1 Corinthians 10:16-17
Before my ordination, I had become immersed for eleven years in the art, literatures, and culture of the Middle Ages,
preparing for my career as a university professor.
This is a very rich world where one experienced an entire lifeworld committed to Christian faith
every man, woman, and child in every village and city all over the known world, mostly of Europe, honoring the Holy Trinity.
Few things expressed this universal devotion as clearly as depictions of
the Feast of Corpus Christi in medieval and medieval-revival paintings:
streets of every town and city dressed in preparation;
tapestries and arrases hung upon the city walls and store fronts to create a sense of sacred space;
preparations of flower petals set upon the streets where the Lord would walk;
crowds of people shouting "Hosanna in the highest" along the by-ways;
impromptu altars constructed along the way of the procession where liturgical honors might be performed.
Even grand reception areas were prepared in the great houses of the town where the Lord Jesus might be received as part of His royal progress. Following His reception there, He would emerge and continue His procession through the town, continuing to stop at altars, continuing to take pleasure in His people, continuing to be received at other Great Houses.
Was this some kind of medieval play like the Morality Plays for Mystery Plays, where Jesus might be represented by an actor? No, not at all! These were actual instances of the Lord Jesus coming out from the great churches and cathedrals to be near to His people, to receive their shouts of praise and adoration, to bestow upon them His royal blessing. And it happened at least once every year. "But how could this be?!" the modern mind objects. "Such a thing would not be impossible!" But the medieval mind replies, "No, not impossible at all. For the Lord Jesus is really and truly present to His people at each celebration of the Eucharist. Departing from the church to be closer to everyone in a corporate celebration is merely a gesture of His boundless generosity and love.
Much later in life,
leaving the United States,
where roughly one-half of practicing Roman Catholics believe that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist,
I arrived to Haiti and became immersed in a very different world.
And these cultural differences were most clearly evident in the Haitian practice of Catholic faith.
Nor did it take long to notice them.
The first morning after I arrived,
I walked to the local parish church to join in their celebration of the Holy Mass.
The seriousness and quiet on this weekday morning where palpable.
The priest, too, was serious and silent as he prepared himself for the sacred mysteries.
And as we approached the Canon of the Mass, I could feel a collective focus and intensity,
which culminated at the elevation of the host.
The celebrant raised the Precious Sacrament slowly and with a sense of awe.
And then, when he had reached its zenith,
he supported his right hand with his left hand clenching his right forearm,
to communicate to us the weight and power of what he displayed.
I glanced discreetly around the church and saw tears flowing down the faces of those who plainly and sincerely adored the Lord Jesus.
And tears began to well up in my own eyes at the sight of it.
I later told the religious sister I reported to,
"The world here makes sense to me.
I could live here for the rest of my life."
Months later, after my permanent place in this Community had been settled, I was excited to anticipate each next holy day and season. But I had no idea what treat was awaiting me on Corpus Christi Thursday. For on that day I was to leave my bedroom at the Franciscan religious house where I lived and disappeared into the Middle Ages. The town was dressed just like the towns and cities I had seen depicted through the windows of medieval and medieval-revival art: children had prepared little flower arrangements on the streets where the Lord's steps would pass; colorful blankets and bedspreads were hung as tapestries along walls and fences down the streets where the Lord's royal progress was expected to go; reception areas in the town's larger houses were prepared in courtyards; crowds shouting their joyful praise lined the streets everywhere along the expected route. Everyone was dressed in their Sunday best and scrubbed as clean as clean can ever get. And then beginning just after dawn, with all preparations having been made, the priest, (our parish priest, Fr. Gary, as it turned out) led a procession solemnly forward holding aloft a large monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament clearly visible for all to see. He duly acknowledged the waiting crowds. He stopped at the impromptu altars prepared along the way. He entered the great houses and their courtyards and then would emerge again. Well, it is not quiet right to say that Fr. Gary did. The Lord Jesus did. Fr. Gary was to accompany Him as the Lord's chaplain.
An anthropologist might ask, "Where in the world did all this come from? How could these medieval rites and observances survive whole-cloth in this remote little city on the edge of a rain forest, .... so distant from Haiti's capital, no less?" But, in my opinion, this is to ask the question backwards. For the great Feast of Corpus Christi has been celebrated this way for at least a thousand years. The question is not how did it appear in rural Haiti? But rather how did it disappear everywhere else in the modern and post-modern world where I had recently lived?
After all, wouldn't it be natural among Catholics to leave their routines and day-to-day preoccupations to run to see the Lord Jesus in His royal progress? Should we not expect an outpouring of love for the Lord — even every city and every town and village in Europe — whenever He might appear publicly? Wasn't this the reason that grand cathedrals were built? Because they are the dwelling places for the Lord Jesus under appearance of the Blessed Sacrament? And I still remember a world where men would make the sign of the cross whenever they passed a Catholic church because the Lord Jesus was present inside. (I recall a crusty, Army lifer who would salute each time he passed a church!) After all, did not Jesus Himself say, unless we countenance Him to be truly present in the Eucharist that we have no life within us? No life in us! Surely, this is an occasion to pay attention! But many of us believe that we know better. We are not comfortable with His divine commands, "This is my Body" and "Do this!" Indeed, many of His disciples, perhaps hundreds, abandoned Him during His lifetime over this very question.
Faith is a funny thing. It should proceed first from God's grace and then to the heart and then confirmed in the divine place within us that we call the soul, the only immortal and eternal "organ" we possess and our only personal connection to Heaven. But for so many people, the beginning and end of faith is determined by the complete ownership of these questions by the mind, by their powers of reason. And once slender reason, dominated as it is by materialism, empiricism, and the scientific method .... once reason has laid sole claim to this subject, the rest is predictable as people look around to see what others are saying and doing. And for this reason, I envy the children of Haiti, who watch the awe with which their parents approach God.
A little girl very dear to me used to sit on a kneeler Sunday mornings, working on her coloring books upon a pew in the Church of the Advent in Boston during Mass. She was silent and intent on her work but not unaware of the shifting moods around her through the changing scenes of the Holy Eucharist. One day she asked me in almost plaintive tones, "What's happening near the end? It gets so quiet. And the people begin to pray, and they're so serious. And then everyone gets up and leaves. And when they come back, everything is different, and they whisper more prayers, and you can hear them talking ... to God."
Yes, she was right. The people did all go away and then kneeled at the rail in order to encounter God. They approached with a sense of awe and then arose with a greater sense of awe. Truly, they had returned to their seats having been changed. But exactly how do you explain Holy Communion to a little girl? So I told her the literal truth. "The priest comes up and places a particle of God inside each of them." Yes, she thought. That must be it. Nothing else explain this.
We do well to take this exquisitely sensitive, little soul seriously.
We will learn far more from her than our puny reason could ever teach us on this subject.
May I conclude by reading the last phrases of our Epistle lesson this morning?
He "fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not [understand], that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end."
May I suggest that you quiet your thoughts and open your hearts?
For the Lord Jesus approaches to bestow His royal blessing.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit. Amen.