A Homily for the Day of Corpus Christi
by Bishop Steven Marshall
The feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday as a solemn commemoration of the Holy Eucharist, is a fairly recent festival in the development of the liturgy of the Western Church. It was officially adopted by the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Clement V at the General Council of Vienne in 1311. It later became an especially important date in the recognition of various esoteric orders and mystical developments from within Christianity, such as the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. The date carries a central importance in the Fama Fraternitatis, the seminal document of the Rosicrucian orders throughout the world. During the late Middle Ages the festival was observed with a grand procession of the exposed host in a pageant joined by religious orders, prelates, sovereigns, princes, magistrates and members of various craft guilds. The procession was followed by miracle plays put on by Guild members. Some have hypothesised that such ritual dramas were the beginnings of the degrees in Freemasonry. One of the reasons for its adoption by more Gnostic and mystically oriented movements throughout its history could be similar to the reasons for the veneration of St. Paul the Apostle by the early Gnostics, that being that this feast day was originally inspired by a spiritual experience.
Robert de Torote, Bishop of Liège, ordered its first celebration in his diocese in 1246 AD through the inspired persuasion of the Blessed Juliana, a visionary and the prioress of the convent of Mont Cornillon. A devotee of the Most Blessed Sacrament ever since her youth, her feeling for the Eucharist increased even more after a vision in which she saw the Church under a full moon bearing one dark spot. She interpreted the dark spot as the failure of the Church to adequately revere the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist and the real presence of Christ in its elements of bread and wine.
Why give reverence to a seeming piece of bread? Such would seem to be the height of bondage to materiality to a professor of Gnosticism. Yet a sacramental practice designed around something as common and simple as a wafer of bread can not be accused of materialism. Material things are two-edged swords. They can be the symbols of transubstantiation that provide windows to transcendence, or they can be the closed blinds upon that window that prevents us from seeing anything beyond the material. Gnostics do not deny the reality of matter. Nor is matter inherently evil to the Gnostic. The crux of the problem is that a reductionistic materialism or preoccupation with material things tends to swallow up or deny the experience of spiritual reality. Both the outer material reality and the inner spiritual reality are real to the Gnostic. One is not real to the exclusion of the other. A connection exists between the outer and the inner. When experiences of the outer life symbolise events of the inner spiritual life then these experiences can be called synchronicities in Jungian terms. When external events become metaphors of the experience of an inward and spiritual grace then these events can be called sacraments or mysteries.
St Paul the Apostle in his Epistle to the Corinthians writes down the earliest written account of the institution of one of these mysteries, the sacrament of the Eucharist:
“For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He brake it, and He said: Take, eat; this is my Body, which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of me. After the same manner also, He took the cup, when He had supped, saying: This cup is the new testament in my Blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this Bread, and drink this cup, ye show the Lord’s death till He come.”
“Ye show forth the Lord’s death till He come,” has particular significance from a Gnostic point of view, since the death recalls the release of the Christ from matter and the taking on of his light vesture which is his true and spiritual body. Yet death also bears for the Gnostic an almost reversed meaning as the descent of the Life of Christ into matter in the incarnation and also mystically in the sacrifice of the Mass.
Corpus Christi means “Body of Christ,” which expression has been misinterpreted in two different ways in mainstream Christianity. What most know as the Roman Catholic view that the consecrated host becomes factually human flesh—which view is not actually shared by most educated Catholics—is a misinterpretation of the Aristotelian philosophy regarding the terms substance and transubstantiation. The term substance in Aristotle’s philosophy actually refers to the ontological essence of what a thing is, rather than its outward sensibility. So transubstantiation refers to a change in the ontological essence of what a thing is, rather than how it is interpreted by the senses. A thing’s substance can be changed into something else while its outward sensibility remains the same. In this case the ontological essence of the bread becomes the “Body of Christ” through its consecration in the celebration of the Eucharist, while the host to all outward and ordinary senses remains a wafer of bread.
The other misinterpretation, widely known as the Protestant view, is that the whole expression, “Body of Christ,” is only a symbolic commemoration of an historical event and nothing else. The Gnostic view is not too dissimilar from the original Aristotelian meaning of ìtransubstantiationî with one difference. The Gnostic would emphasize the spiritual or pneumatic interpretation of the term. Rather than transubstantiation into material flesh, the Gnostic experiences the change as a transubstantiation into the spiritual “Body of Christ,” which is of the substance of a light vesture or body of light. The Gospel According to St. John calls the sacramental host “the living bread that came down from heaven.” So we are addressing a living or spiritual substance from a transcendent source, rather than an inanimate and physical one from the matter of earth.
“Amen, Amen, I say unto you: He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that Bread of Life. This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
The transubstantiation of a wafer of bread into the Body of Christ is thus spiritual and subtle in nature, rather than wholly physical and sensible by our ordinary senses in our ordinary state of consciousness. What Jesus calls “my flesh” is then also of a spiritual nature and not physically human like ours as indicated in the Gospel of Philip.
“The Lord rose from the dead. He became as he used to be, but now his body was perfect. He did indeed possess flesh, but this flesh is true flesh. Our flesh is not true, but we possess only an image of the true.”
The Gospel of Philip, which can be considered a source document for Gnostic sacramental theology, further describes the coming of Christ as the descent of the “Bread of Heaven” and the sowing of the truth, like the seed of grain, everywhere throughout creation.
