This past Thursday I was on retreat at Emery House with the brothers of The Society of St. John the Evangelist. On Thursday we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, a commemoration of the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Brother Curtis Almquist began his homily this way: "Maundy Thursday is complicated..."
Indeed. There is lots going on in Holy Week and much to remember and reflect upon: washing of feet, betrayal, a new commandment, impending crucifixion, as well as the institution of the Lord's Supper. But the Feast of Corpus Christi gives us an opportunity to simply ponder this mystery which is so focused on ordinary things: bread and wine.
In his homily, Brother Curtis read an extended portion from Dom Gregory Dix's (1901- 1952) The Shape of the Liturgy. It's a book I own, and have presumably read along the way and so I've probably come across these words before. But in that chapel, on the Feast of Corpus Christi 2017, in West Newbury, Massachusetts, these words struck me in a particular way. In the litany of places that Dix names where the bread has been broken and the cup shared, I can relate first-hand to many of them. So I share these words here for those who might be interested. They come from pages 774-775 of Dix's book:
At the heart of it all is the Eucharistic action, a thing of an absolute simplicity – the taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing and giving of a cup of wine and water, as these were first done with their new meaning by a young Jew before and after supper with His friends on the night before He died. Soon it was simplified still further, by leaving out the supper and combining the double grouping before and after it into a single rite. So the four-action Shape of the Liturgy was found by the end of the first century.[i] He had told His friends to do this henceforward with the new meaning “for the anamnesis of Him,” and they have done it always since.[ii]
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men and women have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son; for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so, wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheater; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonization S. Joan of Arc – one could fill many pages with the reasons why men and women have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei – the holy common people of God.