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Corpus Christi:  The Meal that Transforms

Several years ago I saw a movie that has since become one of my all-time favorites.  Babette’s Feast is the story of a young woman who had fled the political turmoil in her native France.  She found refuge in a Danish village, and there she lived among townspeople who were generous in giving her shelter and work.  On the one hand, however, they were stoic and humorless, and outwardly they were oil portraits of upright people.  But there was another side to them as well.  They were the sort of people who never forgot a personal slight and would happily spend half a life-time nursing a grudge.

Babette’s escape from this dreary existence finally came in the form of a lottery ticket;  but to everyone’s surprise she didn’t leave after all.  Instead, in gratitude I suppose, she used the winnings to prepare for her neighbors the finest feast of their lives.

31C9C0F2-5576-4029-922E-D27A0B8B5383So she sent away for all sorts of expensive ingredients, and along with them came fine French wines and champagne.  And with each delivery the suspicions of her neighbors grew darker and deeper.  They became the embodiment of the definition of Puritanism that H. L. Mencken once provided:  Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”

Not surprisingly, the villagers fit the definition.  And so as the day of the dinner approached they agreed among themselves not to enjoy a single morsel of food or sip of wine.  They were determined to resist any temptation to slip into joy.

None of this worked of course, and their iron resolve melted away as they began to taste the first bite of food.  They soon began to savor the flavor, and the wine began to bring color to their cheeks.  Even more shocking, they began to warm to each other.  They owned up to sins they had committed against each other and asked forgiveness.  They also forgave long-cherished hurts.  And by the time the dinner was over they had become new people.  The meal had transformed them because the meal was Eucharistic.

I’ve recalled this movie to some of my confreres on several occasions, and I do so again today for two reasons.  The first is personal.  Twenty-five years ago, at graduation in this church, Saint John’s conferred an honorary doctorate on Christopher de Hamel, who is a noted manuscript scholar at Cambridge University.  In the intervening years I became good friends with Christopher and his Danish wife Mette, whose family owned the property on which many scenes from Babette’s Feast were filmed.  Sadly, Mette died a few days ago.  Mette never fit that Danish stereotype, because in fact she was the most joyful Dane I’ve ever met.  So I hope that along with me you will remember Mette in this Eucharist today.

BD31C927-EB5D-40B2-A407-C19E5BC7427BThat’s the first reason for recalling Babette’s Feast.  The second reason is liturgical.  Today we celebrate Corpus Christi, the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In that context it’s worth recalling what the movie has to say about the power of any meal, and about this meal in particular.  A meal can transform the lives of the people who eat it, and no meal has greater power to do that than the Eucharist.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are days when participation in the Eucharist can seem routine and empty.  It can seem lifeless and even boring.  When that happens there is no sense of the sacred.  And when that happens it’s a bit of a tragedy, I think.  At the very least we have to wonder what else in our lives has lost its meaning.  Have we lost any sense of ourselves as sacred people created in God’s image?  Have we lost our sense of wonder and awe about ourselves and God’s creation?

So it is that today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christ as a once-a-year reminder to take for granted neither the Eucharist nor anything else about life.  When Jesus gave himself for us he meant that gift to be life-giving and life-changing.  He meant it to be one of those moments when we pinch ourselves and realize what a privilege it is to savor life once more.  Life with all its gifts and opportunities and challenges is too short and precious to be wasted.  Every moment provides an opportunity to get the most out of the life we’ve been given.

C4C998C1-9990-4556-B992-4700A13F1F3BIn the final scene of Babette’s Feast the villagers step out into the crisp night air.  Physically they leave the meal every bit the same people they had been when they stepped into Babette’s dining room.  But spiritually and emotionally the meal had transformed them.  Fresh from the experience, one of the diners glanced up to the stars and marveled at what she saw.  “The stars seem brighter tonight,” she said.  To which another responded:  “Perhaps they always were, but we just never noticed before.”

Just as in Babette’s Feast, in this Eucharist we take the body and blood of the Lord and let the experience of that eating transform us.  In doing so the Lord invites us to open our eyes to possibilities within us that perhaps we’ve never noticed or forgotten about.  He then confirms that he walks with us until the very last step of our earthly pilgrimage.  Then he reminds us of our power — our capacity — to use or leave on the table the gifts we’ve been given.  And finally he calls us to use those gifts for the transformation of each and every moment of our lives.

You and I are most certainly biological creatures, but in taking the body and blood of Christ we confess that we are sacred creations as well.  You and I are tabernacles of the sacred.  We are temples of God’s life in a world that needs constant awakening to the sacred.

It’s a noble calling that the Lord extends to us.  But with that call comes a promise.  The Lord promises to walk with us every day.  And so we pray that God, who began this journey with us, will bring us safely home to a new and even more wonderful life with Him him his kingdom.  Amen.

DA5261E1-B359-437A-90C5-20090B7EED86NOTES

+On Sunday June 23nd I presided at the abbey Mass.  It was the feast of Corpus Christi, and today’s post is the transcription of that sermon.

+On June 16th I flew to New York to attend a meeting and visit with some friends.  The trip there was fine, but the trip home was anything but.  One highlight was a four-hour delay at LaGuardia, followed by another 45 minutes on the runway.  When we arrived in Minneapolis the pilot noted that they had added insult to injury by parking another plane at our gate.  Thankfully I will now be home for several weeks.

+On June 22st our confrere Fr. Jerome Coller passed away after a long battle with cancer.  Fr. Jerome grew up in St. Paul and received his Ph.D. in music from Cornell University.  For most of his career he taught piano and composed music for our liturgies.

+On June 21st and 22nd I participated in the reunions at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.  Happily I got to visit with quite a few friends and spoke to the class of ‘64 at their class dinner.

