This is a sermon that I gave for the feast of Corpus Christi on June 23, 2019 at The Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields in Toronto. The readings for this are Deut 8:2-3, 14-16; Ps 116:10-17; 1 Cor 10:16-17; Jn 6:51-58.
This Sunday we are celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi, a day to honour the presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This solemnity is the only feast which was added to the liturgical calendar by the efforts of a woman, Juliana of Liege, who, among other women in Christian communities at the time, felt a very strong devotion to the Eucharistic elements.
The historic devotion of Christian women to the Eucharist makes a lot of sense. Food and care work, the sustaining of the physical and emotional well being of others, has traditionally been considered women’s work for thousands of years. And so it makes sense that God would work through women to relay the importance of this feast.
Despite the convoluted reasoning of how exactly bread and wine can be physical body and blood, the acceptance of these realities offers a reassuring simplicity. Christ came to serve, to care for others, and each time we participate in the Eucharist we are invited to do that. This message, and this action, is quite simple, demonstrated throughout his whole life: Serve others. Feed others. Protect, heal, and care for others.
These holy tasks we are called to, are women’s work. Jesus was a man who did women’s work. He is a deacon, a role in the church for those who serve their community, which has commonly been given to women. Despite all of the ways that scripture has been abused to attack the image of God as manifested in gender-variant people, Jesus was a man who undeniably transgressed the social gender norms of his day in order to exemplify and venerate the holy work of women: to feed, to wash, to heal the sick, to care for the children.
The Eucharist reminds us that we have not been asked to look for God up in the sky, or in some transcendent realm of higher consciousness. Though God certainly exists in the cosmos as much as anywhere else, that is not the site of God’s creation of us. We were created here, on this physical Earth, specially shaped for this land, which has all we need to care for ourselves physically and spiritually. Christ’s physical presence in his vulnerable human incarnation, and his remaining physical presence in the nourishment of bread and the joy of wine, asks us to look down to the soil and to the plants and creatures, and forward into each other’s faces and open hands, to see the life of God and what is being asked of us: to be mindfully and persistently present in our physical lives and our relationships to one another.
The two parts of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine, serve different but equally important purposes. The bread is something very practical and easy to understand: it is that which fills us, it is the gift of food brought forward by the Earth, and shaped and cooked by human hands, that provides us with physical life. Without bread, without food, we could not live. Wine on the other hand, being something without significant nutritional value and certainly not a basic physical necessity of our bodies, is also recognized as a key substance that we are to partake in, in order to live in Christ.
My family, very much people of food and wine, taught me at a young age that wine is something you drink with others. By the nature of the beverage and it’s historical use, it has always been something brought out to partake in together. I remember my father jokingly referred to it as a “social lubricant.” Often in conversations about community organizing, we talk about the necessity of going to the pub with your neighbours and coworkers, because friendship and trust is built over drinks and laughter.
Like any psychoactive substance, alcohol has the potential to be used in harmful ways, and I think that the fact that alcohol is a medicine that must be treated with respect is something needs to be emphasized in our culture. Certainly the liquor companies that will be showing up on rainbow floats this afternoon, advertising an addictive substance to an already psychologically vulnerable community, are doing nothing to show respect for alcohol and it’s purpose on the Earth. But I’ve always found it very interesting that in the Christian tradition, one of our sacraments is wine: a substance whose purpose is to relieve our anxiety and make us more sociable, to make it easier to talk and laugh, to allow us to lean across the aisle to someone who may seem unfamiliar, and crack a joke. That Jesus asked us to partake in this substance, with equal importance to the bread that sustains our physical bodies, highlights the inextricably social nature of Christianity. The bread: the caring, feeding, washing, housing, and healing – and the wine: the talking, organizing, joking, scheming, and celebrating – are the two sides of the mission we must enact as followers of Christ, inextricable from one another.
Often times when we are seeking to act in solidarity with those who are more under-resourced than ourselves, to feed people just makes plain sense. We feel called to share our resources, our food, and our money, to ensure the physical well being of those less fortunate. And while these actions are definitely in alignment with that aspect of Christ’s mission, in many charity contexts this doesn’t always accompany being invited to sit at the same table.
How well can we know exactly what someone else needs, if we are not in conversation, speaking to each other as equals? How do we act in the best interests of others if we are focused only on providing a service, one that depends on one party remaining as the decision-makers and the resource-holders, without building relationships based on trust, mutual understanding, and even joy?
Bread is incredibly important, it is the gift of life on this Earth and everlasting life as embodied in Christ. But we must also remember to bring the wine. Amen.