Words on the Word

Corpus Christi

After the Moster Jubilee celebrations, I was privileged to celebrate Corpus Christi with the Catholic parish of Haugesund in the ancient church of Avaldsnes, dedicated to St Olav.

Exodus 24.3-8: We will observe all that the Lord has decreed.
Hebrews 9.11-15: He has won our eternal redemption by his blood.
Mark 14.12-26: Take it, this is my Body.

Our first reading recounts a watershed in Israel’s history: the giving of the Law. What does the Law represent? It contains statutes that Moses has received from God, standing face to face with The Holy One on Sinai. The Law teaches Israel how to worship and live rightly. It establishes boundaries where such are needed: in order to restrict human ambition, avarice, and vengeance. It widens the horizon where we tend to limit ourselves in hugging our privileges, wealth, and status.

The Law applies equally to all, rich and poor. It orients human society divinely. The task of society is not just to settle a pragmatic contract by which different people can coexist without excessive conflict, enabling safety and thriving. Such a contract is needed, by all means: its definition is a crucial political endeavour in each generation. God‘s Law, however, aims higher. It reminds us that we have our origin in God, and are called to become like God. It nurtures great hope on our behalf. It reminds us of our potential to be free, beautiful, and holy, to know joy.

It is useful to be reminded of all this right now, this weekend, when we celebrate the millennium of our first Christian code of law, established at Moster in 1024 by St Olav, ably assisted by the English Bishop Grimketel.

During the last few days we have rehearsed many aspects of this law.

A society founded on might was to become a society ruled by right. Each person was to be recognised as a subject. Woman was no longer to be man’s chattel. Fathers were no longer all-powerful with regard to infants born to them – each child’s right to life was solemnly defined. Even slaves were assured a minimum of care, entitled to share in freemen’s worship and, on death, to be buried in hallowed ground.

Such developments are rightly regarded as civilisational progress, even if time was needed for coherent implementation. The Christian code of law, we have been told many times, was about the introduction of new, Christian ‘values’ based on the notion of ‘human dignity’. All this is marvellous. We are right to give thanks.

And yet it must be admitted that some of the jubilee’s core vocabulary is problematic. Let us consider the term ‘value’. If we read the Gospel carefully, we shall see that it cannot be really be said to set out from ‘values’. The Apostles’ preaching was not a project of illumination proclaiming: ‘Listen up, people of good will, we proclaim to you a message of great gladness, a concept of society based on solidarity, inclusion, and sustainable development. Join us! This is the future!’

No. The Apostles bore testimony, rather, to an encounter they’d had. The spoke of One they had known who was possessed of an authority unlike that of any other man; who by word and example had shown them a new way of being human, not by affirming them in their present excellence but by showing them what they had it in them to become; who had revealed the sense of ‘love’ and ‘mercy’; who had effectively dispelled evil wherever he went; and who had vanquished death. They had reached the certainty that this Man, Jesus, was the Son of God; that communion with him let us be reckoned as God’s children; and that this process is realised through participation in Christ’s sacred mysteries, instituted the night before he suffered in elements of bread and wine, accessible to all who have been baptised in the name of the Blessed Trinity.

When the Christian code of law prescribed the building of churches throughout the land it wasn’t primarily to facilitate democratic conference; it was so that the entire people, men and women, rich and poor, might gather before the Lord’s altar to receive his Body and Blood, the foundation of the new and eternal covenant which then, in turn, would reshape the country through an awareness of communion based on brotherhood. Within that communion each is responsible for the good of all; and all will answer to the same merciful but simultaneously just Judge.

It is fruitful, then, to consider the Moster Jubilee in the light of Corpus Christi. We, who gratefully and joyfully confess the Lord’s corporeal Presence among us, may ask ourselves: Am I conscious of the responsibility I bear to his Body, in the Blessed Sacrament and in the great sacrament of the Church?

Let me share with you a memory that nurtures my own, personal reflection. In 1996 I visited for the first time Minster Abbey in Kent, a Benedictine monastery not far from Canterbury, where Bishop Grimketel lies buries. The sisters were delighted to have rebuilt their church, which along with parts of the monastery had been devastated by fire nine years earlier, on 22 August 1987, when the nuns awoke at midnight during a tremendous thunderstorm, to see their church engulfed in flames. What do you do when you find yourself in the middle of a fire? You recuse what is dearest to you, without thinking entirely rationally. The prioress of the monastery, however, the distinguished carver in stone and wood Mother Concordia Scott, instantly saw the situation with perfect lucidity. Without a moment’s hesitation she went downstairs and out, then entered the burning church in order to fetch the Body of Christ out of the tabernacle. The date happened to be that of the dedication of the church. Both the Body of the Lord and that of the priories emerged from the flame-enveloped church unscathed, though reeking of smoke. The nuns of Minster seem to have no doubt that the multiple blessings of reconstruction flowed in large measure from Mother Concordia’s courage, sacrifice, and sense of essentials.

This incident invites us to an examination of conscience.

Do we place the holiness and integrity of the Body of Christ, with all its explicit and implicit demands on us, first in our consideration of welfare? Do we, in this time of jubilee, consider the very first clause of St Olav’s code of law:

This is the origin of our legislation: that we are to bow towards the East and pray to Christ, the Holy One, for a clement year and for peace, beseeching grace to keep our land inhabited and our ruler unharmed. He is to be our friend, we are to be this; but God is to be the Friend of all.

No one, says our Lord, has greater love than he who gives his life for his friends. And he calls us all to the very greatest love. If we look for notions of Christian value and dignity, this is where we find them. And so we have a reliable measure to apply to our lives and decisions, each in Jesus’s name examining himself or herself. Amen.


Mother Concordia Scott in her workshop.