+The grounds at Saint John’s are particularly beautiful these days, and topping the list of rarities is a clump of ladyslippers blooming in the abbey garden.

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Corpus Christi:  A Reflection

[The following is the text of a sermon I delivered on the Feast of Corpus Christi at Saint John’s Abbey, 18 June 2017.]

In my idle moments I’ve sometimes wondered what we’ll do to keep ourselves busy for all eternity in the kingdom of the Lord.  Fortunately I’m not blessed with the ambition to be on the entertainment committee — the committee charged with keeping people happy and satisfied.  That’s akin to the job that Moses had for forty years in the desert, and I don’t think he found it all that fulfilling.

However, there’s one thing I know I would like to do in heaven, given half the chance.  That’s the chance to interview a few people who’ve played starring roles in the human story.  Certainly high on my list would be Moses who, if truth be told, is one of the reasons we are all here today.  Had Moses heard about the burning bush and simply rushed on by because he had deadlines to meet, then that would have been the end of the story.  But curiosity made him pause, and his curiosity has made all the difference for him and for us.

IMG_6428It was never easy for Moses.  First of all, he promised freedom to all who would follow him;  but on more than one occasion people seemed less than enthusiastic about following.  When faced with challenge and risk, they conjured up fond memories of a simpler life of slavery in Egypt.  More than once they complained about the food, about the indecisive leadership, and about the hazards of a hostile environment and people.  To put it simply, they preferred the devil whom they did know to the devils they were sure they would meet in the wilderness.  And for Moses, who had spoken with God and had lived to tell the tale, it had to be exasperating.  These people he tried to lead had defied him at every turn, and he must have believed they deserved whatever punishment the Lord had sent their way.  Conversely, Moses must have marveled at the mercy God showered on a people that scarcely deserved mercy.  In short, Moses must have grown impatient both with his people and perhaps even with God.

In today’s reading from Deuteronomy Moses speaks to his people as their wanderings are just about over.  It’s been forty years, and they stand on the brink of the promised land.  And in one of his last big sermons Moses reminds everyone of what’s happened to them in the course of forty years in the desert.  For one thing, most of those who had left Egypt had long since died.  And Moses knew that even he would not cross into the promised land.  It was an entirely new people that stood before him.  Before him stood the children and grandchildren of the pioneers who had taken those hesitant steps out of Egypt.  For forty years the desert experience had shaped them, and manna had nourished them.  Perhaps the change had come upon them so slowly that they had scarcely noticed;  but they who were once no people had now become the people of God.

IMG_6414Now they stood at the threshold of the promised land.  Could they sustain the covenant — the commitment they had made with God at Mount Sinai?  Only time would tell.  But of one thing they could be sure.  God would walk with them.  God would nourish them.  God would never desert them.  God would continue to transform each and every one of them.

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi — the feast of the body and blood of Christ.  In our opening prayer we spoke of the mysteries of Christ’s body and blood, and it’s truly right to speak of it as a mystery.  It’s mystery in part because the Eucharist is bigger than anything we can imagine.  The First Letter to the Corinthians speaks of it as a participation in the body and blood of Christ.  It is Jesus Christ with us, and we believe his presence is real and not metaphorical.  And so we reverence the body and blood of Christ as we keep vigil in prayer before it.  But we also take and eat, just as the Lord Jesus commanded us.  And in that eating we become one with the Lord.

IMG_6454In a few minutes we will once again call down God’s blessing and pray for the transformation of our gifts of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  And then we will take and eat, and Jesus will once again become food for our journey.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve received and fed on the body and blood of Christ in the course of my life.  What I can say with surety is that the degrees of intensity of the experience have varied.  Sometimes I’ve been blessed to realize the enormity of what I was doing.  At other times it’s been an almost unconscious experience.  But every now and again I feel blessed with the insight of what God continues to do to and with me on my pilgrimage of life.  By now my pilgrimage has been longer than the forty years in the desert, and yet I’m also keenly aware that my pilgrimage is far from over.  God continues to pull me — and you — along, just as God led those Hebrews wandering in the desert.

In a few moments we will stand to repeat the Nicene Creed.  Much like the Hebrews did before Moses, so we must decide whether we will continue to uphold our part in the covenant.  Will we walk with God or wander off now and again?  Simple curiosity might justify the journey.  The emptiness of alternative paths might argue in favor of the wisdom of walking with God.  But we have to decide.

IMG_6405Should we decide to walk with God, our pilgrimage becomes a statement of faith.  It is our belief that God walks with us and gives us food for the journey.  The Lord sustains us in good times and in bad.  And just as the Lord has already done great things for us, so will the Lord continue to do great things through us.  This is our faith.  May God make strong that faith in us.

Notes

+On June 17th I and my confrere Brother Neal drove to Onamia, MN, to attend the diaconate ordination of Brother Alex Juguilon, OSC.  Alex is a member of the Crosier community there, and he did his seminary studies at Saint John’s.  Despite the fact that their priory is only 65 miles away, and I’ve known several members of their community through the years, this was my first visit.  It was definitely worth the trip.

+On Sunday June 18th I presided at the Abbey Mass at Saint John’s, and the sermon that I delivered serves as today’s post.  Some months ago I decided that I just did not have the time — nor the imagination — to write a second reflection for my blog.  So on the occasion when I’ve prepared a sermon, it now does double duty.

+The photos in today’s post show scenes from the monastic garden, behind the monastery.  It is particularly lush and green this year, and at the moment the ladyslippers are in bloom.  They are the state flower of Minnesota, and we are fortunate to have them scattered around the property.   On another note, I do not aspire to be a wildlife photographer, but I could scarcely resist the turkey who strolled by me in the course of taking these pictures.  Most mornings and evenings we see turkeys cutting through the garden, and they seem reasonably tolerant of our presence.

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