Every Memorial Day weekend, my good friend Lynee takes her mother Vera to visit cemeteries. They cover three counties! It being May, her husband Jim, a farmer, gets a pass. Vera’s son Brian, the local sheriff, also opts out, calling it “The Death Tour.” I was happy to go along this year. I am amazed at the number of cemeteries in my own county that I have never seen, and I find reading the family names and looking around at the vista from each cemetery rather fascinating.
Vera has an intricate and intractable system. At each stop there were graves that received both flowers and prayers—and others, only prayers. Still others, only a walk-by. We were near the grave of a very distant connection when I noticed this poem on a tombstone near it:
A Farmer’s Prayer
Lord, bless the land you’ve given me,
And may I always know
As I tend each crop and creature
You’re the One who helps them grow.
Grant me strength and wisdom
Please protect me from harm,
And thank you
For your gracious gift—
The blessing of a farm.
Looking at the encircling, cultivated land, with a thrice-steepled church standing straight west of us, I thought that the poem had found the perfect setting. Here was a man who had loved the land, had lived on the land and was now given back to the land. And here was his acknowledgment that all of this had been done in the Lord. God had given the land into his care; God had blessed the work of his hands; and, now, with his mortal remains beneath the land, the farmer is himself the seed that has been planted, rising into new life.
Corpus Christi is a medieval feast, coming at a time when little was known of the ancient church. Does it really make sense to celebrate a feast of the Eucharist, when the Eucharist itself is the cause and the core of our celebration every week? And if one were to choose a single day to ponder the mystery, wouldn’t that be Holy Thursday?
But from the beginning, with its processions out the doors of the church and into the countryside, Corpus Christi has had another sensibility. We concentrate upon the Eucharistic elements themselves: the bread and the wine, which become the very presence of Christ in our midst. There is a right reasoning at work here.
On Corpus Christi, we concentrate upon the bread and the wine, which become the very presence of Christ in our midst.
We believe that in the Incarnation God the Son took every element of human life into himself. As the fathers of the church put it, there was no part of our humanity, save the stain of sin, that had not been made into an expression of God. And so, while at Christmas we profess that God has lowered self to become a man, at the Ascension we rejoice that our humanity has been lifted up into the Godhead.
In every Eucharist, we celebrate this marriage of heaven and of earth. We are divinized, body and soul, as we consume “the Bread of Angels.” Catholic and Orthodox forms of worship are quite deliberately sensual, physical. We employ colors, candles, flowers, vestments, incense, water, oil, wine and bread, postures and gestures, which, taken together, suggest the sanctification of the cosmos, the lifting up of earth into heaven. And all Christians receive Communion hearing that they are receiving the “body” of Christ, not merely his spirit.
There is something profoundly right about walking into nature, into the fields, on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi.
So there is something profoundly right about walking into nature, into the fields, on this Solemnity of Corpus Christi. In doing so, we say to the land, to the streams, to the woods and animals: “You, too, have been taken up into Christ. You, too, have been lifted up, which is why we must never treat you as instruments at our disposal but must reverence you tenderly, as co-heirs to the glory of Christ.”
God came among us as a man of flesh and blood. God remains among us in the form of wheat bread and fruit of the wine. In the mystery of the Eucharist, God claims our humanity as his own. In the same mystery, God sinks deep into the sinews of the earth, making all of nature the very tabernacle of his presence.
Just to the left of the farmer’s tombstone was another, also with a poem.
A Farmer’s Wife’s Prayer
Lord, I thank you for my husband
And this land that I love.
Give me strength to give him help
With your guidance from above.
Make me a good partner: attentive
Listener, my husband’s best friend.
When I chose him, I chose this land
A way of life on which we depend.
By love we three are one,
Myself, my husband and this farm.
Our labors have been successful,
With me at his right arm.
So Lord, please keep watch over us,
We need your steady hand.
We need your help and guidance
As together we work our farmland.
“By love we three are one,/ myself, my husband and this farm.” Sounds a bit “new-age” for a Kansas tombstone, but it expresses a truth as timeless as the Gospel. In Jesus the Christ, God has entered our humanity and has raised flesh and blood, our physical burdens and our sensual delights, into the heights of heaven. And, in his memory, the church celebrates the meal that he left us and reverences her Eucharistic Lord, seeded now in the form of bread and wine, word and community. We do this until he comes again, to reveal an environment, nay a cosmos, transformed into his glory.
Readings: Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 John 6:51-58