Every year we have this wonderful run of feasts: Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and now Corpus Christi. After we had the feast of the Ascension, I was speaking to some people about the architecture of St Mary’s Church, and I realised that I had missed a wonderful opportunity to talk about the Ascension in terms of our church. So, if you don’t mind, I will use today’s feast to do that. In one sense, since the Church is designed with the celebration of the Eucharist in mind, today’s feast is even more fitting for such a tour. And our tour begins with the entrance procession.
I think I have mentioned before that processions are, along with meals, one of the earliest and most fundamental forms of ritual. And our entrance procession is far from meaningless. To understand the procession we have to remember the very nature of the temple. The Jewish Temple was the place of
the Presence, where God is with his people. We know that Christ replaced the Jewish Temple with his own body. His flesh became the place where God and humanity met, where heaven and earth touched, where God reached down to fill creation, and creation opened up to be filled by God.
I mentioned our sequence of feasts, and this helps us to understand something further about the Church. In the Ascension, we had Christ taking his place at the right hand of the Father. When he did this, he took our humanity with him. Creation had now entered the heart of God and was full of divinity. We then had the feast of Pentecost, in which, as we hear in our Fourth Eucharistic Prayer, the Holy Spirit was sent to sanctify creation to the full. From these two feasts, we understand two things: Christ’s body is now in heaven and, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we have become part of his body. Our participation in Christ reaches a highpoint in the celebration of the Eucharist, and therefore when we celebrate the Eucharist, as Christ’s body, we are touching heaven, because that is where he is.
We therefore can see that the entrance procession, which used to consist of the whole church – priest and people – is a participation in the Ascension of Christ into heaven, something in which we can participate through the Holy Spirit. When we think about it a little, it makes sense. If the Eucharist is our way into the life of God, if our partaking of the Bread from heaven is our entrance into the Trinity, then we must in some way be in heaven.
Another way to see this is to have a look at the old architecture of the Church, how it was originally designed. As you probably know, the current altar is a new one introduced after the Second Vatican Council. The original altar is the High Altar in front of the tabernacle. We were using this for the online Masses before we could have people back into church. When you see this high altar as the apex of the whole building, then a lot of things make sense.
The first thing you notice is that the entrance to the old sanctuary, the sanctuary being the part of the Church were the sacrifice takes place, the entrance to the sanctuary is marked by the massive crucifix. Moreover, it is
only from the massive Cross that the beautiful stencilling on the walls begins. The stencilling shows us a change in scene, a transformation, a new realm of great beauty. This is the heavenly realm. And the design shows us that our only access to it is by way of Christ’s Cross.
That this is the only way is further emphasised by the communion rails. Many of you will remember and some of you might have read that these rails are where you would kneel to receive communion. Thus, it is under the cross where one would receive the Body and Blood of Christ and therefore be fully incorporated into the life of Christ, through the gift of participation in Christ’s cross. You can see that the communion rails are slightly in front of the Cross and therefore have stencilling around them, so when you receive the Eucharist, you have in some way passed from the old to the new, have moved into paradise. It is from here that we draw our life. This is our true home.
There is a further detail that I have not been able to confirm but which seems to work. If you look at the design of the Church and especially the sanctuary, you begin to realise that the details are not accidental. Especially the numbering of the details. So, when you look at the steps that lead up to the altar, you see a grouping of two steps at the communion rails, and then a grouping of three steps that lead up to the altar.
In Christian symbolism these numbers are often very specific. You often see them in pictures of Christ blessing things, in the way his fingers are arranged. Two fingers are pinched together to show the two natures of Christ: the divine and human. This leaves the other three fingers that indicate the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
I don’t think that it is a stretch to see the two steps at the communion rails as indicating the two natures of Christ, his humanity which through his person gives us access to his divinity, all of which we receive in the Blessed Sacrament when we receive him personally. This then leads onto the three steps which indicates our passage through the Eucharist, through our incorporation into Christ, into the heart of God, the life of the Trinity, the life of love. And this life of love is laid bare for us on the altar at which we present the Son to the Father, in the act of love which is the life of all things and the end goal of all creation.
Thus, in the feast of Corpus Christi we celebrate the gift of the Eucharist, which as seen in the architecture of St Mary’s, is the very structure of the Church, the very structure of our incorporation in the life of Christ and so in the heart of God. Let’s pray then for a deeper awareness and gratitude of this incomprehensible gift. May we too become, like this Church, mini-sacraments that both go out to the world and also draw it to Christ, to God.