St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Corpus Christi, 2009

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Jesus said : He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

Today we celebrate and give thanks to God for the institution of the Mass, the way in which Our Lord Jesus Christ, the night before he died, gave us a way of making remembrance of his saving work.  The church throughout the world keeps a high festival.  We are back to Maundy Thursday and we have the chance to contemplate it’s meaning for us.

From a simple celebration of the Passover meal in which Our Lord recast the Passover for all time with new significance and meaning; from a simple celebration has developed a liturgy, a service accruing, extra bits to itself, extra devotions and undergoing reform and renewal through the centuries.   The danger for aesthetes is that like St Augustine says in his confessions ; ‘…we fall on those lovely things which he has created’ but fail to perceive the truth to which they point beyond themselves.

To my mind, the mass should always have the mood of a contemplation, without fuss and busy-ness.  We get too wrapped up in what we do, forgetting that the protagonist, the initiator of our salvation is in fact God.  It is God who is reaching out to us, to do something to us.  What we are doing is making ourselves available to God, by being present here, using gesture and ritual, music, giving voice to his words of love so that we may receive him, so that he may impinge on our lives, on who we are.  We recall what he did then and we make ourselves present to him now so that we undergo God in the present.

We are back to that word I spoke about on Palm Sunday: anamnesis, remembrance : recalling sacred events, mysteries, what happened then so that we can undergo it now.   If we see the mass as an extended contemplation making remembrance it is full of deep meaning.

The Entrance of the Celebrant, in a Solemn Mass preceded by incense and lights, by the book of the Gospels in procession, we make remembrance, we commemorate the Incarnation.

The heavenly word proceeding forth
yet leaving not the Father’s side…

as the hymn by St Thomas Aquinas has it.     Or as the midnight mass hymn puts it:

Forth from that chamber goeth he
That royal home of purity
A giant in twofold substance one
Rejoicing now his course to run.

The unbegotten Son enters into the world to complete his Father’s work, by gathering all to himself, and inaugurating a new culture of gratuitous love.

In the renewed rite of the mass, here follows the confession, the Penitential Rite. Here we commemorate the Baptism of Jesus.  This is hugely significant.  It is not to get it over and done with and out of the way as John Macquarrie thought in his book, Paths in Spirituality.  It is a thing in itself, a celebration.  We recall Christ’s baptism by which he joins us in our sinfulness and we are baptised and so identified, united with him.  We are gathered together not as the good, but as those who are being forgiven, those being set free.  We find our solidarity with one another and all Creation that is being brought to life.   Identified with Christ we also receive our vocation with him.  Yes this is who we are.  We are Christ’s Body.  This is our primary identity.   We have been gathered together by forgiveness and by our need of God.

Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy, opens our hearts to receive God’s forgiveness.  We don’t ask forgiveness so that God will respond and then forgive us.  In the film Shadow lands, Anthony Hopkins plays CS Lewis who is asked by a fellow don why he is always praying.  Obviously Joy, his wife, is now dying and will not recover.  He replies that he prays not because it changes God, but because it changes him.  Asking forgiveness opens us up and it flows into the ancient hymn of praise, the Gloria. 

The Collect is the Opening Prayer of the Mass, recalling the theme of the day, expressing the corporate desire of the church and giving us and teaching us our true desire.  Today we pray that we may always perceive in this sacrament the means and fruit of our redemption beyond the sign.

In the Liturgy of Word which follows we commemorate the Ministry of Jesus, his teaching work.  Here, as in all parts of the mass, we believe that Jesus is bringing about his culture of grace, the ‘kingdom of God’, which is other than the kingdoms and cultures of this world.  An Old Testament lesson to start about how God was present and steadily revealing himself over time, followed by a New Testament lesson in which the apostles were mulling over and trying to make sense of what had happened to them, the terms with which help you and me to begin to make sense of the Good News.  The Liturgy of the Word culminates in the Gospel reading in which Jesus addresses us.  The Gospel reading is preceded by an Alleluia – we rejoice in anticipation of Jesus addressing us directly.  We say ‘Glory be to thee, O Lord’ in direct speech.  We address Jesus. 

