Jesus said, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’
This day in the Church’s calendar is designated The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion, or Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi is the last of the big festivals of the Church’s year in the sequence which leads us from Advent through Christmas to Easter, the Ascension and Pentecost. Like Pentecost, Corpus Christi reminds us that, although Jesus returned to his Father in heaven, God still lives on earth.
The festival of Corpus Christi has its origins in Belgium in the early 13th century. By the early 14th century it had become a major holiday and the cause of much civic and spiritual celebration in England. Solemn processions through the streets of towns and villages were soon complimented by the staging of Mystery Plays, the telling of Bible stories in large-scale dramatic presentations. This spirit of celebration and thanksgiving continued until the 1559 Act of Uniformity. On 24 June 1559 the English prayer book became law and the observance of Corpus Christi was outlawed.
Since the Reformation, and despite its radical intent, Corpus Christi has remained an important festival in the Roman Catholic Church. In more recent years its celebration has been revived in many Anglican parishes, and not just those in the Anglo-Catholic tradition. It has regained its place in the modern Anglican calendar as The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion.
Holy Communion is the central act of worship in the Anglican Church. Holy Communion was given to us by Christ himself at the Last Supper, along with his new commandment of love and his demonstration of humble service in the washing of the disciples’ feet. The service of Holy Communion engages all believers in an act of remembrance that strengthens and sustains them as they live out their lives in an increasingly secular world. Holy Communion, a service which engages all of our senses, the totality of our humanity, brings us into the divine mystery of Christ’s presence at all times and throughout all ages. Holy Communion is the time when Christ reaches out and touches us with his healing and nourishing love.
Let us pray that, as we receive the bread and the wine, we might be ever conscious of Christ’s true presence in our lives. And, may that awareness give us strength to live the life of faithful discipleship every moment of every day.