St Andrew’s Croydon

13th June 2003

Corpus Christi

A Living Eucharist

This morning my sermon will be based, not on a text from the Bible, but on a poem.

The poem, by Evelyn Underhill, is called Corpus Christi – that is ‘the Body of Christ’ – and since today we are keeping that festival here at St Andrew’s it seemed particularly appropriate. Underhill was a Christian teacher widely known in the last century for her spiritual writings and for the retreats which she conducted

But first, a brief word about what poetry is and does.

It’s not, as many suppose, a long-winded way of saying what could be expressed much more briefly in ordinary words. One line of poetry can say what it takes several hundred words of prose to describe.

Here is an example: In Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard there comes the well-known line:

The paths of glory lead but to the grave.[8 words]

If you try and say in ordinary speech what those eight words describe it would come out as the following::

It is a well-known fact that however famous, or rich or successful we are, only one conclusion awaits every one of us at the end of our earthly life, and that is Death. [32 words or four times the number!]

But poetry has other advantages. Most of us find it possible to remember at least odd phrases of a poem more easily than its prosaic equivalent; and there are some things which can only be adequately understood by using it. Hence the importance of hymns and psalms in Christian Liturgy.

So here is Corpus Christi, by Evelyn Underhill:

Come, dear Heart!
The fields are white to harvest: come and see
As in a glass the timeless mystery
Of love, whereby we feed
On God, our bread indeed.

The poet is talking to her inmost being – her Soul or Spirit. That’s not the same as ‘talking to oneself’ which all of us do sometimes. Talking to one’s Spirit is only possible for those who believe that they have a Soul, something quite distinct from Mind or Body. Our soul is what enables us to relate to our Creator. So only someone who, like a Christian, a Muslims or a Jew, who believes that God exists and that He can and does relate to us, can truly be said to ‘talk to his soul’.

For all these faiths hold one belief in common – that God, as part of his design for humanity, has implanted in every one of us a different soul which it is our responsibility, by using the means of grace he has given us, to safeguard, educate and nourish throughout our earthly life. If we neglect to do so in this life then we shall never be able to ‘glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ which, we believe, is the Chief End for which He created us.

The timeless mystery of love, whereby we feed on God our bread indeed’. The Bread of Heaven is what God gives us in the Mass. ‘I am the living bread that came down from Heaven’, said Jesus, if anyone eats of this bread he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

The poem continues:

Torn by the sickles, see him share the smart
Of travailing Creation: maimed, despised,
Yet by his lovers the more dearly prized
Because for us he lays his beauty down -

Last toll paid by perfection for our loss!
Trace on these fields his everlasting Cross,
And o'er the stricken sheaves the Immortal Victim's crown

Here Christians have to part company with Jews and Muslims. Our faith teaches us that Jesus Christ is not just another Good Man, or a Prophet or a Healer, but God Himself. Hence, when he took flesh of the Virgin Mary and became Man it was the Centre-point of the whole act of Creation. This he did so that, not just Mankind, but the whole of Creation might be rescued from the consequences of the First Adam’s sin by the Second Adam (who ‘to the fight and to the rescue came’). He laid his beauty down and, as Perfect Man ‘paid the last toll’ (or debt), on our behalf. His Cross and Crown are both indelibly stamped upon the Bread and Wine on which we feed. Not only do they remind us what he did for us, but they are the very means whereby we can associate ourselves with that work of redemption – by identifying ourselves with ‘his presence and his very self and essence all divine’.

From far horizons came a Voice that said,
'Lo! from the hand of Death take thou thy daily bread.'
Then I, awakening, saw
A splendour burning in the heart of things:
The flame of living love which lights the law
Of mystic death that works the mystic birth.
I knew the patient passion of the earth,
Maternal, everlasting, whence there springs
The Bread of Angels and the life of man.

Once we realise the connection between Jesus Christ and ourselves, the poet says, a whole lot of other things start falling into place. It’s like when we awake from sleep, perhaps after having had a vivid dream, and say to ourselves ‘Ah! Now I see!’ Or like St Paul after his experience before Damascus Gate, ‘the scales fall from our eyes’ our blindness is cured, our sight restored’.

At the very heart of reality resides an ever-burning flame of living love, which enables us to see our birth, suffering, self-fulfilment, death and resurrection in an entirely different light. The ‘patient passion of the earth’ which we all experience in our everyday lives, comes to be seen, not as a haphazard series of random (and often painful!) experiences, which is how most humans regard it, but the means whereby we, are enabled by God to be restored to wholeness or health. ‘I reckon that the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed hereafter’ writes St Paul. We’re like patients in a hospital which exists for the sole purpose of enabling us to ‘be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’ The Church is to act as our compassionate and gentle Mother who seeks to make the pain involved in our progression to perfection our ‘growing into Christ’ as bearable as possible.

In her final verse, Evelyn Underhill sums up the process which St Paul describes to his disciples as ‘ present[ing] your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which isy our reasonable service’. Little by little we come to see with the poet that ‘in each blade’ there is ‘the glory of God’s growth’, and realise that even in the most humdrum of life’s experiences, in the most ordinary people, and in the most apparently meaningless misfortunes, God is at work, reconciling the world to himself through Jesus Christ. Everything, but everything can be brought by us to the ‘Altar of the Cross’ whereon he, ‘whose Body hath redeemed our loss’ will, incorporate it, or gather it up into ‘that one oblation of himself once offered – the full perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.’

Now in each blade
I, blind no longer, see
The glory of God's growth: know it to be
An earnest of the Immemorial Plan.
Yea, I have understood
How all things are one great oblation made:
He on our altars, we on the world's rood.
Even as this corn,
We are snatched from the sod;
Reaped, ground to grist,
Crushed and tormented in the Mills of God,
And offered at Life's hands, a living Eucharist

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