I wrote this text some weeks ago to describe some reflections about Fresh Expressions and the way I think the Roman-Catholic Church could benefit of and add something to the ecumenical discourse about the mission-shaped church. Since I started some discussions with people from different countries, I translated it into Englisch, adapted some paragraphs and added some pictures; you can find the original german text here. — Please feel free to comment.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. There will be eucharistic processions at many places all over Germany, at some — especially in the diaspora — they will be made for good on the upcoming Sunday. Some will be louder, some will be more gentle and quiet. At some processions there will be more people, at others not that many. There will be music, festive and traditional clothing, flowers and a huge variety of adorned altars.
I was born in Bavaria, in the south of Germany and even if you think it is traditional catholic land, there are a few regions with a protestant majority. When I grew up in this part of Germany, where just about up to 10% of the people are catholic, these eucharistic processions of the Feast of Corpus Christi were really strange and odd — even and especially for me. Maybe I missed the group dynamic part of these traditions — I often was the only (altar) girl of my class who attended the celebrations. Maybe I felt annoyed that I missed one really valuable day of my school holidays. Maybe I wanted to spend this priceless day at (and in!) the public pool, we passed by in our procession every year. Maybe it felt strange to celebrate a service to go by stepping out of the comfort zone they call church.
The more annoyed and irritated I felt during the liturgies, the better the small profane parties felt after the processions. We did them, of course, in a typical bavarian way by celebrating with beer and »Würstel« and, more important, with the people who joined us during the processions, or who supported us as paramedics, policemen and musicians.
The more I am part of the discourse about building new communities and facilitating Fresh Expressions of Church by thinking about innovation in church, the more questions about the catholic core within these transformation processes I am getting asked: »Is this still catholic?«
The Eucharist is some kind of litmus test for this question and the relationship of tradition and innovation in the Roman-Catholic Church. That’s why I am thinking about the Eucharistic dimensions of Church for the last couple of months intensely. And the Feast of Corpus Christi became quite relevant for my thoughts.
Thinking about the Feast of Corpus Christi under the perspective of fresh expressions of church and of course the mission-shaped church is quite interesting: Celebrations and Feasts like that are bringing up the usual dynamics of a parish’ reality like the »we always did it like that« and »we’ve never done that«. But also the »not any more« and »can it be possible these days?« — typical rhetoric rituals of a dying form of church.
But there is much more to think about.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is more or less about 800 years old and certainly doesn’t seem that fresh. But, or even especially because of this, we have to look at it closely and carefully.
What does a Feast, that is called to be a special celebration of the body and blood of Jesus Christ, mean in the sense of the mission-shaped church? What does it mean in a church, that is called to be formed by the mandate to heal and transform and thereby sanctify the world?
The theological core of the Fete Dieu, as it is called in French, correlates exactly with the perspectives of the fresh expressions of church in their very meaning:
God’s movement towards, with and within humans.
God’s concrete movement towards, with and within humans by his mission.
God’s loving movement towards, with and within humans by his very son.
God’s movement towards, with and within humans by his real presence — not just in (a) church.
His movement and love at the streets and corners and crossroads. At the altars of the daily grind. Here and now. Then and there.
God’s movement is radical, sensible, available, tangible. And: portable. Portable in the sense of: it has no meaning without it’s concrete mission towards the others.
In the discourse of the ecclesiology of the Fresh Expressions of Church you would call this: the incarnational dimension of a mission-shaped church. The missio dei and our mission, which is called to be contextualized, needs to be primarily: concrete. Radical. Sensible. Available. Tangible.
Because in becoming human, God’s mission got concrete as far as death and even resurrection. His mission, that heals, comforts, transforms and feeds. A mission that calls, blesses, challenges, brings peace and celebrates.
800 years ago, when they developed the liturgy of the Feast of Corpus Christi in the diocese of Liège, the actual goal was to come up with a Feast for the Ordinary Time of the year, that has it’s focus and basis on the sacrament of the Eucharist. The fact, that the Feast implied a missional outreach, the dynamic of going out as a fundamental part of it’s tradition, is astonishing, unique and programmatic. The Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ doesn’t remain at the altar, but keeps the promise of God’s incarnational mission. The feast is not only celebrated in a church building, but profoundly and essentially seeks to go out.
The picture of the pilgrimage of God’s people celebrating the Feast of Corpus Christi by going out on the streets, year after year, acclaiming God’s loving mission is an prophetic image of a mission-shaped church.
In this sense, the processions of the Blessed Sacrament has no end in itself. And it is an answer to the vision of a ecclesiology of the mixed economy: a church of unity in diversity. A church that actualize itself in different ways, at different places and within different contexts. At the processions of the Feast of Body and Blood of Christ you can have a premonition of these dynamics. The different kind of altars on the way of the procession reveal the diversity of the people of God. These places are delicate but significant indicators of how God’s mission realizes itself in different contexts.
That’s why the eucharistic procession of the Feast of Corpus Christi is anything but a demonstration, as you can read now and then.
It is a realisation. It is the feast of the body of Christ. It’s about doing and being as a part of his body, rather then presenting and demonstrating. It shows that Eucharist is not only the mindset, but the heartset of the church: it is concrete, has a mission and sends us to transform the world.
Thinking about the Feast of Corpus Christi is a good example of thinking about the future of the church and the ongoing dynamics of transformation: It teaches us to be careful with the terms of innovation and tradition, be regardful in using words like old and new. It is not about the question of the (decreasing) numbers of participants of one local Eucharistic procession. It is not about the people, who were reached and won. Or reached and won again.
This feast of the Church teaches us what postmodern Theology has to learn: »Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.« (Jer 6:16)
What could be a good way to celebrate the Feast of the Corpus Christi in the 21st century? How could it look, feel, sense like, if we would remember its theological paths and ask where the missional heart of it leads us into another way of doing it?
Today we celebrate this outstanding Feast of the ordinary time of the year of the Church. If you look at the history books, especially those of the church and the Middle Ages, you will find really strange and odd things in the context of the Feast of Corpus Christi. Above all embarrassing acts of anti-Semitism and brutal actions of the counter-reformation. Maybe this is even more a lesson of history, feeling to be in charge and assigned of doing it in a fresh and another way. A way that will find rest for the soul the world.
Wouldn’t it be nice to celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ in the next year as a feast of the Fresh Expressions of Church? A Feast of variety and unity. A celebration of the pilgrimage of God’s people. A Fete Dieu. A ceremony of the church, that wanders even to a public pool to celebrate there the life and love of God.
*) The Love Parade was a popular electronic dance music festival and parade that originated in 1989 in West Berlin, Germany. It was held annually in Germany from 1989 to 2003 and in 2006 in Berlin, and from 2007 to 2010 in the Ruhr region.