Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi. This
Festival is of rather late derivation, in 1264 Pope Urban IV
degreed that the Festival be celebrated on the Thursday after
Trinity Sunday. It was to commemorate the institution of the
Blessed Sacrament, which as we all know, took place on Maundy
Thursday in Holy Week. Since our hearts and minds are occupied
during Holy Week with the Mysteries of the Passion, Death and
Resurrection of Our Lord there is not adequate time to devote
enough attention to the importance of the institution of so
great a Sacrament. So Corpus Christi celebrates and provides
the opportunity for the Church to take a full week in
contemplating the glory and grandeur of the Most Holy Sacrament
of the Altar
The Holy Eucharist, of course, is the central Act of Worship of the Church and it is our means of offering "Praise and Thanksgiving" to God , as a matter of fact the word Eucharist means thanksgiving. And the collective corporate worship of the Church is sometimes referred to as the Liturgy which literally means the "work of the laos or laity". To refer to the Liturgy as Work is most appropriate for we sometimes speak of the celebration of the Mass as a "Work of Transformation" .And indeed the work of Sacrifice is Transformative. In this Transformation as Catholic Christians we believe the Bread and Wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Our Lord Christ. At the same time as Esoteric or Mystical Christians we believe that through the act of "joyous Sacrifice" we ourselves can be come Transformed. Even as St Paul said in the 12th Chapter of Romans:. I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what [is] that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God
So the Blessed Sacrament serves as a means whereby Our Lord may be present among His people. Indeed Our Lord is really present among His people and lives within the hearts of all men and women. That Christ nature manifests wherever Love and Wisdom are manifest in the hearts and lives of all people. But since we are not yet capable of expressing Christ perfectly, always and in all places and situations, Christ becomes present in our midst in a more perfect way through His Sacramental Presence.
The Holy Eucharist is at its center a very act of Mystic Creative Ritual. And like all ritual makes use of outward and visible signs, symbols and tokens which serve as correspondences to inner deeper verities. The very definition given by the church to a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Ritual becomes the means whereby all the elements of sight, sound, smell, touch and taste are utilized in bringing the seeker into intimate contact with a deeper and more authentic Reality.
A most helpful and rewarding study of the celebration of the Mass can be had by simply taking each of the parts of the Ritual and examining its symbolic significance. Or looking at each of the tools used in this sacred movement. The Chalice, the linens, the Altar, the wine and water, the incense and candles, all will reveal great signposts which point to and connect us with Spiritual Archetypes. Even something as simple as the steps leading up to the altar can hold gems of truth for our consideration
If we research in history the existence of steps near the altar we find none existed prior to the fourth century. In the fourth century the single step or footpace appears. Additional steps were added through the years as churches and Cathedrals got larger and the need to elevate the principals so as to be seen by larger congregations.
Generally three steps are found, however, that is not necessarily the only number. For our purposes three is the common usage.
From an inner standpoint the steps leading up to the altar are seen as the culmination of the Way or Path which leads from the entrance door at the West end of the Church to the Altar in the East. We move from Death to Life, from the place of the setting Sun to the place of the rising Sun.
If we see the Altar as the place of Sacrifice we can by extrapolation see the steps leading up to the Altar as a symbol of Calvary. Indeed in the Long Form of our Eucharist during the Asperges we chant the 121st Psalm "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help." Again during the versicles and responses we read "Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?" So there is this idea of ascent into a hill or mountain. Think of the mountains in Scripture, Sinai, where the Law is given, Ararat where the Ark landed and a new beginning was formed, Moriah where Abraham offered Issac as sacrifice, Horeb where Moses saw the burning bush, Carmel the scene of Elijahs sacrifice, Hermon or Tabor the site of Christs Transfiguration, Calvary the Crucifixion and Mount Olivet the place of His glorious Ascension! Mountains are a type of Initiation exalted consciousness and places of Sacrifice and/or Union!
