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How can this man give us his flesh?

A sermon preached on the Feast of Corpus Christie, Thursday 15 June 2017 by Canon Stephen Batty, Rector of Burton...

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How can this man give us his flesh?

Posted By : Robert Titley Thursday 15th June 2017

A sermon preached on the Feast of Corpus Christie, Thursday 15 June 2017 by Canon Stephen Batty, Rector of Burton Bradstock. Reading: John 6: 51-58


'How remarkable it is that we can summon these spirits, head to foot as they lived, perfect in every gesture and inflection.'

So writes Marilynne Robinson about something that we can all experience: the business of watching footage of actors and entertainers who are long dead, yet who live again on the screen. Take Stan Laurel, a great comic actor and one half of that great duo Laurel and Hardy. He was born 127 years ago tomorrow and he passed away in 1965. A few minutes before he died he told the nurse that he wouldn't mind going skiing. Knowing that Laurel had been a star of stage and screen, the nurse replied that she hadn't been aware that he'd been interested in winter sports. “I'm not”, Stan Laurel said, “But I'd rather be doing that than this.”  'This' meaning dying. And with those words he slipped out of this life. He also told his friends: “If anyone has a long face at my funeral, I'll never speak to them again.” In life, Stan Laurel did have a long face. He had long and pale and mobile clown's face with a mouth that could turn down in a melancholy way or it could be raised in a dreamy kind of smile. And on film we can still see that long pale face and we can still hear his voice.


'How remarkable it is that we can summon these spirits, head to foot as they lived, perfect in every gesture and inflection.'

Someone I know has a childhood recollection of seeing Laurel and Hardy in the flesh. Diana and her father were walking hand-in-hand through Bristol late one afternoon. As they passed the Hippodrome theatre, Laurel and Hardy appeared, having finished a rehearsal for a stage show. No one else was on the street. It was cold, wet day. The comedians were getting on in years and they looked tired. At the kerb a limousine waited. The chauffeur opened the door, Hardy squeezing in first, followed by the thin, pale-faced Laurel. As the chauffeur arranged a blanket over Laurel's knees, the veteran comedian smiled at Diana and beckoned her to step closer to him. There she was, starry-eyed, face to face with one of the world's greatest entertainers. He said nothing. She said nothing. And then Laurel lifted his hands from under the blanket and held his hands, smiling as he did so, over her flame-red hair, as if Diana were a fire and he was warming himself up. Then the chauffeur closed the door. And away went the limousine, carrying Laurel and Hardy off into the damp, drear dusk.


It had been a perfect mime. No words had been exchanged. No autographs had been begged. No photographs had been taken. Stanley Laurel simply used his hands, his flesh, conjuring a gentle comedy as if from nothing, creating a gesture which was never forgotten by the person who received it.


This is a wonderful tale which reveals what gestures of human flesh can do, communicating something that goes beyond words. Stan Laurel gave young Diana his flesh in a way that warmed her heart. On a cold day, a little girl's hair was wondrously transformed into homely flames. For a few seconds, in a gentle and imaginative make-believe between a child-like adult and a starry-eyed child, Diana's red hair became something else, her hair became fire.


And it is in the wake of real fire, devastating fire, that we can catch a glimpse of how simple gestures of hand and heart, can convey care and compassion. Churches in West London have been overwhelmed with donations brought in by hand to help those who managed to escape the inferno in Grenfell Tower. Among the celebrities who have done their bit to help is Jamie Oliver who got word round that families affected by the fire could go round to his restaurant to be “fed and watered” with food and drink, free of charge: “we will sort you out and give you some love...this is for victims of the fire, our thoughts, love and prayers are with you all, big love, Jamie.”


On Corpus Christi we celebrate Jesus' “big love.” On the night before his death on the cross, Jesus created signs with wine and bread that go beyond words and go beyond theories and concepts. By using His hands in that way, by making those signs, Jesus gave us His flesh.


Remember how Marilynne Robinson found it remarkable that, through film archives, we can summon the images and the voices of figures who left this earth long ago. And yet we can still see them and we can still hear them.


Through our sharing in the Eucharist we have Jesus 'head to foot' as He lived.


He is with us now as immediately and lovingly as He was with his first followers, 'perfect in every gesture and inflection.'