Church of the Holy Communion, Charleston, SC
I can’t not begin by saying what a joyful privilege it is to be back at the Church of the Holy Communion, and how utterly honored I am that Father Sanderson invited me to be the preacher for this momentous occasion.
Liturgically, we’re keeping the feast of Corpus Christi today; Corpus Christi—Latin for “Body of Christ,” which is arguably the feast-of-title for this parish. It celebrates the gift of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist—more specifically, the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. In the celebration of the Mass, the Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ, is re-membered. Vocal inflection is important here—we don’t just “remember” the Body of Christ, in the sense of conjuring up a certain mental image of a past event, we re-member it. That is, the various members of the Body of Christ, the community of the baptized, are brought together, called together, by God the Holy Spirit. So, we begin to re-member the Body of Christ just by showing up, by inhabiting this sacred space for a sacred purpose. Then, we continue to re-member the Corpus Christi in the Liturgy of the Word, when we hear and attend to the sacred writings of our gathered family, that which has been handed along to us by past generations of disciples of Jesus. Finally, we re-member the Body of Christ as we re-present the “crucial” sacrifice of Christ—you know where that word “crucial” comes from, right?; it’s been adopted into our language as a metaphor for anything that is of absolutely fundamental importance, but it’s derived from the same Latin word from which we get “cross,” because the cross is of absolutely fundamental importance—we re-member the Body of Christ, the Corpus Christi, when we re-present the crucial sacrifice of Christ, in union with our own sacrifice of “praise and thanksgiving,” along with “ourselves, our souls and bodies,” which is all familiar language to you because it has been spoken by celebrants at this altar Sunday by Sunday and Holy Day by Holy Day across the span of decades for well over a century.
Sacrifice, of course, requires a priest; that is its nature. Jesus is himself our Great High Priest; in fact, both priest and victim in the eucharistic sacrifice, as we know from the Epistle to the Hebrews and from one of our more beloved hymns. But, in the earthly liturgy, there must be an alter Christus—“another Christ”—one among the baptized Faithful who is set apart to re-present Christ in the Church’s eucharistic re-presentation of the sacrifice of Christ. We need a visible host for the meal. Those who are so set apart we know as presbyters, priests. Dow Sanderson has devoted a major chunk of his life, which I know he considers a blessing, to serving as the principal priest, the alter Christus, in this parish. He has stood at this altar countless times, representing God to the people and the people to God, as word-proclaimer and bread-breaker, the one who in his person re-members the Corpus Christi here on Ashley Avenue every Lord’s Day and Holy Day.
But, within parish communities, this priestly ministry of re-presenting Christ extends well beyond the celebration of the liturgy. The parish priest im-personates Christ—not fraudulently, of course, but in sincerity and truth. When I use the word “impersonate,” don’t miss the connection between “person” and “parson,” which is a somewhat archaic but still very rich word that has been used to refer to members of the clergy who are embedded in the life of the community they serve. Father Dow has been the parson here because, in his person, he has been an extension of the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I can’t help but make a connection here with the image of God that I held in my imagination as a young child. I imagined God as about a 35-year old man in a tan suit and a paisley tie who lived in the bell tower of the Baptist church that I attended with my family. Now, I know your Rector to have a passing acquaintance with bow ties, paisley or not, and he may or may not have ever camped out in the bell tower, but those aren’t the important factoids here. The important connection is that Fr Dow has been the “parson” at the Church of the Holy Communion.
Part of our work—part of our “liturgy” this morning is to release him from that role. In ancient Greek drama, the actors all wore masks, which is how the audience could readily recognize who they were impersonating. The Greek word for these dramatic masks is prosopon, which makes it into Latin as persona, and into English, then, as person. So, today, we are allowing Dow Sanderson to lay aside that mask, that persona, that he has worn so faithfully. And, quite frankly, he probably needs us to assist him in releasing himself. It isn’t easy, for Fr Dow or for the rest of us for whom he has become not only the face but the heart and soul of this parish. If you’re at all like me, you’ve become accustomed to subconsciously identifying people with the car that they drive. When I drive into the parking lot of the Diocese of Springfield, I am aware immediately of whether the Archdeacon or the Administrator or the Communications Coordinator or the Cathedral Dean or the Dean’s office manager are there or not. I suspect that driving up Ashley Avenue and not seeing Fr Sanderson’s car will seem very strange to most of you for quite a long time.
Yet, we know that Fr Dow is but a deputy of the Good Shepherd, and that this Good Shepherd envisions a future full of blessing for both Dow and the Church of the Holy Communion, apart from one another. The final blessing that he gives this morning will be the first step into that future, for him and for Fiona, and for all who love this great parish. Holy Communion will yet have another “parson,” one whose car you come to recognize and take comfort from seeing as you drive by. The arrival of the next rector will be an occasion of great joy. Today, our job is to give thanks—thanks to God, for Dow Sanderson’s ministry here, thanks to Fr Dow for his willingness to pour himself out as a libation in this place and for these people, and to receive Fr Dow’s thanks to the parish for offering him an environment in which he could in grow in holiness and become more like Jesus.
So it is entirely “meet and right” that we will soon be in that portion of the liturgy known as “the Great Thanksgiving.” The celebrant, the alter Christus, will bid us as the Corpus Christi to “lift up [our] hearts,” and we will respond that “we lift them up unto the Lord.” And then we will be drawn inexorably into that most sacred of mysteries by which the ecclesial Corpus Christi is invited by the exalted and glorified Corpus Christi to partake of the sacramental Corpus Christi, participating in the very deathless life of the Holy Trinity, in the Celestial Banquet and the consummation of all bliss. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.