Leaving aside the allusion to a mountain we can also see in the steps a symbol, sign or token of various planes of existence. At the beginning of the Mass when the Celebrant and Sacred Ministers approach the altar for the Invocation they stand in plano, that is to say on the floor in front of the first step. Here is a good picture of our physical plane existence. Here we are "both feet planted firmly on earth" indeed the element for this plane is "Earth".
Next we kneel on the first step for the Confiteor in an attitude of repentance, a word that sometimes has a hard time of it in Liberal Catholic circles. But a good word none-the-less and a needful one at that!. In any case there is about this step the aspect of the emotional plane. The words of our confiteor taken from the writings of St Augustine "our hearts are ever restless til they find their rest in Thee"! It speaks to the very highest and at the same time deepest place of our emotional nature. This is also spoken of as the Sub-deacons step, since this is the one whereby the sub-deacon "travels" from Gospel to Epistle sides of the altar and from which step he reads the Epistle. The emotional plane is referred to as the astral plane and it is also the plane of reflections. Are not the Epistles reflections of the Gospel? That is to say the Epistle expands upon and elaborates the Truth of the Gospel. There is about the emotional nature the quality of receptivity and reflection and so the element is "Water". The sub-deacon presents the cruet of water during the offertory!
The second step, the Deacons step, from which he reads the Gospel for the edification of the faithful! The words of Our Lord proclaimed on behalf of the living and the dead. The deacon stands upon the step related to the mental. We receive the Truth in the form of the spoken or Written Word. It gains access to our consciousness through the mind but the Realization of the Truth happens as we all know at a different level. We open our minds, we consecrate our minds, we exercise our minds. Jesus Greatest Commandment is Thou shalt Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul and with all thy mind. The Element is "Air". Incidentally, in Tarot the element of Air is linked to the suit of swords! The Gospel is referred to in Eph 6:17 as the "sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God." Again refer to Hebrews 4:12 the Word of God is referred to as "quick, powerful and sharper than a two edged sword"!
Finally the foot pace of the altar represents the Intuitive Plane. Here we enter the realm of Pure Fire and indeed this level is the place of transformation. It is through the Intuitive experience that Truth is actualized within. Cloven tongues of FIRE sat on each of their heads! Up until now we stood firm in our resolve to reach the Goal by dedication of our physical existence, we yearned and longed for it in our emotional nature, we aspired towards its attainment through mental acumen, but now we encounter it at the level of the Intuitive "Ah ha" experience. Here at the summit of the Holy Mount in the place of Initiation, at the place of Transformation we come and in the words of the old Gospel hymn " all on the Altar of Sacrifice laid" here the Fire of heaven falls and consumes the Sacrifice! Here the Great Work is done. Here the Gift and Giver are One.
A word of caution: the foregoing is only my opinion and by no means an official teaching of the Liberal Catholic Church and at the same time only one of many interpretations. Also keep in mind linking the steps to planes of existence must remain fluid and adaptable because at different times during the Holy Eucharist the whole system may "shift" up another level in symbolism, that is to say for example at the point of Consecration the three levels might just as easily represent Spiritual (Egoic), Intuitional, and Higher Mental levels with the Sacred Host at the point of Highest Elevation symbolizing the Monad.
This is a small example of the discoveries which can be made by study and meditation on the meaning of the Mass. But care must be exercised in employing any symbolism so that we do not fall into the trap of mistaking the image for the Thing Imagined! The person in the pew connected by pure and utter devotion is further along in the realization of these spiritual verities than one either in the sanctuary or outside who only engages in a mental exercise along these lines, and has no link on a meaningful level. We must all strive to link ourselves through pure devotion and sacrificial service with the Great Reality in this Mystery of Corpus Christi. For the Holy Communion is Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ and in this Act of Communion we become Corpus Christi the Body of Christ. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. I Cor 12:27
The Right Reverend William S.H. Downey
Regionary Bishop for the USA
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