Today is appointed in the calendar as a day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion. Appended to that description are the Latin words by which the Thursday after Trinity Sunday is more commonly known among those who actually celebrate it — Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.
The festival day has been overlaid with all sorts of rite and ceremonial that emphasise a particular aspect of some beliefs, namely that the elements of bread and wine, after the priestly prayer of consecration really are the body and blood of Christ, and therefore are to be adored in the same way that we might adore Christ or a relic of Christ. For Anglicans this kind of behaviour has to contend with Article 28 which contains these words
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
The history of this day is that it commemorates the Last Supper. Maundy Thursday also commemorates the Supper, but coming in Holy Week and beginning the great Three Days of the paschal feast, there are other things that rightly take priority. So with the three paschal days complete, and the fifty days of Eastertide complete, and the old week (or octave) of Pentecost complete, this is the first Thursday available for the commemoration. Pentecost no longer has an octave of its own, being regarded as the last day of Eastertide rather than primarily a feast in its own right, but the Thursday after Trinity Sunday is too well-established to move the commemoration a week earlier.
After the Reformation the feast ceased to be celebrated in the Church of England. Not until Newman wrote Tract 90 of the Oxford Movement’s Tracts for the Times was a serious argument made against the interpretation of Article 28. Newman argued that the Article did not forbid the reservation of the Sacrament, it just said that it was not created by ‘Christ’s ordinance’. This argument led many Anglo-Catholic parishes to restore Reservation of the Sacrament, and to introduce Corpus Christi processions and adoration.
So what, as Anglicans, should we celebrate this day?
The clue is in the title given the day in Common Worship: a day of thanksgiving for the institution of Holy Communion. We give thanks for the existence of Holy Communion. In his book Dining in the Kingdom of God (Archdiocese of Chicago, 1994), Roman Catholic priest Eugene LaVerdiere argues that rather than focusing on the Last Supper as the institution of the eucharist, we would do better to remember that the origins of the eucharist lie in a long and complex series of events that has the Last Supper … as their climax. LaVerdiere recognises that we may not consider all the meals in the gospel to necessarily be celebrations of the eucharist, but ‘they all have something to say about the eucharist’.
Sadly, the eucharist, and our understanding of it, can be a very divisive thing. One does not have to look very far to find some who find it largely unnecessary (or at least, that it is unnecessary to celebrate it very often), and on the other hand some who think that a priest saying particular words over bread and wine is the essence of the Church. No doubt I paraphrase each position a little unfairly — if so I apologise. But my point is that even if this is an unfair representation of what each believes, it is how the other perceives them.
How do we escape from this? The view expressed in this blog is that the eucharist is indeed fundamental to our life as Christians; that where the eucharist is, there the Church is; that the frequent celebration of the eucharist is given us as a means of growth and nurture. But it is also our view that this does not necessarily mean the eucharist as we have come to know it; how it exists today as a ritualized, vestigial meal, almost separated from real food and drink, in danger of separation from a real understanding of the presence of the living Christ. Our devotion to the eucharist compels us to consider a third way, in which we look for a real bible-based sacramentality, combining it with a traditional focus on its centrality (envisaged of course by that Archbishop whom Anglo-Catholics love to hate, Thomas Cranmer), and bringing to bear our God-given reason to try and reconcile these views.
And as we have said before, our eucharistic joy compels us to go out unto the world and share that joy by helping to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free the oppressed.
That said, I shall, with slightly gritted teeth, be swinging a thurible later today in a Corpus Christi procession, complete with rose petals, canopy et al. Hmmm.