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Terrance KleinMay 29, 2024
Rupert Brooke’s original grave on the island of Skyros. Photo: King’s College, Cambridge

A Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8 Hebrew 9:11-15 Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Wars are often greeted with great optimism, and what was then known as “The Great War,” was no exception. It only became “The First World War” when a second, even worse war, erupted. No one, at least in the allied nations, greeted the latter with the naïve optimism they did with the first. Some thought the first would settle old grievances, strengthen degenerative youth and make the world safe for democracy. But looking toward a second war, the calamity and carnage of the first were too well remembered.

Rupert Brooke was the first of the Great War poets. This young man made the upstairs folks of Downton Abbey look downright dowdy. Tall, handsome, with golden locks of hair, he was by everyone’s account a truly charming man. Brooke considered his boyhood days at Rugby School the happiest of his life. He then attended King’s College, Cambridge, where he was made, a member of the Cambridge Apostles, which is still one of the university’s storied and exclusive academic societies.

But within its first year, the Great War claimed Rupert Brooke’s life before he and everyone else had been horribly disabused of the notion that war might be a good thing.

If war has a noble side and you want to ponder it, you cannot do better than the poem that became an immediate success in the first months of the Great War: Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier.” In its famous lines, death is the great gift one gives to one’s country, and those who fall in battle, wherever they might be buried, are testaments to their native land.

If I should die, think only this of me:
  That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

A foreign field receives his mortal remains, but they retain their English character. Having made the ultimate sacrifice, duly given to God, this soldier-turned-dust lies in foreign soil, something of a tabernacle to England.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke’s poem offers a portal to the mystery we call Corpus Christi. Both the poem and the feast suggest that a pure and noble life does not go down into the darkness of death. No, the hero embraces death only to live on in perpetuity.

“The Soldier” says, find my grave and you find my heart. You will find me still among you for I was formed by what is best in you, and what is highest and most noble cannot die.

But this is also what Christ said to us the night before he died. I will meet death. I will live forever. I am yours. I was formed by what is best in you, and what is highest and most noble cannot die.

The poem parallels the Gospel, but if Christ’s promise of everlasting life is not true, the promise of “The Soldier” is destined to disappoint. It would be only noble sentiment, no more solid than the dust of the innumerable fallen and forgotten. After all, even those who promise never to forget must also die and be forgotten.

But Christ remains among us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, in the primary mystery he gave to us, the church. He creates and sustains the church in her sacraments. The reserved presence of Christ in the tabernacle and his displayed presence in the monstrance are testaments to a more fundamental existence. Just as the remains of a soldier bespeak the nation that bore him, a consecrated host announces the church’s origin; the act of consecration we call the Eucharist and the mystery of Christ’s enduring presence is what we know as our present church. They all say: I have met death. I will live forever. I am yours.

Though parallel, the poem and Gospel eventually part ways because heaven’s sacrifice is greater than any earth can offer. We cannot contain death; it continues to conquer us. All our champions go down into dust, either fallen in the fervent flush of youth or silently in the aged snows of winter.

At age 27, Rupert Brooke, a sublieutenant in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, died of blood poisoning, brought on by an Egyptian mosquito as he journeyed to the calamitous Allied assault on Gallipoli. He was buried on the Greek isle of Skyros, under encircling olive trees. A friend remembers the air on that day being redolent of sage and thyme.

To surrender well to death is noble. It is the height of our humanity. But only something greater than the human can conquer death and can cause death itself to capitulate.

Christ brought something greater than humans into the world.

This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
Amen, I say to you,
I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God (Mk 14:24-25).

Christ gives us the sacraments. We are sustained by them; he is not. He will only partake of them once his promise gives way to perfection.

The mysteries of his kingdom consecrate the world. They survive it, lifting the world beyond its years into eternity. If a soldier’s remains can be a sort of sacrament of the love that bore him, Christ’s sacraments are his embodied promises. They are the first fruits of the world that will receive us.

I have met death. I will live forever. I am yours.

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