Homily preached by Abbot Cuthbert Madden at the Conventual Mass on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 22nd June 2014.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, if you go into Catholic churches built in our country in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries after the Catholic Relief Acts were passed you will notice that these churches are, in fact, a shrine to the Blessed Sacrament. Our own Abbey Church follows this pattern. Unusually for an Abbey Church the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle placed on the High Altar in full view of anyone who comes into this Church. English Catholics have traditionally had a deep devotion to the presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, a devotion which goes back to the centuries of persecution when to be a priest was punishable by death, when Catholic schools and Catholic daily life were impossible, when the reception of Holy Communion was a very infrequent event.
Nowadays we take it for granted that we are free to worship, or not worship, just as we like; we take it for granted that we can receive Holy Communion and as a result perhaps we forget just how important this moment of union with Christ really is. Let us just bring to mind what is happening when we come to Mass so that today we do not take things for granted.
Let us remember first of all that human sin is a reality. We choose to do things that we know to be wrong. We do this for all sorts of different reasons. Somehow it seems that we do not have to be taught how to sin – it is something that seems to come to us quite naturally. It can even seem to be the case that all human beings are in thrall to sin. It is against this background that the first reading from the book of Deuteronomy reminds us that God has been working to free us human beings from this domination by sin for generations. Our forebears, the Jewish people, were called out of sin and slavery in Egypt to live according to the commandments of their God in the Promised Land. During their exodus journey God showed them by many signs that He was a God of power who cared for his people: he defeated their enemies and he fed them with manna during their forty years in the desert. But our forebears demonstrated again and again in their history that they enjoyed sin and would not live according to the commandments. Even so God did not give up on human beings, rather he sent His own beloved Son into the world in human flesh like yours and mine. Jesus taught us in words and deeds, and then He broke the dominion of sin and death by dying for us upon the cross and by rising from the dead. We can make no real sense of the Eucharist unless we remember his death and resurrection.
The evangelists and the apostle Paul tell us that on the night before he suffered and died, Jesus instituted the Eucharist at a celebration of the Passover meal. He drew the Old Covenant to a close and established the New Covenant of his Body and Blood. He commanded us, his disciples, to do what he did, to live as he had lived. These two things go together. We are to celebrate the ritual of the Eucharist and there take and eat His Body and His Blood AND we are to live as He lived – loving and serving our brothers and sisters.
If we live for others in obedience to the will of God we will achieve our proper destiny as human beings. If other people come first, if we love others as God has loved us, then we become fully human. But this is not easy; for although the dominion of sin has been broken, sin has been vanquished and thrown down, nevertheless sin still tempts us and we need help, God’s help, to remain free from its snares. God gives us help in His word and in His sacraments, particularly the sacrament of his Body and Blood. This is what Jesus is talking about in the Gospel we have just heard. If we would play our part in freeing our world from sin and death then we need more than human strength; we need to invite God himself into our midst, into our lives.
We have come to Church this morning. We have listened to God addressing us in the words of Holy Scripture. Many of us will receive Holy Communion, the Body and the Blood of Christ. Was it possible to see the change in us as we listened? Will it be possible to measure the increase in holiness after communion? For much of the time the change in us is hidden; it is a change which we can sometimes perceive in the effects that it has in the lives of those who take God seriously, who take God at His word. Remember, for example, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. How was it that this tiny, frail, woman relieved so much suffering in our world? Those who knew her were clear that the good that flowed out from her was the result of her intense union with Jesus Christ, a union that was made real in her hours of prayer, in her reading of the scripture, in her daily reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, in her prayer of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. The two things had come together: her life of religious observance flowed into her life of service of others.
Our forebears in this land knew that this was true. They had seen ordinary Catholics, priests and lay people, brutally tortured and executed as the culmination of their life of worship and service of others – and they knew that the strength to do this came from the life of Christ being present in the martyrs. God willing we will not have to suffer unto death for our faith – but if we are to live in fidelity to our calling to be truly human, then we will need more resources than are present in human beings in the ordinary way of things: we, too, will need the life of Christ within us. And so I invite you today to lay aside doubt and to believe the words of Him who suffered, died and rose again; in his name I invite you to believe, and believing to receive the Body and Blood of the Saviour so that we may make his life visible for our world today.