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Just outside of Krakow, in the middle of the 14th century, a band of thieves broke into a church, pried open the tabernacle, and ran off, so the story goes, with the monstrance they found inside that happened still to contain the Blessed Sacrament of the Body of Christ. In their flight from the scene of the crime, they discovered that the monstrance was not in fact made of gold or any other precious metal. So they tossed it and its sacred contents into the muddy marshland as they made their escape.
On discovering the theft, the local clergy took up the chase, but as darkness fell it must have seemed that the monstrance and the Host it carried were lost to the bandits. Until from somewhere in the marsh, a bright light began to shine through the gloomy night.
The next morning, frightened, the priests and other locals informed the bishop of this strange light. The bishop ordered three days of fasting and prayer. After this period of preparation, the bishop led a procession to the marsh where eventually they located the monstrance and the Host entirely intact, from which emanated the light that enabled them to find it. (Those were the days when bishops were bishops!)
About a hundred years later, in Dijon, a woman bought a monstrance from a second-hand dealer (as you do), both of them apparently unaware that the consecrated Bread of the Eucharist was still enclosed in the vessel. When the woman got the monstrance home and discovered its condition, for reasons unclear to history she decided to pry the Host out with a knife. On contact with the blade, a stream of blood began to flow from the sacred Host and dried immediately in the image of our Lord seated on a semi-circular throne, the instruments of his Passion at his side.
In Paris near the end of the 13th century, a man who “hated the Catholic faith and did not believe in the Real Presence” nefariously got himself in possession of a consecrated Host, placed it in a shallow bowl of some sort and started to stab it with a knife. To his alarm, the Host began to bleed, filling the bowl with Blood. “Panic-stricken, the man decided to throw the Blessed Sacrament into the fire, but the Host miraculously arose from the fire. Desperate, he threw the Eucharist into boiling water, and the Host arose from the water, hovering in mid-air, and then taking the form of a crucifix.” Eventually the man resorted to deliver the Host to a more pious neighbor, who sensibly brought it to her parish priest, who took custody of the Sacrament and restored equilibrium to the universe, (as we do).
Shall I go on?
Earlier in the 13th century a Saracen horde stormed the city of Assisi and the convent of San Damiano, making their way into the “very cloister of the virgins,” where the sisters “swooned in terror,” as the account goes, and called out for their mother superior, Saint Clare. The saint emerged from her cell with a precious box containing the Blessed Sacrament. The nuns led Saint Clare to the Saracen horde, where she dropped to the ground, prostrating herself before the Sacrament, and pleaded to the Lord in prayer to save her sisters and the entire city of Assisi. In response to her prayer, a voice like that of a child was heard coming from the precious box: “I will always protect you,” it said. The Saracens, no doubt impressed, turned on their heels and retreated over the very walls they had breached to storm the city.
I could go on.
I could tell you of the woman in Zaragosa who secreted a Host away from a Mass, placed it in a little box and took it to a sorcerer for use in a love potion. But when, on delivery to the sorcerer, the box was opened, it was shown to contain a tiny baby, shining with light. The story only gets more fantastic from there.
Doubtful clergy are known to provoke miracles at the altar. Like the German priest, incongruously named Peter of Prague, who, in 1263, stopped to say Mass while on his pilgrimage to Rome. During the prayer of consecration the Host began to bleed, trickling onto his hands, and all over the altar and its linens, simultaneously dispelling his doubt and severely straining relations with the Altar Guild.[i]
I suppose these stories seem fanciful to us. It’s no coincidence that they all spring from the medieval imagination, which tends to seem no more than quaint (at best) to us these days, and often looks much worse than that.
It is, in fact, difficult for us to imagine that the medieval imagination could be in any way superior to ours. We know so much more than they did; we have grown so much wiser; we have let go of so much foolish superstition. It is hard for us to find the value in these reported miracles of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist because they seem so outrageous to us; they strain belief. And, in fact, our modern minds can find little room for the possibility that God works in such ways.
But put a more positive slant on it. Allow for the possibility that Jesus is not done with us. Consider that amidst the gloom of the Dark Ages, God wished for the light of his Son to be seen as often and as brightly as possible. Remain open to the possibility that there is nothing inferior about the imagination that can see the work of God in marvelous and unexpected ways.
