Friday, May 04, 2007

Eucharist: Encountering the Humanity of Jesus

The following sermon was Preached on 28th January 2007 (The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany) by The Reverend Canon Dr David Brown FBA at the Durham Cathedral. Professor Brown is my PhD supervisor at Durham University.

Today's gospel is the same as what you will hear if you attend the sung Eucharist for Candlemas this coming Friday evening. So, rather than have Canon Cherry and I competing as to who could preach the better sermon on the same topic, I thought that this morning I would focus on a rather different anniversary. However, I want to preface this by introducing you to a rather unusual image that was once to be found quite commonly in the paintings of late medieval and early modern Europe. It is of a marriage or betrothal. A handsome woman is kneeling to receive a ring from her beloved, but the young man in question is extending towards her a rather unusual band. Is it silver or gold? No. Is it of wood? No. Look closer, and one sees that in fact it is of skin colour. Astonishingly, it is made from tiny folds of human flesh. Puzzling, until you reflect further about why the young man in question is portrayed quite so young. It is in fact the infant Jesus who is offering such a ring. What we are being invited to contemplate is Jesus using the redundant flesh from his circumcision a few days earlier to seal his bond with this woman, St Catherine of Siena.
To some of you, perhaps to most of you, it will seem a rather revolting idea, scarcely in the best of taste. But what I want to suggest this morning is that, however disturbing the image, it does at least illustrate a fundamental and rather worrying change in Christian consciousness between then and now. Nowadays, when we approach the eucharist we tend to think in very general terms about God's presence here in our midst. If we think of Jesus' humanity at all, we tend to place it firmly in the past, in a life lived two thousand years ago. But that is not of course what Christianity has traditionally taught. Rather, it asserts that his humanity continued beyond death and is available to us in the here and now. So each eucharistic encounter is not only with divinity it is also with a particular humanity now at one with God in heaven but also available to help us one day towards the same goal for ourselves. It is this conviction that was absolutely central to medieval thinking and which helps explain our strange image. It is not Christ's divinity as such that saves us, but our identification with Christ as fellow human being alongside us, who can then raise our humanity like his into a new order of existence.

Catherine was a tertiary Dominican, someone who lived the Dominican life but without actually becoming a nun. The most famous Dominican of them all was St Thomas Aquinas, and it is his feast day that falls today. Living as he did in the thirteenth century, his life corresponded with the Church's decision to establish the Feast of Corpus Christi. Most of Thomas' writings are rather dry and abstract, but he it was who Pope Urban IV commissioned to compose the liturgy for that feast. Even today we continue to sing three of the hymns that he wrote for that occasion, 268, 269 and 308 in our present hymnbooks: ‘Of the glorious body telling' O saving victim opening wide' and ‘Thee we adore, o hidden Saviour, thee.' Urban chose Aquinas, presumably partly because his poetic skills were known but mainly because he had written a major defence of the doctrine of transubstantiation, decreed a dogma of the Catholic church a mere half century earlier.

That dogma, as also St Thomas' defence, is often misunderstood. At this point I observe some eyes about to glaze over. No, don't worry, I am not about to turn this sermon into a recondite academic lecture. All I want to impress upon you is a simple but important idea: that medieval Christianity and the Reformation actually shared more in common with each other on this matter than either of them do with the contemporary Church. While for some of you that may mean so much the worse for both, what I would like to suggest is the contrary, that in our own day we need to recover what Aquinas, Luther and Calvin shared, that stress on Christ's humanity, if our experience in the eucharist is really to be as deep and lasting as was theirs.

Transubstantiation is often presented by its opponents as a form of crude literalism. What we actually consume here and now is the very body and blood of Jesus the human being who once walked on this earth. While it is true that some Catholics do play the paradoxes for all they are worth, that was not the main aim. The basic idea in the assertion lay elsewhere, in the conviction that by a divine miracle two worlds - heaven and earth- are brought close together, so that the now exalted body of Christ in heaven can be met with anew in each celebration of the eucharist. Unfortunately, the thirteenth century Church tied that assertion to a rather implausible use of Aristotelian metaphysics, to talk of the substance of the bread and wine being changed into the substance of Christ's body and blood. St Thomas' genius was to so hedge about this mistake with qualifications that only the bare assertion remained: two worlds meeting and the totality of Christ's humanity present to us, however small the wafer, however tiny the particle of wine.

The Reformation rebellion against such a view is often misunderstood. Certainly, strong exception was taken to what usually went with transubstantiation, the conviction that, because Christ's humanity was present anew in each eucharist, the mass was therefore itself each time a new offering of Christ's original sacrifice. The uniqueness of Calvary was thus, it was believed, undermined, and so that is why Cranmer in his Prayer Book liturgy repeatedly affirms that Calvary was unique: ‘who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.'. Twenty words where two might have done reminds those of us who still attend that liturgy each time of disputes that really only had relevance five hundred years ago.

However, what is usually forgotten in hearing or reading of all the fury and bile in that Reformation dispute is the underlying continuity that was still present: Christ's humanity continuing to be available to us in each and every celebration of Holy Communion. Certainly Luther and Calvin alike both rejected the language of transubstantiation, but not, let me repeat, what it was trying to preserve, our present access to Christ's humanity. Luther suggested it was best to speak of Christ's humanity existing alongside the bread and wine rather than substituting for it, while Calvin proposed that our souls (unbeknown to us) are momentarily caught up into heaven there to share in Christ's presence.

But enough of metaphysics and philosophy. Why does all this matter? It is because our salvation is all about being transformed into Christ's image, and about the deepening of the relationship that makes this possible. But in saying this it is also important to realise it is not simply about conforming to Christ as he once was. It is about conforming to him as he now understands the human situation. The incarnation was a real entering into the limitations of the human condition, its prejudices as well as its potential. The earthly Jesus was thus firmly a first century Jew, who used the ideas and images of his time to communicate, even while straining to go beyond them. But he is now the resurrected, ascended and glorified Christ who can enter into our humanity as it now is, with all the changes that implies. So, as you kneel to receive that presence once more, recall you are not only with God but also with a fellow human being but not just some figure from the distant past: rather, one who understands fully your present condition, and is there to aid and transform it. Divinity encountered yes, but also a wonderfully alive humanity, so alive that Catherine even dreamed herself married to it. May we too dream visions, and so draw nearer to our risen, ascended and glorified Lord, once more present in our midst.


Anonymous john scholasticus said...

It's OK, but I don't quite understand the grammatical errors.

10:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John! I haven't heard from you in some time. I trust all is well. Look forward to having you around again!

11:11 pm  
Anonymous john scholasticus said...


You are ... GRACIOUS.

Your friend,


9:02 pm  

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