Celebrating Christ's Body

“God humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna… that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.”

If you go to see the beautiful German film, Into Great Silence, about the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps, be prepared to sit for almost three hours of cinema with very little dialogue, music, or noise of any kind.  The monks of Grande Chartreuse lead a drastically simple life characterized by prayer, self-denial and silence.  You should see the film – it is three hours well spent.

If you do, you may notice that the filmmakers occasionally provide a close-up moment of still life: a plate drying on a windowsill, a lamp burning in the dark, or a bowl of fruit.  And if you have a look at the bowl of fruit, you may notice something that catches your eye – it caught mine.  There in the middle of the French Alps, in the cloisters of La Grande Chartreuse, in a the cell of a solitary monk whose life is devoted to simplicity, whose brethren tend the cows and the gardens and chop the vegetables, who must surely bake their own bread, where the food is delivered to a pass-through into each monk’s cell so as not to disturb his prayers…  There in the still life, in a bowl of fruit, on the side of an apple (or was it a pear?) was a little oval sticker that would have identified the apple’s country of origin: probably New Zealand or Chile.

I almost gasped when I noticed it.  I was certainly shocked.  I don’t begrudge the monks their fruit – certainly not in the dead of winter when there is no fruit to be had in the French Alps, to be sure.  Nonetheless, I was taken aback not only at the way this piece of fruit in its ordinariness linked my life to the life of the austere monks of La Grande Chartreuse, I was taken aback at how nearly impossible it actually is to escape the world we all live in: the global economy that delivers fruit and veggies from all parts of the world to anyone who can pay for them – even the poor, simple monks of La Grande Chartreuse.  I was amazed to begin to realize where that apple had come from, given that these monks had largely rejected all the implications of the global economy in favor of the economy of heaven.

When Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness on their long pilgrimage, it was, Scripture tells us, an exercise in humility and hunger.  God humbled them and made them hunger and then sent them manna as an object lesson that man does not live by bread alone – not by the sweat of our own brows, not by our own cleverness, not by the size of our paychecks, not by the bounty stored in our cupboards – but by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.

But unlike our ancient forebears who grudgingly followed Moses, we are living in another age: when we have to search out places to go to be humbled or hungry.  The powers of the global economy even ship ripened fruit to monks who have already embraced poverty, who have accepted a large measure of humility and hunger in their lives.  

And you and I?  What hunger do we know?  What is there that does not lie within arms reach for us if only we want it?  We have everything to fill our bellies.  And have we forgotten what it is like to be hungry for the things that come only from the mouth of God?  Have we become so good at taking everything for granted that we take even this for granted?  Have we assumed in our pride that whatever we want from God we will have when we want it – shipped to us by whatever means he employs, with or without little stickers to identify its country of origin?

Today we train our attention on the wonderful and mysterious gift that God has given us in the Body of Christ – this new and living bread which came down from heaven.  And this, too, is meant to be an exercise in humility and hunger, because it is all too easy for us to lose both our humility and our hunger in the face of this gift of God, all too easy to disregard what we are given at Mass each week as a scrap of bread, a sip of cheap wine.

Our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in humility because we are faced with God’s profound humility: the God who sends his only Son (the Prince of Peace and Lord of Life) to live and die among the ordinary, stumbling sinners of a creation gone askew.  Christ’s Body – whether it hangs on the Cross, or rests in the tomb, or gets parceled out in little wafers – is the perfect portrait of humility.  Here in our hands we hold the transcription of that Word once spoken that brought the universe into being.  How can we not be humbled in the face of such humility?

And our celebration of the gift of the Body of Christ is an exercise in hunger because we are reminded that in this sacred meal we are given a diet of love and mercy and forgiveness that we sorely need and that we too easily forget is deeply satisfying.  Here in our hands we hold the bread of angels – that perfect food that feeds our souls when words or reason or even the touch of a loved one fail to meet our needs, and we realize that we’ve been left under-nourished by every other diet we’ve ever tried.

Today, as we celebrate the gift of Christ’s Body, we are called to be humble and hungry in the face of the mystery of God’s love.  Just as a community of secluded monks hidden away in the mountains can enjoy an apple that is the product of an economy that we thought had passed them by – indeed, which they had tried to allow to pass them by; you and I can enjoy that living Bread that came down from heaven – from an economy that we often believe has passed us by.

It might have seemed that this wondrous communion with God would be reserved only for those who establish a secret economy of silence behind monastery walls, immersed in endless rounds of prayers, and far beyond the reach of people like you and me.

But although it seems somewhat unlikely that God would feed you and me with the living Bread of the Body of his Son, it is, in fact, just precisely as likely as the possibility that a shipment of apples from New Zealand or Chile would find its way into the cells of those remote Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse.

And at the end of Mass today, we’ll indulge ourselves in a kind of still-life moment, which is meant to give us pause, perhaps even cause us to gasp as we have a look at what it is that’s been given to us in the Body of Christ, as we realize where this living Bread has come from.  

And will we be left feeling humbled and even hungry for that Bread when, as we consider its unlikely origin, given that we have largely rejected the economy of heaven in favor of our own global economy?

And if we allow ourselves to gaze for a while into the great silence of that living Bread – the silence that is all that stands between us and the Body of Christ – will we hear God’s wisdom as he calls us to be humble and hungry, and to remember that we have never lived by bread alone, but by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord?

Thanks be to God.

Preached by the Rev. Sean E. Mullen
Corpus Christi: 10 June 2007
Saint Mark’s, Philadelphia

Posted on June 10, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.