15th June, 2020

Homily for Corpus Christi

Ampleforth Abbey

Fr Gabriel's Homily for Corpus Christi - Sunday 14th June

In today’s first reading about Israel’s desert years Moses says to the people: ‘Remember how the Lord your God led you for forty years in the wilderness, to humble you, to test you and know your inmost heart – whether you would keep his commandments or not … He fed you with manna which neither you nor your fathers had known, to make you understand that man does not live on bread alone but that man lives on everything that comes from the mouth of the Lord’.

God gives the experience of the desert to his people to humble them, to test them and to reveal not so much to himself as to themselves their inmost heart. They experience great famine and thirst, a great longing, to teach them that their most fundamental need and longing is the Word of God. This Word becomes flesh in Jesus Christ and in today’s gospel he says that his flesh is real food, his blood is real drink. It is food and drink for the inmost heart, food for wandering and for a desert time. But what if there is no food?

For the people of Israel the exodus was a key and foundational moment, but so in the 6th century before Christ was the exile from Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. The experience of exile created an intense longing for the holy city and the holy place, expressed in many of the psalms, a deep nostalgia: ‘Like the deer that yearns for running streams, / so my soul is yearning for you, my God. / My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; / when can I enter and see the face of God? / My tears have become my bread, by night, by day, / as I hear it said all the day long: / “Where is your God?”.’ (Ps 41/42 see also Ps 79 80). The people prayed so because they were shut out from the face of God, from the running streams.

And in another psalm of exile, there is again a reference to drink and to bread: ‘All day long my foes revile me; / those who hate me use my name as a curse. / The bread I eat is ashes; my drink is mingled with tears.’ (Psalm 101 / 102)

In this strange time of coronavirus we may think less of the what and how of the sacrament of the Eucharist, so often cause of dispute from the beginning of the Church; so in the gospel the Jews started arguing with one another: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ and more of the why. What is the fundamental purpose of the Lord’s gift of himself in the Eucharist?

The answer to this is that it is the unity of the mystical body of the Church. So St Paul in today’s second reading: ‘The fact that there is one loaf means that, though there are many of us, we form a single body because we all have a share in this one loaf.’ It is in order to give the gift of eternal life. So in the gospel: ‘Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.’ The unity of the body and the gift of eternal life.

So are these fundamental purposes frustrated? By no means, as St Paul would say. Nations rise and fall, institutions come and go, including institutions of the Church: history, for example suggests this is true of monasteries, but the Church will remain to the end of time and God’s purposes cannot be frustrated and impeded. In the long history of the Church we may not have been in circumstances quite like now, but it has not always been possible to be at Mass or to receive holy communion, because maybe of persecution or of disaster.

An example of this is the experience of Japanese Christians. St Paul Miki, his companions and others brought the faith to and established the Church in Japan in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Things seemed to go well until there was a very sharp persecution, shocking executions, the Church suppressed and the faith apparently wiped out.

But then. The story is well told by an Anglican bishop, Stephen Neill in his history of the missions and he describes it as the most remarkable story in all Catholic mission history. It is the rediscovery of Japanese Christians at the end of the two closed centuries, which he calls a ‘unique and most moving event’. He writes: ‘Some women approached the missionary Father (later Bishop) Petitjean, at first very cautiously and later with more confidence, and put to him questions that seemed to relate to the Virgin Mary and to the great ‘king of the doctrine’, the Pope. Questioning by the missionaries soon made it clear that these were indeed descendants of the ancient Church. Living in Nagasaki and Okuma and on the Goto Islands, they had maintained the faith in secrecy through all the years of persecution. They had kept the essentials of the faith. The organization of the secret community was almost the same in all the villages; there were usually two principal men, one of whom was the leader of the prayers on Sunday and ministered consolation to the dying, the other being the baptizer’.

For long years no Mass, no priest, no confession, but catechism and baptism, a hidden stream of the faith and the sacraments. God’s fundamental purpose will succeed and today here and now, wherever we are, cells of the universal church, we can rejoice in this, rejoice in the unity of the mystical body and in the promise of eternal life.