Today is the Feast of Corpus Christi–the Body of Christ–where Catholics, Episcopalian and Roman, celebrate the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the sacramental elements (bread and wine) of the Mass.
In normal years, parishes that keep this feast celebrate Mass and afterward have a procession with and adoration of Christ in the Sacrament. The Year of Our Lord 2020 is not a normal year.
We are in Coronatide–the clever term church wags have come up with to name this too-long season of the Covid-19 pandemic and quarantine. Most Episcopal parishes, including mine, last celebrated Mass in March. March 8 was our last Sunday together, and March 11 our last weekday. Today being June 11 means we’ve gone three full months without the Sacrament of Holy Communion, three full months without the Real Eucharistic Presence of Jesus Christ. For me, and for many, going without is painful, and each day that extends Coronatide only adds to the pain.
We do recognize the Body of Christ elsewhere, even as we draw a distinction between these presences and the Real Presence in the Sacrament. The Church (the people, not the buildings) is the Body of Christ. People who are on the margins, threatened, and vulnerable are the Body of Christ, for Jesus said that inasmuch as you cared for the least of these, you cared for me. The Salvadoran Jesuit priest and martyr Father Ignacio Ellacuria called these el pueblo crucificado–the crucified people.
Flint, Michigan, is home to many of el pueblo crucificado. We are the lead-poisoned from the Flint Water Crisis. We have high rates of crime, unemployment, and illiteracy. And we’re the poorest mid-sized city in the nation, with a median household income around $27,000. This means half our households live, or try to live, on less money than this–sometimes much less. One needn’t look too far in any direction from the downtown intersection of Saginaw and Third Streets, where the parish church of St. Paul’s Episcopal has stood for nearly 150 years, to find el pueblo crucificado, the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi … sometimes not too far at all.
A favorite image of el pueblo crucificado, of Corpus Christi, is a photo I took right in front of these doors of a man I knew as Steve. He stretched himself out in a cruciform posture on the same sidewalk you see above. It was an unusually warm November afternoon for Flint, and Steve took advantage of the late-day sun. For no other reason than a nudge from the Holy Spirit, I just happened to look outside and saw Steve. I checked on him to make sure he was okay (he was) and I retreated to take the picture.
Steve was a double-amputee who made his way around downtown Flint in his wheelchair. Steve could be quite friendly, but whenever whatever mental illness he had kicked in, Steve would have loud and vulgar conversations with someone only he could see. I write about Steve in the past tense because I haven’t seen him in a couple of years and don’t know if he’s alive or dead. This uncertainty happens too often with the vulnerable people we meet. We see them, and then we don’t, and we wonder what happened to them. Sometimes we never find out.
At our live streamed Morning Prayer today, I encouraged my congregation to seek Corpus Christi–the Body of Christ–someplace other than at the altar from which we’ve gone missing for three months now. Corpus Steve isn’t the same as the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and yet the Real Presence of Jesus Christ is somehow found in both. Perhaps Jesus was on to something more than we could’ve imagined when he said you’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.
Frank Weston, Bishop of what was then Zanzibar, put it as well as anyone not divine when he addressed the Anglo-Catholic Conference in 1923:
“And it is folly, it is madness, to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.”