Then this afternoon we welcomed friends from the parish, and from a neighbouring Anglican parish, to Evensong and Benediction. "I can't think how long it is since I attended evensong and benediction" was once comment. So good that this part of the Anglican Patrimony has been accepted into the Catholic Church, by way of the Ordinariate. We concluded with tea and cakes - and there were scones with jam and cream - or rather, cream and jam. Irresistible to a Devonian.
Usually my sermons go by without comment; today, though, two people said how much they appreciated it. So, forgive me, I shall attach it here - and then go to bed. You might want to do the same before reading it.
Do this in remembrance of me
These few words caused so much blood to be spilled in England less than five centuries ago. Men and women were killed for insisting on one interpretation or another of what St Paul is reporting. The Greek word he used is ana mnesis … literally, ‘again minding’. So did he just mean “calling to mind” as you might call to mind something for your shopping list? Or is it more like thinking about an old friend and the good times you had together? More likely this second sort of remembering, surely? But is it more than that?
If you walk down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square towards Parliament you pass a tall block of marble – the Cenotaph. Its name means “empty tomb” and that is what it is; unlike the grave of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey, there is no body inside it. Yet every November it is the setting for a great National act of remembrance; as young soldiers, sailors and airmen march past it, you can’t help recalling their prede-cessors, so many of whom died in their youth. Then there are the veterans, very few now from the last war, but many from conflicts not dignified with the name of war; the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan. With them there is the doubly sad sight of young men in wheelchairs, their lives altered for ever by fighting for Queen and country.
It is a powerful business, this remembering; it can cause great sadness, great pride – and, as we have seen this week with the defacing of memorials in London, it can cause great anger too. Perhaps it is this anger among young Muslims that can help us understand our own history better. For Protestants in the sixteenth century, it seemed blasphem-ous to honour the bread and wine of Communion. For Catholics, it was worth going to the stake to uphold the Church’s teaching about the Mass.
Coming as many of us have done from modern Anglicanism the arguments can seem strange. In the Council of Trent the Catholic Church used particular philosophical language to try to describe just how bread becomes body – language which in essence goes back to the Greek philosophers, and especially to Plato. Many of us might still sympathise with Queen Elizabeth I who did not want to open a window into men’s souls – yet her tolerance only went so far, and belief in transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine, was made illegal, just as the reciting of the Rosary and so much else was proscribed.
In the end, there are two opposed attitudes, not just to the Mass, but to the whole Sacramental system. For Protestants, sacraments are nothing but empty symbols, cenotaphs if you like, tombs with nothing in them. Baptism changes nothing. The eucharist is just a meal. The journey many of us have made from Anglicanism into the Catholic Church shows that for us this is not enough. Baptism creates a reality; it overcomes the effects of original sin, it puts us on the path to redemption. Communion too; it really changes us. St Paul warns of the dangers of eating and drinking it without discerning, as he says, the Body. To eat and rink unworthily, unprepared, is a great danger - for the Mass actually joins us to the sacrifice of Christ, makes us participate in his death, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.
This sacramental system finds a response far beyond the confines of Catholicism. It is this need for reality in worship which strikes a chord for many outside the Church. They may not understand why, yet when they attend a Catholic funeral they can see that we are doing something for the person who has died. A Catholic funeral is not just a romantic recalling of a life, seen through rose-tinted glasses. It says that this person, like us all, was a sinner; and that God, who is merciful to us sinners, will hear our prayers for him. Above all, if we offer God’s dear Son in a celebration of a requiem Mass, he will respond to our heartfelt pleading.
There is a solidity and a certainly about the Catholic Sacraments which too many who have grown up as Catholics simply take for granted. For those who have come into the Church from outside, it is quite different. When you have been in a church where every clergyman’s opinion is as good as any other’s, where one cleric might believe in the sacrifice of the mass and another consider it is no more than an empty symbol, it is a huge relief to come into a communion where private opinions cannot outbalance the belief of the church down the ages – a communion where one bishop is not going to sound off in the Press, as one Anglican bishop has this week, in order to disagree with his fellow bishops. But not only with them, but with the whole Church down the ages. Is this why the latest bishop of Salisbury was ordained, to deny what every former bishop of Salisbury, and every other present Anglican bishop, believes about Christian marriage?
So today we celebrate Corpus & Sanguis Christi – the Body and Blood of Christ. We reverence the sacred elements because they are the same body and blood which hung on Calvary for us. They create a permanent link between the Jesus of History, walking and talking in first century Palestine, and the Jesus of today, who sits in majesty at the right hand of the Father, ever pleading on our behalf his Sacrifice on the Cross.
The Cenotaph comes into its own, comes to life you could say, every November when church and state gather round it to remember. They are joined in memory by the armies of the past, the countless numbers who laid down their lives in war. For us, the Mass does this and so much more every time it is celebrated; as often as you do this, you show forth the Lord’s death, until he comes. Show him forth, and lift Him up – as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man is lifted up, to draw all men to himself as he promised. May we ever venerate these sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, and in our lives show him to the world.