One of the traps into which religion can fall is that it often makes the thing into the thing signified. There is “God” — theological debates, Del Parson paintings, doctrinal pronouncements, even the scriptures — and there is “God above God,” the noumenal thing that is never quite the phenomenal thing.
So it often is with the sacrament. In 1264, Pope Urban IV introduced Corpus Christi to the liturgical calendar, a day on which to commemorate the Eucharist and particularly the transubstantiation of the Eucharist into the body and blood of Christ. In medieval times, the host was processed through the town in a golden pyx. Onlookers knelt down in reverence as the procession passed. This still happens in Catholic countries today.
Thus the trap is set: bread and wine (the thing) can too easily become the thing signified (the Corpus Christi) and it is no wonder that in England the festival fell foul of the iconoclasm of the Reformation.
We can rescue Corpus Christi from this iconoclasm, however. I believe in transubstantiation, that is I believe that the communal meal of the sacrament becomes the body of Christ. When Jesus proclaimed that “this is my body, this is my blood” he meant as much the meal enjoyed by his disciples as he was referring to his own flesh.
It works like this: The ritual partaking of the festal meal with friends and family, even strangers, regardless of status, is the real “remembrance” of Jesus’ body. As the Book of Common Prayer states, “The Lord is here,” but not in the bread and wine, but in the bread and wine partaken by the faithful. This is the miracle of transubstantiation. St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians makes all of this clear: In chapter 11 he tells us that bread is Christ’s body, in chapter 12 he tells us that this body is the community of Christians.
And this meal means more than the gaunt Eucharists of today. Corpus Christi was a time of great revelry, where Corpus Christi guilds organised grand carnivals and mystery plays. Many historians believe that such plays helped develop drama in England. On one Corpus Christi day in York in 1415, fifty-four plays were staged.
Contemporary Mormon revelry can often seem less exotic than all of this, but the ward social and roadshow, complete with potluck dinner, are delightfully low-brow assertions of Mormon sociality, and hearken back to the work of Corpus Christi guilds. Family reunion picnics, post-priesthood-session ice cream socials, and cultural hall wedding receptions are further symbols of social communion. When it extends to the Bishop’s storehouse too and excludes no-one, the vision of Zion is near.
This is the body of Christ.
The Collect: Father, who in the Sacrament have left us a memorial of your Son’s Passion, grant us, we pray, so to revere the communion of his Body and Blood that we may always experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption of all humankind. Amen.