The Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ:
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Saturday, yesterday, was the Feast of St Thomas More and St John Fisher, both Martyrs. Today is the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. Saturday at Matins we heard a letter of St Thomas, written before his martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII and at Vespers we sang the hymn Adoro te devote, composed in crisp Latin verse by St Thomas Aquinas in honor of the Blessed Sacrament: in fact the entire office of Corpus Christi was composed by this second and earlier Thomas. There is a mystery here for him with eyes and heart to see.
The body of Christ was given for the church by Christ himself, offered on the cross and laid in the tomb. When he rose from the dead he gave us his flesh and his blood, saying that he would be with us always, even unto the end of time. We have still with us the body and blood of Christ in our tabernacles and on our altars daily to be adored and consumed. But this meal is a gift which consumes us. We are what we eat. We become the body of Christ. The Eucharist constitutes the church. She becomes what she consumes and the martyrs are the proof of this. As they die they, too, become Christ.
See this description from the Martyrdom of Polycarp:
When Polycarp had pronounced this amen, and so finished his prayer, those who were appointed for the purpose kindled the fire. And as the flame blazed forth in great fury, we, to whom it was given to witness it, beheld a great miracle, and have been preserved that we might report to others what then took place. For the fire, shaping itself into the form of an arch, like the sail of a ship when filled with the wind, encompassed as by a circle the body of the martyr. And he appeared within not like flesh which is burnt, but as bread that is baked, or as gold and silver glowing in a furnace.
As bread that is baked, in martyrdom we become wheat that is ground and crushed. Made to be flour we are kneeded, leavened, and brought into the body of Christ, the communion bread, the church.
And so, the martyrdom of St Thomas More: it, too, is a type of, a shadow of, and an echo of the Eucharist, joined to the Passion of Christ.
Either God shall keep King Henry in that gracious frame of mind to continue to do me no harm, or else, if it be his pleasure that for my other sins I suffer in this case as I shall not deserve, then God’s grace shall give me the strength to bear it patiently, and perhaps even gladly.
By the merits of Christ’s bitter passion joined to mine and far surpassing in merit for me all that I can suffer myself, his bounteous goodness shall release me from the pains of purgatory and shall increase my reward in heaven besides.
St Thomas quite literally went to his death fighting with the state over the definition of marriage: he insisted that the King could not be divorced and married again contrary to the laws of the faith and that therefore the King was not married, but living in an adulterous relationship. Saint Polycarp, too, went to his death fighting with the state. Both the government of Rome and the government of England claimed that they had the right to make religious decisions for their people. Rome held this state power to be so strong that they considered Christians to be atheists since we denied their conception of the divinity!
England decided that the Crown was the head of the Church instead of Peter, that is the Pope, whom Christ designated as head of the Church. To deny the English crown this position of authority was to become a traitor to the crown. Although Catholics insisted that they were faithful to the monarch and that they where ever the crown’s servants. They could not allow the monarch to claim this religious title. Henry and his followers and his heirs would hound the Faithful to their deaths, grinding them up between the millstones of prisons and the rack, of hurdles and hangings, until the bread of the Church’s Eucharist was as red as Christ’s very blood – and just as glorious and dear.
In C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength one of the characters, Dr Dimble, explains to his wife how things are always getting tighter and tighter…
“Have you ever noticed,” said Dimble, “that the universe, and every little bit of the universe, is always hardening and narrowing and coming to a point?” His wife waited as those wait who know by long experience the mental processes of the person who is talking to them.
“I mean this,” said Dimble in answer to the question she had not asked.
“If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family—anything you like—at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren’t quite so sharp; and that there’s going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.
Like in the poem about Heaven and Hell eating into merry Middle Earth from opposite sides . . . how does it go? Something about ‘eat every day’ . . . ‘till all is somethinged away.’ It can’t be eaten; that wouldn’t scan. My memory has failed dreadfully these last few years. Do you know the bit, Margery?”
“What you were saying reminded me more of the bit in the Bible about the winnowing fan. Separating the wheat and the chaff. Or like Browning’s line: ‘Life’s business being just the terrible choice.’”
“Exactly! Perhaps the whole time-process means just that and nothing else. But it’s not only in questions of moral choice. Everything is getting more itself and more different from everything else all the time. Evolution means species getting less and less like one another. Minds get more and more spiritual, matter more and more material. Even in literature, poetry and prose draw further and further apart.”
St Thomas More was brought to such a point, to a Dimble Horizon, if you will. Even the clergy of the Church were apostatizing around him just to keep their political positions in the English Court. Polycarp as well came to such a choice. The choice finally comes for each of the Martyrs and, I fear, it is coming for us as well: do I do what they want or do I become Christ’s body and blood here and now.
We are each the priest ordained at that moment by our choice. We take up the bread of our body and we either Transubstantiate it into Christ’s living presence on the altar of Truth or else we toss it away in exchange for stale saltines and weak tea.
Gazing in awe upon our Eucharistic Lord into whom we are changed, even crossing the Dimble Horizon, let us proclaim the death of the Lord in our own lives. May we say, firmly, with St Thomas More,
Do not let your mind be troubled over anything that shall happen to me in this world. Nothing can come but what God wills. And I am very sure that whatever that be, however bad it may seem, it shall indeed be the best.
And may we say with St Thomas Aquinas, Nil nisi te, Domine. Nothing but you, Lord.