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The Body of Christ

An address by Fr John Slater

22 June 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

Over the past two months we have been caught up in a long series of festivals, each of which focuses in a unique way on the great mystery of our Lord’s death and resurrection. First we had Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day, then came Ascension, Pentecost and Trinity. And now the Trinity Season stretches before us over the next five months until we start the cycle again with Advent Sunday. For twenty years, between 1980 and 2000, the Church of England renamed these Sundays after Trinity as Sundays after Pentecost. I liked that because it is surely right to see the fruit of our Lord’s death and resurrection as the outpouring of the Spirit and the creation of the Church. Our focus in the coming months is not so much believing the right things but rather doing the right things and living in the right way.

But there is one festival we have missed out because it is only found in the 1928 revision of the Prayer Book and not in the old Prayer Book of 1662, the Feast of Corpus Christi which fell last Thursday. It’s a day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of the Eucharist and it is kept on a Thursday to remind us of Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave us this sacramental sign in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. Of course, on Maundy Thursday our thoughts are dominated by the Lord’s approaching death, so Corpus Christi is given to us as a day when we can give our full attention to the wonder that is this sacrament of the Lord’s indwelling presence.

But this phrase, Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, means a number of different things. First, there is the physical body of the Lord, born of the Virgin Mary, put to death at Calvary, and raised in glory on the third day. Then there is the sacramental body which we receive in the Eucharist, both the sign and the instrument of the Lord fulfilling his promise to be with us to the end of time. But then there is also the mystical Body of Christ which is us - the Church - the community of Christian believers in whom the Lord dwells through the Spirit and by means of which he is active in the world today.

This sense of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ has a central place in the writings of St Paul but it was only in the twentieth century that its importance was increasingly recognised almost simultaneously by Roman Catholic, Protestant and Anglican theologians. It started with Bishop Gore’s book The Body of Christ, and then Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Communion of Saints, and finally Pope Pius XII’s Encyclical Letter On the Mystical Body of Christ.

So here we are, at the end of this great cycle of feasts, a people seeking to enter more deeply into the mystery of the Lord’s death and resurrection. We are identified with Jesus Christ through our baptism; we are filled by the Holy Spirit and nourished spiritually as we feed on Christ in the holy Eucharist; we are members of his mystical Body, the Church. Like St Theresa, we learn that Christ has no hands on earth now but ours; ours are the feet by which he must visit the sick and needy and ours the eyes through which he looks in compassion on the world; ours is the heart through which his love now seeks expression.

At this point of the year there is a tremendous sense of over to you. All that can be done for us has been done for us by Jesus Christ, but we are not merely passive in this process of redemption. We have a job of our own to do.

In baptism, we receive the Spirit; we are also given a commission to live the Christ-like life. In the Eucharist we are fed by the sacramental Body and Blood of the Lord; we are also transformed by what we eat and drink to become ourselves the mystical Body of Christ, his presence in the world today. Just as we know ourselves redeemed by Christ, so we also know that we must take up the task of bringing others to this saving grace.

We must use this second half of the Church’s year to grow in active response to all that has been given to us and all that has been done for us. Christ has no other hands than ours.
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