Tending to the Crumbs

On this great Solemnity of Corpus Christi, it is tempting to speak of many things. I could wax enthusiastically about the theology of bread, because my hands are frequently in the dough these days. Saint Mark’s Rise ministry is making bread twice a month, and I can now see why bread is the perfect metaphor for Christ’s Body. Little yeast particles look like they have no life within them until you mix them with water, salt, honey, and flour. Let me tell you: they are indeed quite alive. But in the past year, you’ve heard a richly theological sermon on bread from Fr. Mullen, and I won’t be able to say it any better than he already has.

Or on this sublime feast of the church, I could engage in wistful reveries about my childhood, about how I came to appreciate the magnificent mystery of the most holy Sacrament of the Altar in preparing for First Communion. I could recount my eager expectation of receiving Christ’s Body and Blood and that overpowering, joyful instance when I actually extended my hands in faith for the first time and the tiny host was placed upon my palm. But this day is not about me; it’s about Jesus’s extraordinary presence among us in ordinary bread and wine.

Or on this day of great devotion, I could muse on the inexplicable magnetic quality of the Blessed Sacrament, a quality that inspires intense piety and that beckons people to gaze with awe and reverence at a tiny circle of bread. But I suspect that we are gathered here today because we already have some notion of the irresistible attraction of what has been called “the jewel in the crown among the sacraments.”[1]

So what I want to talk about on this feast, perhaps paradoxically, are crumbs. Yes, crumbs. Now, before you imagine that I’m about to stray into a precious lecture about ablutions, rest assured, I am not. But in thinking about crumbs, I couldn’t help but recall a curious sentence contained in an obscure footnote in that rather antiquated tome of liturgical ceremonial, Ritual Notes.

The author offers this advice to the priest on spreading the corporal on the altar at the beginning of Low Mass:

“If there is a large cross embroidered on the corporal, it is better if this is placed so as to be at the back; if it is in front, the embroidery may very easily retain some fragments of the Blessed Sacrament.”[2]

Now, you might both appreciate this advice and chuckle a bit at it, too. This sentence comes, of course, from a well-intentioned place in the heart. It is concerned, as we should very well be, with treating the Blessed Sacrament with great reverence. This rather fussy ceremonial instruction, though, springs from such reverence that even the tiniest particles of the consecrated host are worthy of attention.

Without being too obsessive with perfection in tending to the crumbs, I do wonder if this somewhat over-scrupulous sentence from Ritual Notes might actually have something important to teach us about why this feast matters, why our devotions on this day are important for the sake of the world.

It was St. Augustine of Hippo who brilliantly proclaimed that in the Sacrament of the Mass the mystery of ourselves is, in fact, placed on the altar. We are the living Body of Christ, and so by the final Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, we gaze upon ourselves in the Bread and Wine of the Mass. It’s an extraordinary theological statement: so simple and yet so profound. When we adore the Blessed Sacrament, it’s as if we are looking into a mirror at ourselves—or maybe seeing who we should be, who we hope to be.

Because peering into this mirror is so often shrouded with the dimness of human myopia, an inability to discern the true nature of the Body of Christ. Does the miraculous become mundane by its revelation in ordinary crumbs of bread and drops of wine? Has the greatest of mysteries lost its mystery because we frequently fail to discern the body, because our inner vision is indeed not clear?

St. Augustine also exhorted the newly baptized in a famous sermon on the Eucharist saying this about the bread:

“Let it not appear common to you because you see it. That which you see passes away: the invisible thing which is signified thereby passes not away, but abides.”[3]

Let it not appear common to you because you see it.

Perhaps the question isn’t so much whether we believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are truly present in the Bread and Wine of the Mass but has more to do with how we tend to the crumbs. Do we believe the crumbs really matter, and not just the crumbs of the sacred Host on the altar?

