“That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.” That declaration will go down in history as the first words to be spoken as a man walked on the moon. On 20th July 1969, something extraordinary took place when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on another planet, the first human beings ever to do so.
What is less well known is that a little time afterwards, Buzz Aldrin, back in the quietness of the space shuttle, millions of miles from earth said his prayers and received Holy Communion, whilst at the same time the members of the congregation that he was a member of back in the United States of America received the same Sacrament from the same bread and wine that had been given to him.
Some time later, safely back on earth, Buzz Aldrin described it like this, “In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the Scripture, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.’ I ate the tiny Host and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think: the very first liquid ever poured on the moon, and the very first food eaten there, were the communion elements.”
The Body of Christ joined together by the Sacrament of the Body of Christ, even though they were physically separated by a distance of millions of miles. They may not have been the first words spoken or the first actions on that space mission to the moon, but it is incredible to know that within that great moon mission were found the Sacrament of Holy Communion and the words of Jesus.
In this Church Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, the Holy Eucharist (whatever name you choose to use to describe them) are at the centre of our life of prayer, celebrated here on almost every day of the week as people gather in this place to consciously be joined with the life of Christ. The Eucharist is offered not just for those who are gathered here, nor even also for those who are members but are unable to be with us, but they are offered for everyone who lives within the boundaries of this Parish, as we seek to be united with Christ in his intercession to the Father for the world.
Today, at this Eucharist, on this fourth and final Sunday in our Season of Celebration, having gloried in Christ’s ascension into heaven, having given thanks for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and having reflected on God’s revelation of himself to us as the Triune Unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we now give thanks in this Feast of Corpus Christi (the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ), for the Institution of Holy Communion.
Although the Eucharist is so central to our life as the vehicle through which we offer ourselves to God, and join ourselves with his Son, we do not often take the time to stop and give thanks for it, and today the Church says to us, “pause for a moment, and give thanks for this great gift at the heart of the life of the community of faith through which you offer your thanks and praise every time you gather together as the Church.”
In our Gospel reading today we hear again the account of the first Last Supper, which we remember as we stand at the foot of the Cross each time we enact this great Eucharistic celebration, as, through Christ’s instructions, and in obedience to his command, we take the simple things of bread and wine and join ourselves with Christ’s self-sacrifice on the Cross, believing that what was simply bread and wine, will become holy gifts, food for the journey for each one of us, Christ’s real presence here in this place.
But how can a wafer thin fragment and a sip of wine become all of this? How can bread and wine be body and blood? How can an itinerant first-century preacher be present in a Twenty First Century action? This is a mystery indeed. None of us can fathom it.
When people ask me how I can truly believe that Christ is present in this bread and this wine as our Anglican Church teaches, I have to agree with them, that if it is true it is a miracle indeed. But then I remind them of what we say in our liturgy as we exchange Christ’s peace with one another: “we are the Church, the Body of Christ, his Spirit is with us.” Because for Christ to be in us, in each one of us, to the extent that we can call ourselves his Body, with all of our own shortcomings and weaknesses is a much greater miracle, in my mind, than him being present in bread and wine. In the Eucharist, yes miraculously, we become what we eat. We become through the power of the Holy Spirit the body and life blood of Jesus Christ.
But why bread and wine?
Economists tell us that you can predict the consumption of ordinary, standard bread by the state of the national economy. The more people there are out of work and the more businesses that close, the more white bread is eaten. As unemployment declines and shopping and consumer credit increases so the consumption of white bread declines. Bread is common stuff; stuff to see you through hard times. So too is wine. Yes, it can be very expensive and fashionable, but at heart it is simple to make, and through much of humanity’s existence it has been much safer to drink than water, which was always at risk of being contaminated.
As we heard in our Gospel reading, and as we already know, Jesus takes these simple common things, in a Jewish ceremonial meal that remembered all that God had done for his people in the past, and he gave them a new significance. He turned them to point not to the past but to what God was doing in their own time through Jesus, and what he would do in the future through the life of his Kingdom. These symbols of God’s faithfulness to his people in the past, became for the disciples symbols of God’s faithfulness in their own time, and that is true for us as well.
It is worth stating the obvious, from the Gospel text, that that first Last Supper required careful preparation, and it ended with joyful praise, as Jesus and his disciples sung hymns (psalms) of praise to God together before they went out into the night, despite knowing that Jesus was heading towards his death. Perhaps it is worth, on this Feast of Corpus Christi, to ask of ourselves (certainly I ask it today of myself) do I take sufficient time to prepare myself to meet with God at the Eucharist? and is the result of my participation a sense of unstoppable praise, so that I go from this place rejoicing that I have met with God here once again?
We join ourselves with Christ’s offering on the Cross by making our own offering to be joined with his. As we offer this bread and wine to God at his altar, along with our gifts of money and our almsgiving for those in need, this bread and wine are signs for us of a fertile world and the bounty of nature; symbols of production and the skill of grower, baker and wine maker, which are of particular significance to us in a wine growing valley.
They are signs of human ingenuity, creativity and enterprise; symbols too of the staples that keep us going: bread to meet our hunger, wine to gladden our lives. As we offer these common things to God we remember that they were never really ours in the first place. They were always God’s, because all that we offer to him is already his.
In the Eucharist God takes them, and transforms them into Jesus, really present amongst us. That we too might be his Body, truly present to those around us. This bread and wine are samples of us; our lives and personalities summed up in them, that through Christ’s action our lives may be given back to us, no longer simply our own but his Body – part of the redeemed and redeeming community, bound in life and death to our Lord. Bread and wine are taken from the tables of our daily lives and put into Jesus’ hands to be transformed into what he meant all things to be – a direct means of communion with him. Through the ministry of the priest, God takes them, blesses them, breaks them, and shares them. As holy food for his holy people.
Here we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all humanity. Here we experience the transforming power of Christ to turn common things into holy things. It is all of this that we pause to give thanks for today. That God has given us a vehicle, to be joined with him, through this great mystery; because what God does with bread and wine for us, he does within us as well.
We stretch out our hands to God and he gives us his life, the Body and Blood of his Son, his love made tangibly present amongst us. And it is worth saying, having mentioned the priest already that in all this the priest is only there to copy Jesus’ words, to preside at the celebration which belongs to us all. It is Jesus who is speaking to us not me, when he says, “this is my Body, this is my Blood, to keep you in eternal life.”
Today especially, on this day when we give thanks for the institution of Holy Communion, we draw near with faith to his altar of grace, to receive the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ which he gave for us, and his Blood which he shed for us, and we eat and drink in remembrance that he died for us, and we feed upon him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.
Blessed praised and adored be Jesus Christ on his throne of glory, and in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar.