Sermon: The Sacred Heart of Corpus Christi

Readings: Exodus 24: 3-8; Hebrews 9: 11-15; S. Mark: 14: 12-16 & 22-26

“To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him –
that is the perfect reign of Love.” 

Recently I was reminded by a friend that the best sermons consist of three points  He illustrated this dictum with the story of how a young ordinand on one Feast of Corpus Christi preached what was arguably the most comprehensive and theologically profound three point sermon ever given .… and this is what he said:
            Point 1: Jesus is God
            Point 2: Mary is his Mother
            Point 3: Go to Mass
and then sat down, thus earning the eternal gratitude of the entire congregation.

I’m not going to sit down that quickly but my three points as we celebrate Corpus Christi are these:
Firstly, Jesus is really present in the Most Holy Sacrament.
Secondly, He holds us in His Sacred Heart.
And, thirdly, we need to give our profound attention to Him.

You’ll notice that I mention the Sacred Heart of Jesus because I believe they are profoundly connected.  Eight days after this Feast, on the Octave day, the Church celebrates the great Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus because when we gaze on the Host it is not the outer form of bread we want to behold but the heart of Christ.  And we want Him to gaze on us from His Sacred Heart.  But, sadly, most Anglicans have probably never heard of this celebration – which is to our profound loss.  But let’s begin by reflecting on the way that Jesus is truly present in this Most Holy Sacrament.  

    Today we join our fellow Christians around the world in affirming His Real Presence in our midst.  On Maundy Thursday we worshipped with Jesus in Jerusalem as he observed the Passover Feast before His Passion and Death.  Now we recognise His continuing presence with us, a presence made explicit in those words: ‘This is my Body, which is for you.”  So, today, we give our attention to Jesus present with us in the Blessed Sacrament.

So today is all about affirming that, as we are present to Him, He is present to us.  And as we are present to Him and feed on His Real Presence: ‘The Bread of Life himself changes the person who eats, assimilating and transforming us into himself’ as someone once wrote. ‘See in what sense the Kingdom of heaven is within us!’ (Nicolas Cabasilas)

    Secondly, Jesus holds us in His love.  That we’re at-one with Divine Love is made explicit in those words of the 19th c. French priest S. Peter Eymard: “To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him, that is the perfect reign of Love.”  Knowing that we’re loved by God is fundamental to living by Faith and this Feast reminds us that He who made us and came among us is eternally, lovingly present with us.  And our primary calling is to live in that love.

In eight days’ time, on the Octave day of this Feast of Corpus Christi, comes that great Feast of the Sacred Heart which reinforces this profound calling.  It’s a celebration that’s no optional extra, rather it complements Corpus Christi by its focus on the Divine Compassion of God in Christ.  The great Franciscan saint, Bonaventure, wrote these beautiful words: ‘I have found this Heart in the Eucharist when I have found there the Heart of my Sovereign, of my Friend, of my Brother, that is to say, the Heart of my friend and Redeemer. …  Come, my brethren, let us enter into this amiable Heart never again to go out from It.’

Of course some people will find all this talk of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacred Heart very flamboyant.  But love is passionate, as Bp. Michael Curry revealed at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  It’s not academic or disinterested: we need to allow God’s love for us to permeate into the depths of our heart.  Some people talk about there being a crisis of faith in the western world but I think that, if there is a crisis, then it concerns the way so many don’t realise the depths of God’s love for them.

And these twin Feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart hold us into that deep truth and invite us to allow it to possess us.  One of the problems I frequently encounter through the ministry of Spiritual Direction is that of accepting we are loved.   For too many people childhood was not a time when they learnt this: rather it was a time when they learnt that love had to be earned: it did not come without a cost.  And even the best parent, seeking to love their child to the full, will always make mistakes.   We are adrift in a world where nobody really has the faintest idea what it might feel like to be unconditionally loved.  This is beyond our experience.  Love, even the best we can offer, always comes with provisos and limitations.  So, my final point is that we need to give profound attention to this mystery of God’s love for us. 

    A nineteenth century Franciscan, and friend and contemporary of St Peter, was St. John Marie Vianney, better known as the Curé d’Ars.  Some of you may know the moving story about him that speaks powerfully of this need to give our attention to Jesus.

Each day an old farmer would enter the village church and sit before the Tabernacle in which, of course, resides the Blessed Sacrament just as it does here in the hanging Pyx.  St John would watch him until, one day, he decided to ask what the old man did when he sat there.  His response was very simple and has become world famous:  “I look at him, he looks at me and we tell each other that we love each other.”

That old farmer was contemplating Jesus’ presence in the Tabernacle: he was opening his heart to the Holy Communion of Love.  I often wonder if our Church really encourages people to adopt this contemplative gaze in church – or in life.  We may be well known for our welcome, offer wonderful hospitality, or care for one another, especially those in need, and all of that is right and proper.   But are we well known for our devotion to Jesus?  Nowadays, if you go into many churches, they are often full of noise and activity although Meister Eckart, the great German mystic, maintained that ‘there is nothing so much like God as silence.’  But today, if you like, ‘poor little talkative Christianity’ gives way to our silent adoration of the Word made Flesh.

I’m sure you’re aware of the way in which what we give our attention to – what we gaze upon – helps mould who we are.   Give your attention to hatred and violence, envy, greed, lust and so on and you may find yourself becoming filled with hate, violence, envy, greed and lust.  The human heart, the centre of who we are, is moulded its desires.  So giving attention, giving our devotion, to Jesus is of greatest importance.  That contemplative prayer of what might be called ‘loving regard’ is essential in developing our life in Christ.  All the great saints have realised this and encourage us to take time to recognise the power of evil and actively gaze upon Christ as He gazes upon us.

Corpus Christi says: love for you – Mary or John, Christine or David – led me to enter your flesh and shed my blood.  These are my gifts of love for you and the world.  And if you don’t quite understand that – if you can’t grasp that, then look at my Heart.  It’s broken for you, crowned with thorns for you, on fire with love for you and the world.  This Trinity of Persons-in-Love feeds us with love – feeds our hearts because the Heart of God is an ocean of Love.

In all my woes, in all my joys, though nought but grief I see,
O sacred heart of Jesus, I place my trust in thee.
When those I loved have passed away, and I am sore distressed,
O sacred heart of Jesus, I fly to thee for rest.
In all my trials, great or small, my confidence shall be
unshaken as I cry, dear Lord, I place my trust in thee. (Author unknown)

Yet there’s something more to this matter of our celebration of Christ’s Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament which we celebrate today.  It’s not only in church we need to re-direct our attention, for each one of us and the whole of Creation is a sacrament of God.

Today we affirm the presence of God in all things and so we’re called to venerate all things just as we are called to venerate Christ in His Most Holy Sacrament.  But chiefly we’re called to venerate His presence in each one of us.  Beneath all our masks we bear His image and likeness, which is why we greet one another with a holy kiss at the peace.  Why, just as the Word of God and the Sacrament itself, we are also censed at Mass.  ‘Blessed, praised and hallowed be Jesus Christ on his throne of glory.’  And in the Most Holy Sacrament.  And in you and me and the whole of creation.

So today as every day, and in every moment, let us take to heart those words of St. Peter Eymard: “To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him, that is the perfect reign of Love.”