Sermon preached at the Church of S. Mary, Lewisham
"To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him - that is the perfect reign of Love."
Last Thursday the Church celebrated the great Feast of Corpus et Sanguis Christi – the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Like many others (not least those in Ghent where many from here will be attending Mass this morning) we are observing the Feast today. And, in so doing, we are affirming the Real Presence of Christ in our midst and of the real importance of loving devotion of giving praise, glory and profound respect for God-with-us. We give thanks that we are in the midst of Divine Love. That is our faith.
On Maundy Thursday we worshipped with Jesus in Jerusalem as he observed the Passover Feast before His Passion and Death and shared His life with his disciples. Now that we have also celebrated the glory of His resurrection, we recognise His continuing presence with us, a presence made explicit in those words: ‘This is my Body, which is for you.” So, today, we give our attention to Jesus present with us in the Blessed Sacrament. We are at-one with Divine Love made explicit in those words of the 19th c. French priest S. Peter Eymard: "To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him, that is the perfect reign of Love."
A friend and contemporary of S. Peter was S. John Marie Vianney, better known as the Curé d’Ars. There is a moving story told about him that some of you may know which tells of the way he would watch an old farmer enter his church every day and sit before the Tabernacle in which, of course, resides the Blessed Sacrament, just as it does here. Eventually S. John decided to ask what the old man did when he sat there. His response was very simple and has become world famous: “I look at him, he looks at me and we tell each other that we love each other.”
That old farmer was contemplating for, as one commentator has said: ‘Contemplation is gazing on God with the eyes of the heart.’
DEVOTION IN THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
I often wonder if our Church really encourages people to adopt this contemplative gaze in church – or in life. We’re very good at making people feel welcome, we are well known for great social events and for the care we show one another, especially those in need. But are we well known for our devotion to Jesus? When I was growing up in the church I was taught to spend time with God before Mass and to spend time with others afterwards. Nowadays, if you go into many churches, they are often full of noise and activity and I wonder if that old farmer would have found the stillness and silence in which he could simply gaze on Divine Love.
I am sure we are all aware of the way in which what we give our attention to – what we gaze upon – helps mould who we are. Give your attention to violence, envy, greed, lust and so on and you may find yourself becoming violent, envious, greedy and lustful. The human heart, the centre of who we are, is moulded by its desires. So giving attention, giving our devotion, to Jesus is of greatest importance. That contemplative prayer of what might be called ‘loving regard’ is essential in developing our life in Christ. All the great saints have realised this and one of them, S. Ignatius Loyola, encourages us to take time to recognise the power of evil that would draw us away from that fullness of life God offers, and actively gaze upon Christ. To re-direct our attention, if you like, to Jesus.
When I was a parish priest I used to ask people what they did when they first entered the church. Did they acknowledge that ‘this is the House of God and the Gate of Heaven’ or did they ignore the Host? Of course it’s right to be welcoming and there are practical things many need to do, but to make a practice of genuflecting to the Blessed Sacrament and then kneeling in prayer as one’s first activity helps to get the attention right.
But it’s not only in church we may need to re-direct our attention. If, like me, you have a constant, often critical, dialogue going on in your head, or find what might be called ‘negative thoughts’ easily taking hold, then one needs to do something to alter where one’s attention is given. Recently I have come across a really helpful Buddhist prayer-practice. It’s called the ‘Metta Brahvana’ and simply involves three intentions: ‘May I be well’, ‘May I be happy’, ‘May I be free from suffering’ and then expanding that desire to those we love, like – and loathe! – until, finally, we direct that desire to the whole world.
This matter of giving attention to a desire to love lies, of course, at the heart of our faith. As Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” (Lk.6:27-28). There’s nothing to prevent you from devising your own ‘Metta Bhavana’. For example, one might use phrases like: ‘May I – may John – know love’, ‘May John know joy’, ‘May John come to fullness of life’ and so on. It’s a way of re-wiring the heart’s desire to attend to what is life-giving.
THE SACRED HEART
At the end of this week when we have given our attention to God’s loving gift of Himself to us in the Eucharist, when we are invited to wonder at His Presence in the Blessed Sacrament that we might “be possessed by Jesus and … possess Him – (in) the perfect reign of Love" comes another great Feast which reinforces this profound invitation. The Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is celebrated on Friday to complement Corpus Christi by its focus on the Divine Compassion of God in Christ.
In 1673, eight days after Corpus Christi, a young sister of the Visitation Order, Margaret Mary Alaqoque, received the first of a number of revelations concerning Christ’s love for humankind. In a vision she was invited to rest her head on the heart of Jesus and, in so doing, began a devotion that was to sweep the world. Of course for centuries before Mary Margaret people had been aware of God’s love. Indeed, that is the bedrock of our faith. St. Bonaventure, one of the great saints of the Franciscan Order, wrote: ‘I have found this Heart in the Eucharist when I have found there the Heart of my Sovereign, of my Friend, of my Brother, that is to say, the Heart of my friend and Redeemer. … Come, my brethren, let us enter into this amiable Heart never again to go out from It.’
To some modern ears all this talk of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and the Sacred Heart can seem very flamboyant. But there is a truth here upon which each of us needs to reflect; the truth that it is only in and through love that the world can be saved. That you and I can come to fullness of life. These twin Feasts hold us into that deep truth and invite us to allow it to possess us.
The importance of Corpus Christi is to proclaim, year in and year out, that: ‘Through faith, Christ's presence becomes no longer just a presence for the believer, but also a presence with the believer.’ (ARCIC - Agreed Statement on Eucharistic Doctrine) which takes up one of St Augustine's favourite sayings: "We become that which we have received". And the Feast of the Sacred Heart directs our attention to the fact that it is Divine Love that we both consume and by which we are invited to be consumed. So, today as every day, and in every moment, let us take to heart those words of S. Peter Eymard: "To be possessed by Jesus and to possess Him, that is the perfect reign of Love.”