If we are indeed to have holy admiration for a tiny crumb of that infinitely abundant loaf of the Bread of life, a wafer held aloft and adored, genuflected to, and carried around in a monstrance, and if we are truly Christ’s living Body, then shouldn’t we also be affectionately tending to the crumbs of Christ’s Body sprinkled all around us? In God’s estimation, is not the tiniest morsel of humanity, made in the image of God, to be treated as a worthy crumb? Does not our adoration of Christ in Bread and Wine teach us how to love God as we ought and therefore to love others with truer intention because they contain God’s image?

There is more than meets the eye in the crumbs of the human race, strewn all around us. Beneath the ragged exteriors, beneath the gruff voices, beneath the foul smells, there is precious life. These are not stale crumbs of bread; these are living members of Christ’s Body. Let it not appear common to you because you see it.

Sadly, in this very city, it’s all too common, isn’t it, to find brothers and sisters in need of proper nourishment or comfortable places to sleep? The crumbs of Christ’s Body are themselves begging for crumbs. How has the image in the mirror become so distorted?

It’s a cruelly wasteful world in which we live, too. Crumbs constantly slip through the cracks and are carelessly or even maliciously stomped on because, well, they seem like the scraps of society. Crumbs are treated as disposable, are seen as waste products that are worthy of no other place than the refuse bins of our cities. They are regarded as if they have no life in them, as dormant yeast particles or worse yet, as yeast that is past its shelf life and relegated to the trash. But just because we see it doesn’t mean it should appear common to us.

I could further list the uncountable drops of blood spilled in needless violence here in this city and of course all over the world. Or should I tell of the ways in which blood is used to pull people apart rather than to unite? But just because we see it, let it not appear common to us.

If the world has ever needed a feast like today’s great feast, it is now. For the most holy Sacrament of the altar teaches us reverence, and I don’t need to tell you that reverence is a rare commodity these days. Adoration of Jesus Christ in the most Blessed Sacrament compels us to have respect for the crumbs, at the altar and in the world. And the more that the crumbs seem common to us, the more that we fail to discern the real presence of Christ’s body and blood dwelling among us. And as St. Paul says, this is our judgment. 

But thankfully, this day is really about God and about what God has promised us in the Blessed Sacrament, for he has promised that what we receive in Bread and Wine, although it is invisible, is not at all common. It is the living Bread come down from heaven. It is true food and true drink. It enables us to live forever. It is bread given for the life of the world. It is broken for a church that is to live vibrantly, to rise abundantly, not to die slowly. It is shared with a world that is waiting to be leavened by God.

When Christ feeds us with himself in the Mass, nothing is wasted. There is no particle of humanity too tiny to be cared for. There is no hunger or thirst too vast to be quenched with his true food and drink. The feast of Corpus Christi might seem to be the most private of devotions, but it is, in fact, the most corporate of them all. Corpus Christi is devotion for nothing less than a holy Crumb that bestows eternal life and that commands us to honor life in all the crumbs of the world.

Here and now, in our earthly pilgrimage, Christ’s Body and Blood are our sustaining food for the journey towards greater communion with God, that God may ever more deeply dwell in us and we in him. We should yearn always for this food, as if in a barren and dry land where there is nothing to eat or drink. Let our appetite be insatiable for this heavenly repast.

God does not waste the crumbs; God tends to them. As Jesus urged his disciples to gather up the leftover crumbs from the feeding of the five thousand, one day God will mold into one loaf the discarded crumbs of humanity. From east and west, from north and south, those seemingly desiccated particles of bread and those precious drops of blood spilled because of human sinfulness will be gathered up into a heavenly feast where no one goes hungry and where no one suffers and where glorious feasting has no end. May we be inspired by that most holy Crumb in the sacrament of the altar, which we shall shortly worship, adore, and receive. May we lovingly tend to the crumbs with God’s grace. Let those crumbs not appear common to you, and let not a single crumb, not a single grain be lost.

Preached by Father Kyle Babin
23 June 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

[1] John Macquarrie, A Guide to the Sacraments (London: SCM Press LTD, 1997), 102.

[2] E.C.R. Lamburn, Ritual Notes, 11th ed., London: W. Knott & Son, 1964), p. 124.

[3] Ibid., 86.

Posted on June 23, 2019 .