If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Behind me, just beyond the choir stalls, on the other side of the altar rail, in the north wall of the Sanctuary, is a small metal door that most of you seldom see. Only one key exists for it, kept in a special place, itself under lock and key. Inside the small door, made of brass, I think, is a chamber not much more than a cubic foot. On the inside face of the door are set several diamonds from the old days of this parish when people had diamonds to give. The diamonds face the inside of the chamber and so are only seen when the door is left open.

A golden ciborium (which is like a chalice but meant to hold bread, not wine), itself set with diamonds, sapphires and amethysts, sits in the chamber. It is the storage container for the consecrated bread of the Eucharist – the Blessed Sacrament of Christ’s Body - that is not consumed, but reserved to be brought to the sick or those who cannot make it to Mass. We take it out every Sunday, distributing (if we need it) the reserved Sacrament from last week and adding some newly consecrated bread from this week.

The chamber is called an aumbry, but you could call it a bread box, since it holds bread. Or you could call it a grave, since the bread it holds is, we believe, the Body of Christ. In either case it is more than it appears to be.

At the other end of the church, just beneath the two divisions of organ pipes, are two pairs of oak doors. These doors used to open into confessionals, but were converted some decades ago to conceal instead a series of panels that can be opened to allow access to the niches of the columbaria – where the ashes of departed loved ones are placed for their final resting place. These doors, too, open into a kind of grave where the remains of the dead rest and wait.

Death is part of the daily life of faith. Whenever we use the forms of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Prayer Book, we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. Throughout almost all of our history, we Christians have kept the dead close at hand – or you might say we’ve kept ourselves close to the dead. Because Jesus had much to teach us about living this life, but he came to live and to die and to rise from the dead so that he could show us that life lived in him, does not end at the grave.

And so we have our chambers in this church: the dark, wooden ones at the west end; and the smaller, diamond-studded one in the east.

Between them lies our pilgrim path – a path that unavoidably in this church takes us from west to east. Day by day we come into this place near the resting place of the dead and beat a path to the altar, where nearby rests the Body of the living Christ. And significant questions of our faith depend on whether or not there is any meaning in our journey from west to east, from death in this life to new life in Christ in the world to come.

Another thing we say about Jesus every day in our prayers here is that he descended to the dead. I wonder if we take that language too literally, and if it doesn’t maybe mean that Jesus himself has made the reverse pilgrimage from ours; that he has, by his spirit, slipped out from his be-jewelled chamber, down the aisle, behind the locked doors under the organ, past the panels, and into the niches (some empty, some quite full) where the ashes of the dead are waiting.

It would be too silly to suggest that the Spirit of the living Christ leaves a trail of breadcrumbs for the dead to follow him, a sign of reassurance that he has been where we must all go, and that he has someplace else to lead us in the east. But if it weren’t so silly it might be a good thought. After all, it’s something like a life of following a trail of breadcrumbs that Jesus called us to when he broke the bread and blessed the wine and said, Do this in remembrance of me.

We have been doing it here as often as we can, sometimes with whatever bread, whatever wine happens to be lying around. And is this journey of ours really much more sophisticated than following a very particular trail of breadcrumbs that leads us from west to east?

We believe in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. Which is to say that life in this world ends for all of us in darkness. But there is a pilgrimage to be made, very much like the one we make every week from west to east, where we kneel at the altar – the place of remembrance – and we hold that bread in our hands….

… and without even looking we know that the door is open to that place where the Body of Christ has been lying. And it is not dark, for something like diamond-light dazzles us. And we know that we have someplace to go.

Thanks be to God!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
14 June 2009
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on June 14, 2009 .