman? What might be the meaning of all this? We might find a clue in the First Reading. It describes how the Israelites endured 40 years in the wilderness. God let them hunger so that they might be humbled and tested. He did all this to do them some good in the end. The historical parallel is striking is it not? Our own “great and terrible wilderness”, our own “Sturm und Drang” of nigh on three months of restrictions has undoubtedly been a test, a humbling and indeed a devastating tragedy to some. But to what end remains to be seen. Will this be a blip, a sort of gap in our lives or will it be an opportunity for purification and refocus, and do us some good like it did for the Israelites? The outcome is partly down to us, of course. My prayer and hope, though by no means a firm expectation, is that one effect of this temporary deprivation of the sacraments might make us value them all the more. Perhaps we’re being wrested from our complacency? Perhaps we’re being encouraged to receive the Eucharist not as routine or in some instrumental fashion but as supreme gift? Could a fruit of this hardship, this exile be to come to a newfound appreciation for Christ’s sacrifice at calvary, which made it all possible? Will the radical change in the way we’ve had to live our day-to-day lives prompt a decisive turning point in our interior lives? These are open questions addressed to each one of us. I ask them pointedly. They’re worthy of deep reflection and today especially in light the awful paradox of celebrating Corpus Christi away from the Blessed Sacrament, the striking parallels in the First Reading, and the forthcoming but gradual lifting of restrictions. We can avoid the questions, of course, but that does, in fact, constitute an answer of sorts, and a poor one. In the spiritual life business-as-usual is not an option. If all of this has been in vain, the hardships and tragedies only increase, not least to include a new one: the tragedy of missed opportunity. Some good must come out of this.
7. UNITY One good outcome that I’m confident will come about is a reforging of our community. I very much hope it’s an expanded community but even if it’s a smaller one, this will pass and we will be reunited again. The renewed coming together for the Eucharist will bring with it some new fruits, some new life. The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament of unity: we gather for its celebration and in its celebration — by its power! — we are united. In today’s second reading St. Paul addresses his Corinthian converts, gathered in house churches. Paul knew that the rich and powerful Corinthians gathered for the Eucharist but did not admit those whom they perceived as their lessers; they failed to welcome all. This didn’t just make Corinthians snobs, it made them lacking in faith because they failed to see the poor and slaves as their equals, as brothers and sisters in Christ. Such exclusion is not Christ-like, is not Christian, is not Corpus Christi. The Church is not an elite club but, in the words of Pope Francis, a “field hospital”. It’s a church of sinners from every walk of life. The importance of the Eucharist as sacrament of unity could hardly be overstated in these days of deep divisions, violent protests, and hate being shamefully banded around. As St. Paul writes simply, “we — who are many — are one body, for we all partake of the one bread”. In the Church, and in Eucharist especially, the lost unity of mankind is restored because we are united in God Himself who is Love.
8. CONCLUSION We’ve come full circle. This unique sacrament, for which words are inadequate but which poetry seems to express best, which is paradoxically manifestation and concealment, which is remarkably bittersweet in these trying days of lockdown, and which will unite us together as One Body, is — I repeat — nothing less than “Christ’s supreme gift of Love”. The Bread of Life, the fruit of calvary, is offered as gift for the salvation of souls – and, we pray, our own especially. So when the time comes —and it couldn’t come soon enough! — how will you receive this gift? How will you receive Him?
The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.
The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.