A Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Daniel Dries
The Feast of Corpus Christi
Christ Church St Laurence – 15 June 2017
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight: O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
On Sunday the 21st March 1982, this Parish, Christ Church St Laurence, staged something mysteriously described as a ‘Liturgical Dance-Drama’. This spectacle was not a fringe event of the Sydney Festival, or any other significant community event. Rather, this ‘Liturgical Dance-Drama’ was staged during the High Mass on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 35 years ago. The ‘Liturgical DanceDrama’ was directed and choreographed by the magnificently named Miss Dolly de Guise and, as I look around the church this evening, I see one or two others whose names appear in the credits. I won’t name and shame them, but they may care to identify themselves after this Mass. The programme for this rare event states, ‘Emotions and concepts are expressed and conveyed through the powerful and dramatic or subtle use of the total body including facial and hand expressions’. Liturgical Dance may still be experienced today, though not in this parish church, at least, not to my knowledge. Liturgical Dance, which could claim some precedent in the Jewish Scriptures, was not uncommon in Roman Catholic liturgy, particularly in the 1970s and 80s. Nowadays, a bunch of young women or men interpreting the sacred liturgy, using their entire bodies, and draped in pale blue bedsheets would probably be considered a little embarrassing, and perhaps even rather uncouth. It is easy to view liturgical dance, and similar expressions of the Christian faith with disdain, without stopping to consider that many would look upon our liturgy as ridiculously emotional and, dare I say, uncouth. Liturgical dance may be rather uncommon in 2017, although the practice of raising a hand or two while singing a chorus is alive and well, particularly in the more Pentecostal traditions. But have you stopped to think that raising a hand, or expressing oneself through dance, is not really that different from what we do in this church every single day of the year? Whenever we have a procession; whenever we genuflect or bow; we are using our whole bodies to express the faith that it is within us. Of course, it’s not uncouth, because it’s all done with supremely good taste and refinement… at least, we think it is.
Today, we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi; the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. In the eyes of some, this is surely the most ‘uncouth’ of all feast days, so much so that its title and associated imagery have been deliberately toned-down. The Lectionaries of the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Australia now refer to this feast day as the ‘The Thanksgiving for the Holy Communion’. Martin Luther expressed his views rather directly in a homily, as he wrote: ‘I am to no festival more hostile… than this one. Because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed, than on this day, and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes only play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness, it conflicts with Christ’s order and establishment. Because He never commanded us to carry on like this. Therefore, beware of such worship!’ 2 One shudders to imagine what Luther may have said concerning liturgical dance. Luther is correct in his assertion that Our Lord did not command his disciples to ‘carry on’ in this emotional and arguably uncouth manner. And yet, what could be more uncouth and embarrassing than Christ’s own words in John Chapter 6. ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’ 2000 years of Christian experience may have lessened the impact of just how confronting and offensive this statement was. Jews were forbidden to eat meat with blood still in it, owing to the fear that an animal would somehow enter a human body. The suggestion of feasting on human blood and flesh would have been even more repellent. In the Greco-Roman world, the blood of gladiators would be consumed by others to cure them of various afflictions. If this makes you feel a little squeamish, you’re probably just starting to get a hint of how the Jews would have felt when Christ talked about giving his flesh and blood for others to consume. Of course, he is speaking metaphorically—this is not some claim of cannibalism. Christ is speaking in the most powerfully and emotive way possible about the giving of himself—body, mind and spirit—as an assurance of divine love for humankind. In what may be deliberately confronting and even uncouth language, Christ tells his followers that he will hold nothing back as he demonstrates God’s love for them. In this most profound sacrament, Christ assures his followers that, through faith, they will experience his real presence—an extraordinary promise that demands an even more extraordinary response.
In a sermon very different from Luther’s, written a thousand years earlier, St Augustine explains the power of this sacrament with supreme clarity: ‘These things, my sisters and brothers, are called sacraments, because our eyes see in them one thing, and our understanding another. Our eyes see a material reality; our understanding perceives its spiritual effect.’ As we attempt to express the faith that is within us, we must accept that what is beautiful, reverent and meaningful to us may seem ridiculous and uncouth to others. However, on this day, when we give thanks that Christ gave himself unreservedly to his disciples in the form of bread and wine, we also offer ourselves unreservedly. We rely on symbols and gestures when we run out words to express the love that is within us. We use our bodies, because we know the limitations and frustration of worshipping only with our minds. What Luther may have appropriately described in his context as ‘play-acting’ is to us sincere and utter devotion. It is not idolatry. Rather, it is our total outpouring of love for the one who held nothing back when expressing his love for us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.