Following the Sermon in which a theme is drawn out and made applicable to us in our life’s situation.  We then say YES in the Creed.  I believe in this kind of faithful God.  This is not saying I believe that such a God exists.  I am saying I put my whole trust in this true God.  And in the Intercessions we, as his Church, are giving voice to our need and desire for this true God, entrusting the Church, the world, all those in need and the departed to his unfailing mercy.

The Liturgy of the Sacrament is in three parts which correspond to the self-giving of Jesus on Calvary; his perfect intercession before the Father and the Sacred Feast.  

The self-giving sacrifice of Jesus, Calvary, looks back to the offerer bringing an animal to the temple, slaughtering it and doing what ever was needed to prepare before offering it to the priest.  The Offertory procession bringing forward gifts corresponds to this offering and is the commemoration or memorial of Calvary.   In the Orthodox churches the deacon solemnly brings the gifts of bread and wine in procession in what is known as the Great Entrance.  In the Sarum Rite it was brought by a deacon wearing a humeral veil for it is already hostia, the Victim.  We unite ourselves by offering the fruit of the earth and human labour, together with ourselves, all that we are, and have and do.  Our money too.  Remember the woman in the temple who threw in all she had.

The Eucharistic Prayer is the priestly mediation of the offering in the temple.  What is offered is given thanks over by the priest, presented to the Father ‘who looks on us as only found in him’ – as the hymn says.  We are in the Holy of Holies of the temple – that place in the temple which represented before Creation, outside time, where Isaiah saw a vision in the year that king Uzziah died.   We are united with Jesus in his heavenly intercession, we are present with, and in Him, before the Father.  If you read through Orthodox Eucharistic prayers they have a tremendous sense of a being in a vision, a theophany, of basking in the joy of the presence of God, endless praise.  (It is debatable whether the beautiful, majestic cadences and language of the  prayer book words with so much ‘unworthiness’ and ‘not presuming’ convey this or not.)  We are in a vision, an encounter between God and man, and we are caught up with Jesus after his Ascension offering praise with the whole company of heaven before the Lamb for ever slain – as the book of the Apocalypse/Revelation tells us.  

The third act of the Liturgy of the Sacrament looks back to the temple priest sharing with the offerer the sacred feast in Holy Communion.   Here we are with the heavenly host at the heavenly banquet.  It is an anticipation and it is now.  We are already there but not yet.   Christ our Lord shares his life with us, his self-giving love and life, so that we, sharing in it, may live the same kind of life of self-giving love, so that we may become like him, our lives an offering of praise and service.

After a Post-Communion prayer we are then Blessed and dismissed.

Throughout there is constant movement.  Taking time and not rushing is important.   From out of this great act of worship various other forms of contemplative worship have grown by etension.   The offices of the church, of which evensong in Anglicanism is a jewel, are an extension of the liturgy of the Word, enabling us to be addressed by the words and experience of the God of our forebears in salvation history, to savour and form us.   Thus, over time, we are being folded into a greater story, the story of salvation history which makes us see our lives and the life of the Church in a fuller, more accurate way.

Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament with which today’s liturgy will end is an extension of the Liturgy of the Sacrament, a useful means for contemplating how Jesus is still present with us, still feeding us, drawing us into his kingdom. The consecrated bread, the Host, the Saving Victim : Jesus is present to us.  We are invited to savour his presence with us without having to move on to the next thing. In this simple and beautiful devotion time stands still.  We sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving and prayers of intercession are addressed to him in his Sacramental Presence.  We achieve nothing.  This is what heaven is like: we bask – if you like – in the Real Presence of the One who sustains and holds us in being.

Word and Sacrament : ‘that seeing we may perceive, hearing we may understand’ the effect of God on us and bear fruit in our lives…. That we may perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption.

And all this is really quite simple.  We are opening ourselves, making ourselves available for God to reach into us and change us.  He is uniting himself with us so that we can be united with him.   For this we give thanks.  So we trust ourselves to his loving words : He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

To this true and ever loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be ascribed the praise, majesty, dominion and might of all our hearts, now and until the end of the ages.  Amen



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