Dr. Ferlo is the President of the Bexley Seabury Federation.
Pope Urban IV usually receives the credit for getting us here in church on a Thursday evening that’s not even in Holy Week.
Miraculous is the memorial … in which the sign is renewed and the wonderful things are transformed, in which is contained all delight, in which certainly we obtain support of life and salvation.
With these words, promulgated on a midsummer’s day in thirteenth-century Rome, this feast was officially launched. St. Thomas Aquinas soon gave the collect and prayers their requisite theological heft, and the great composers and hymn writers and psalmists over the centuries gave Thomas’ Eucharistic theology memorable voice.
All this constitutes what we might call the official story.
But the official story is incomplete? It was not a powerful medieval pope but an obscure lay woman who first insisted that we mark this feast, and she did so in spite of the initial resistance of a wary male hierarchy. Juliana of Cornillon was her name, from the Belgian town of Liege, where Urban himself had once served as archdeacon. Juliana was a beguine— one of the most remarkable of those hundreds of equally remarkable and for the most part equally obscure Christian women who led lives of prayer and service on the fringes of the official church. Not canonized until the mid-nineteenth century, by another pope who knew something about the power of symbols, Juliana labored as a nurse in a leper hospital, as far from the seat of papal power as it was possible for a woman to be. But she was a visionary in a day when visionaries might still be trusted. And a strange vision it was that brought us to this day .
“I tell you,’ says her early biographer, ‘that a moon appeared to her in its splendor, with a little break in part of its sphere.” The vision repeated itself every year for twenty years, until finally, we are told that
the Christ revealed to her that the Church was in the moon, and that the missing part of the moon stood for the absence of one feast in the church, which he would want his faithful to celebrate on the earth.” (Rubin 1991, p. 170)
“The Church was in the moon.” Let the strangeness of that phrase sink in for a moment. That bizarre reading of a cosmic vision paradoxically points us back to ordinary earth, to 13th century Liege and 21st century Beacon Hill. Here we are, 850 years later, with the moon again in partial shadow, gathered in this splendid place to mark a feast that celebrates neither Juliana, nor Pope Urban, nor Friar Thomas Aquinas, but the very Body of Christ of which all three were members, as are we—the body of Christ made manifest in the material mystery of this Eucharist.
We mark this feast this evening in a world far different from Juliana’s. We are dwarfed by an infinite and expanding cosmos no longer legible to us in anything like the way it was legible to her, a cosmos about which the more we know the less we understand. We stand perplexed by a lot more now than mere shadows in the moon. You wonder what Juliana would have made of deep time, or dark matter, or dark energy, or the curvature of space: would she have tried to discern in the darker parts of the cosmos a divine story that matters? “We live in an old chaos of the sun”, Wallace Stevens wrote in “Sunday Morning”, that most post-Christian of poems, “or island solitude, unsponsored, free…” Is that really all? In such a time and such a space, when old myths, old stories, seem inadequate to make legible a cosmos at once so visible and so opaque, where are we to turn? Where are we to look?
Well, we start by looking here. We should be thankful to Juliana. To look up, it was revealed to her that she had to look down, to look outward, she had to look inward, to attend to things heavenly, she had to attend to things earthly— to the altar of the local church where bread is broken and wine is poured, to the festive gathering of Christ’s people in the humble streets of a market town, to ordinary people for whom the eating of that bread and the drinking of that wine makes manifest the presence of Christ among us, in the church which is his body, Christ’s body here, absurdly here, on this otherwise insignificant blue speck of wind and dirt and molten rock, floating in the cosmic vastness.
No wonder Corpus Christi processions developed early on. Nothing is more down to earth than a parade. I understand there is a lovely one planned, when the path of the Sacrament will be strewn with rose petals. Church processions are designed to reveal a lot about ourselves and about the world, although sometimes they reveal more than we intend. Unlike the cosmos, our earthly processions can be all too legible. Processions like the one we will form in a few moments assert the value of hierarchy and order in a world gone mad. You might also say that the lavish but reverent display of hierarchy and order is one of the Advent’s key selling points in a shrinking Episcopal marketplace. You even persuaded the bishop to dance the sacred choreography this evening. I was able to access the Advent customary for Corpus Christi on the parish website. It is a masterwork of liturgical planning—hierarchy and order on steroids.
But the orderly arrangements this Corpus Christi procession will display are something of an historical anomaly, and may even work against us.
For a good part of their history many local Corpus Christi processions were notorious for upending order and hierarchy, as various medieval trade guilds and pious sodalities vied for better position in the line-up, sometimes resorting to violence to ensure their rightful place in the street pecking order.
This should come as no surprise. The Eucharist has a sobering ability to reveal our cherished hierarchies as the oppressive jockeying for precedence that they often are. The Eucharist is the great leveler of hierarchies. I suspect Juliana knew this—the church hierarchy never really cottoned to women who joined the beguines. Paul knew this too. What infuriated him about the church gathered in Corinth was the way the powerful were lording it over the weak as they gathered for Eucharist, the rich lording it over the poor, inflicting fresh wounds on the body of Christ. Fifteen hundred years later, the English reformers took Paul’s warnings to heart, suppressing these processions for political as well as theological reasons.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them.
I’m usually no fan of the Thirty-Nine Articles,but this one is particularly good to think with, especially at an occasion like this. The sacraments were ordained so that we might duly use them. It’s no accident that the Advent customary prescribes that the procession with the consecrated Host take place only after the celebration of the Eucharist, and not before. We will place the consecrated Host in a precious monstrance and carry it through the streets, but not before the sacrament has been put to our use at this communion rail so that we might be put to Christ’s use in the world: as ambassadors of Christ’s love, as ministers of Christ’s reconciliation, as advocates for the poor, the oppressed, and those whom the hierarchies and powers of this world consider beyond the pale. That’s why we take this ceremony into the streets. We put that Host in the monstrance and rightly process with it in dignity and joy. But we do so offering ourselves to public view, so to speak, as living monstrances—each of us transformed and commissioned in our baptisms to act together as Christ’s body in the world. The real question this feast asks is how we intend to comport ourselves as the body of Christ once that Host is safely back in its tabernacle. As Pope Urban insisted all those centuries ago, : “This bread is received [as food]”
but it is not truly “devoured;” it is eaten, but it is not changed, because in the eating it is not transformed at all, but, if it is received worthily, the one who receives it is conformed to Him.
And to be conformed to Christ is to be as Christ was in the world, with little patience for hierarchy when hierarchy becomes the means of injustice, oppression and exclusion. Juliana knew this, hard at work among the lepers. One hopes that Urban knew it too, in spite of the trappings of power which allowed him to Issue that bull in the first place. And in these mean and divisive times, may we have the courage to say the same of us. The Eucharist is a great leveler when justice is at stake. So let’s go ahead and take it to the streets.