The Newest Thing of All
Corpus Christi. Fr Oliver Keenan finds a new perspective on the Eucharist in the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Today should be a day for processions, for First Holy Communions, for parish celebrations. That is how it should be, but it is not how it is. At least, not here in London, where Covid-19 has closed our churches. Tomorrow our churches can open again for private prayer, and we begin a journey into what has been called the ‘new normal’ that promises a new perspective and that we won’t take things for granted again.
The experience of being suspended between an old reality that is passing away and a new reality, as yet only faintly intuited, lies at the heart of the Christian life. By the gift of hope, we navigate a world that is not yet as it should be. Today’s circumstances remind us that hope is not only a gift but also a discipline. In less unusual circumstances, it is relatively easy to anaesthetise ourselves to the depth of that ‘not yet’, but in truth, each celebration of the Eucharist unmasks the ways in which our lives and our world — scourged by sin and injustice, marred by idolatry — is not today the world as it should be, and nor is it the way that it will be, when the Kingdom of God is fully revealed at the end of time.
The Eucharist maps this Christian way of belonging to time, a way that is navigated by faith and hope, because it embraces the three-dimensions of future, past and present: a pledge of the glorious fulfilment promised to us; a memorial of the Passion of Christ that is re-presented in a bloodless manner; and a reception in the present moment of the Lord’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
Yet we ought not to abstract from the fact that today’s Feast celebrates a Body and a bodily means of communion. A Body in which the clash of death and life took place, but a Body that was crucified and given nonetheless. Today we celebrate the God who assumed a body with its vulnerabilities as the chosen means of communing with us, and gave his body to us sacramentally, that we might commune with him. Our present moment has re-acquainted us with the inescapable vulnerability and the undeniable power of bodies: their liability to damage and their openness to communion. What is lost in teaching a class from behind a camera, or planning a funeral by phone? The information is exchanged, and yet something of incalculable value is missed.
I wonder whether we are teaching ourselves that the bodies of others are primarily a risk to our well-being, and whether we will need to un-learn that once the pandemic is over. But then I catch myself and wonder whether I am being taught something about bodily exposure that is part of the daily lives of those less fortunate than myself. Even our bodies are caught in this suspension, for they are not yet as they should be: though they will ever be vulnerable in the sense of being open for encounter and relationship, they will not, in the resurrection, be precarious or liable to dispossession.
It feels strange having to stress the nature of our present moment, which will seem obvious to many of you. But these words are to be released onto the internet, and there will come a time when the particular circumstances of our today and our tomorrow will disappear behind my words and recede into memory. This is both the risk and the adventure of making ‘signs in the dust’, but it is also part and parcel of our hope, since we expect already a fulfilment of communion that will yield the absurdity of our anticipatory graspings. The Eucharist is unique in this regard, since the author never disappears behind those dusty marks of His presence.
Yet even the Eucharist will pass away, when we enter into the reality to which it points, and see God as He is. Then, and only then, will all be as it should be, though we will in some sense be as we already are at the Eucharist, gathered around the risen and glorified Lord, sharing in his transfiguration. This will be not only a new normal, but a novissimum — the newest of all things, after which there will be no novelty, for all will be fulfilled. If this novissimum is to shape our new normal, then the meaning of today’s feast must be realised, even if there can be no processions.
Photo credit: Fr Lawrence Lew OP.