Whose problem is it, after all, that the expectation of our medieval ancestors to encounter the true and living God, the actual, tangible, immediate, and real Presence of Jesus in Bread and Wine of the Mass, is unmatched by our own meager expectations of this sacred rite and its simple elements?
They expected to find Jesus in all kinds of outlandish ways; but we hardly expect to find him at all – maybe not even in the Mass. Who has the problem here? Whose expectations are to be the more pitied?
Here, this morning, we join with a relatively few Episcopalians in allowing ourselves to try on the medieval imagination for just a little while, and in the nicest possible way, and to see what it feels like. We try to shed our modern inhibitions, which tell us that it is both silly and unseemly to project such wild expectations onto a disc of wheat, over which particular prayers have been mumbled by someone who, quite plainly, is not so different from you. And let’s be clear that I’d be among the first to agree that the important work being done here is not being done by me; it’s not being done by the priest.
But I do find that the medieval costume fits, and it has a way of helping my imagination to open itself up to that now outmoded way of seeing things, and to the possibility that God is at work here, doing something powerful with the simple objects of a wafer of bread and a cup of sub-par wine.
And when I open myself up to these possibilities, I find that what I do not need – have never really needed – is for Jesus to bleed all over my hands and the altar linens. (No, I definitely do not need that!) But I do need to adjust my expectations. I do need to find Jesus at work in the world: changing things, transforming things, healing things, fixing things, forgiving things, reconciling things, restoring things, reviving things. I prefer, in fact, to live in a world of such expectations.
And if we can’t expect Jesus to display himself to us in the quite simple forms of Bread and Wine, how can we realistically expect to find him displayed in the much more complicated forms of one another – where he is also to be found, I have no doubt?
The objections to the veracity of bleeding, flying, illuminated Hosts are not without their foundations, so perhaps we need not discard those objections altogether. But I suspect that we more urgently need a dose of medieval imagination in order to adjust our expectations, since we have come to expect so little of Jesus.
And the objections to the ritual and the feast we keep today stem from the fear that we are abusing the gift of the Sacrament and abusing one another by pretending that the Bread of the Mass is something that it is not.
Well, if it isn’t the Body of Christ then what use is it to us? And if Christ’s promise to be with us when we “do this,” remembering him in this living way, can’t be trusted, then what is the point?
And if it is the living Lord Jesus, making himself known to us day in and day out, as if to reassure our little minds of his constancy, then what is wrong with letting our imaginations run away just a little bit today?
In 1227, in the town of Rimini, St. Anthony of Padua came across a certain man who did not believe that Christ could be truly present in the Bread and Wine of the Mass. The man challenged Anthony to a test, saying that he would not feed his mule for three days. Then he proposed for the two men to stand before the mule: its owner with food held out for it to eat, and the saint with the consecrated Host of the Eucharist. “‘If the beast, leaving aside its food, hurries to adore its God, I will share the faith of your church,’” the man told Anthony.
So the mule was starved for three days. Both men entered the piazza of the town. Its owner held in his hands a bundle of fresh and fragrant hay. Anthony clutched a monstrance containing the consecrated Host. The saint called for silence as the two men stood before the animal. And St. Anthony thus addressed the mule:
“’In virtue and in the name of your Creator, who I, unworthy as I am, hold in my hands, I tell and order you: Come forward immediately and render homage to the Lord with all due respect….’ And immediately the animal, refusing the food offered by its master; docilely approached the priest. It bent its front legs before the Host and paused there reverently.”
And this final story of medieval imagination brings us to a good way of imagining ourselves on this Feast of Corpus Christi. For most of us may be neither skeptic nor saint, and so we are not entirely sure who or what we are to be in the Presence of the living Lord.
But this story makes it easy to decide: just be the mule.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 2014
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] Accounts of miracles and quoted material are from the website of the Real Presence Eucharistic Education and Adoration Association: www.therealpresence.org. The miracle involving Peter of Prague in Bolsena was the event that prompted Pope Urban IV to establish the Feast of Corpus Christi by issuing a papal bull in August of 1264.