“Before Christ came there was no bread in the world, just as paradise, the place where Adam was, had many trees to nourish the animals but no wheat to sustain Man. Man used to feed like the animals but when Christ came, the Perfect One, he brought bread from heaven in order that Man might be nourished with the food of Man. The Archons thought that it was by their own power and will that they were doing what they did, but the Holy Spirit in secret was accomplishing everything through them as she wished. Truth, which existed since the beginning, is sown everywhere. And many see it as it is sown, but few are they who see it as it is reaped.”
In the last two sentences of this passage we receive a clue to the mystery of transubstantiation. The seeing of the truth as it is sown might be equated with the ordinary sensing of the ritual of the Eucharist, while the seeing of the truth as it is reaped might be equated with the non-ordinary sensing of the spiritual change, both inwardly and outwardly, as we partake of the light-power and spiritual sustenance offered to us in the Eucharistic meal. Likewise in the Egyptian Mysteries to which the Alexandrian Gnostics were heir, the risen Osiris is symbolised by a shock of wheat carried on a litter in procession. Thus bread and the wheat from which it is made becomes a symbol of resurrected Life and restoration to the Light. The sentence directly preceding in the latter passage from the Gospel of Philip describes the role of the Holy Spirit in providing these spiritual mysteries through material elements. The Holy Spirit, who is acknowledged by the Gnostics to be the spiritual mother of Christ, makes the change of substance, the transubstantiation, that sanctifies the bread to become the Body of Christ. Even so in the esoteric teachings of the Eleusinian mysteries, Kore, mythologically related to Sophia and Isis, weaves while she is in the Underworld the garment of light for the soul and cooks up the ambrosial food that nourishes it in its “flight into the sun.” The change of substance in the Eucharist, just as the transformation of the soul in the Eleusinian mysteries, is accomplished through a feminine power, the power of the Holy Spirit, our Celestial Mother and Consoler.
What is more important than diddling over sacramental theology is that something in the substance has changed and thus we can experience the same change by our participation in the mystery of this transformation of the oblations of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Christos.
One of the difficulties of seeing the miraculous in the plain is the materialism and reductionism of our contemporary culture. By this we do not proscribe having material things or maintaining a practice that includes physical symbols of a transcendent reality. The message intended is that through an overvaluing of the material world, we have forgotten how to use symbols and mysteries as windows to transcendence; we have lost the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
A profound difference exists between the symbols and ritual of a mystery and the signs and doctrines of mainstream religion. Most mainstream religion has forsaken the symbols and the mystery and have clung to signs and dogmatic beliefs in their place. Then all that remains of the rituals are but replicas without life, without the Spirit, without the capacity to induce Gnosis, the intimate acquaintance and intuitive knowing of an interior and spiritual reality.
The effort of our Gnostic sacramental work is to reclaim and restore the symbols and the myth, the mystery and the magic of our spiritual and religious heritage. Transubstantiation is not a doctrinal belief or a dogma of faith to the Gnostic but an experience, leaving an indelible stamp upon our consciousness. Instead of dogmatic theology we receive a mystical strand of interior images, sounds and sensations, which become the poetic and archetypal “grist for the mill” that grinds out a meaning for our experience. The host enthroned in the monstrance or elevated in the Mass is to the physical eyes of one in the ordinary state of consciousness nothing but a wafer of wheaten bread. Yet a change has occurred in our participation in the mystery of the Eucharist. It is no longer the same as before our experience of the mystery. Something has changed both in the substance and in ourselves. The “eternal life” that we receive is the recognition of the immortal spark of light within us, and by its increase we bring more light into the world. As the Christos hath said, “the bread that I give is my flesh, which I give for the life of the whole world.” Our light and our consciousness is increased by our partaking of the divine light embodied in its changed substance. The transubstantiation is not so much out there but in us; in the deepest and truest core of our being the ontological substance of who we are is changed. By our consciously, and I emphasise “consciously”, connecting the recognition of our interior spark of the divine light with the real spiritual presence, the transcendental reality embodied in the sacramental Host, it truly becomes for us that Most Precious Gift, a gift from the Treasury of the Light, The Heavenly Bread, the Life of the whole world.
When we participate in such a mystery our spiritual eyes are opened; we see and feel the light in the Host, because we find the same light in ourselves. We see the “truth as it is reaped.” When we give reverence to the consecrated Host as the embodiment of the real presence of Christ, we reverence the spark of light that dwells in all of us. When we experience the divine mystery we become conscious of our true and royal Self; we apprehend that Self, which as in a mirror, is the image of the Christ within.
The Host becomes a body for the Divine Light that “lighteth every one that cometh into the world,” so that, as we partake of that light and participate in its increase of our own light and consciousness, it becomes the way-bread of the weary pilgrim on the spiritual journey back to the Light, the Light from which we and the Mystery have both originated. It becomes the Heavenly Bread, the Bread of the Angels, the partaking of which can not replace the journey but which is the necessary sustenance on that journey, without which we would not have the nourishment, the strength, the life or the consciousness to endure. It becomes both mystically and cosmically, for us and for all the worlds, the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that came down from heaven, the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ within.
Steven Marshall is the Bishop of Queen of Heaven Gnostic Church, a parish of the Ecclesia Gnostica in Portland, Oregon.