Archive for June, 2011|Monthly archive page

IN THE BREAKING OF THE BREAD

Dear Jesus,

I love what you have asked your disciples to do in order to have you present among them.

What greater sign of your love for us can there be than your invitation to gather around your table to pray over bread and wine and so give thanks to God as we renew your dying and rising?  What greater sign of unity could there be than sharing the one bread and the one cup after we have renewed the sacrifice that makes heaven possible for us?  What greater comfort in life can there be than to be reminded sacramentally that the forgiveness of our sins comes through the shedding of your blood?  Sometimes thinking about all of this is overwhelming – enough to move me to tears.

The problem I have comes from remembering how much trouble you got into because of the table fellowship you practiced.  Have you ever wondered if you would have been more successful had you practiced some discrimination about those with whom you chose to break bread?  A lot of the people with whom you ate and drank had pretty unsavory pasts.  Tax collectors.  Prostitutes.  Generic sinners.  Lepers.  The poor.  Apparently representatives from these groups could regularly be found at your table and you could be seen waiting on them.  I suppose you even washed their feet.  Outsiders looked on and applied to you the ancient adage about birds of a feather.

Wouldn’t common sense dictate that if you had chosen more influential people – financially successful people, people with prestige and power – your own causes would have flourished?  Word would have gotten around about your guest lists and people would have been impressed and would have connived to get themselves on the list.  Shouldn’t you have made access to your table a little more difficult?

I think about the imagery you used in the parable about the banquet giver.  The first ones he invited weren’t interested in attending.  When the invitation was repeated with the information that all the preparations for the lavish feast were complete, some offered excuses for staying away, and some brutalized the servants, even killing the ones bearing the invitation.  The host then sends his servants out to the highways and byways to drag in the riffraff, those who probably would have had no other place to go and could only wonder what it would be like to sit at such a table as the one the banquet giver offered.  It’s true isn’t it, that the story you tell illustrates God’s attitude?  You’re saying that God delights in just about anybody’s coming to the heavenly banquet.  God is not nearly as discriminating as some would have God be.

I think I can understand the hurt feelings of the banquet giver when his invitation was refused – at the last minute after the lavish meal had been prepared.  But to go from that to rounding up just anybody and then practically forcing them to enter the banquet hall is a bit of a stretch, don’t you think?  You’d think that God wants to save everybody.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am grateful for your invitation to come to the table.  I try never to forget the generosity and kindness you extended to me when I realized my own sins and asked for pardon.  I can remember the elation I felt in those first heady days, what it was like getting used to walking on the new Way with all those new friends.

When you think about it, though, my sins were kind of ordinary.  I think I could honestly say that they were so ordinary that I can imagine most people sinning the way I did.  I say that knowing that there are other kinds of sinners doing things that I could never imagine doing.  Do you think that the table should be open to those people too?  Some of the bishops are making it pretty clear that the churches are not to be that open.  They are even telling some Catholics that they should not approach the table.  What is the message sinners who might be wondering if they would ever be welcome inside are hearing?

Even as I write these words I am starting to feel uncomfortable.  I can see you shaking your head and hear you wondering if I will ever learn.  Is that voice inside me your voice telling me that if I can judge some people unworthy of gathering at the table, I ought to think about absenting myself as an unworthy one, too?  That thought makes me feel like I have ice water in my veins.  Being part of the assembly gathering around the table on the Lord’s Day is important to me.  I am grateful for the call to do so.

I have to admit that lately I have felt a tension inside as I look about the assembly with whom I have gathered.  Do you know what I mean when I say that it bothers me that it is so monochromatic?  It isn’t only that just one race is represented; it’s also that everyone seems to be of comfortable means.  There are not any who are obviously impoverished.  I don’t see any disabled people being engaged in liturgical ministry.  It’s all too comfortable.  I remember one place I used to attend.  A Down syndrome young man was a greeter.  One of the Eucharistic Ministers was severely physically handicapped.  I miss that kind of witness.  Without it, it is hard for me to sense your presence because I have come to believe that you are especially present in the poor, in the disabled, and in those considered to be the off scouring of society.  I am wondering if the assembly I am looking for might be one that better imitates the one you illustrated in the parable.  I feel torn.

Maybe I have more to learn, especially about what you mean when you say, “Do this in my memory.”  That has a lot to do with the breaking and the pouring, doesn’t it?  I have to be willing to be broken.  I have to be willing to be poured out – for anybody and all.  Then you will be there.  All of a sudden other words of yours are ringing in my ears.  I hear you saying, “Come to me, all you who are weary and I will refresh you.”  You meant it when you said all, didn’t you?

Give me another chance.  Let me try again.  I’ll continue the search and allow myself to be stretched.  Maybe it won’t be that difficult.  I’d rather do that than be added to the list of those who excuse themselves and thereby miss the Banquet and miss you.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE MOST HOLY BODY AND BLOOD OF CHRIST – June 26, 2011

Deuteronomy 8:2-3, 14b-16a

1 Corinthians 10:16-17

John 6:51-58

 

Repeated often enough and even the most shocking statements can become mundane to the hearer.  Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are a case in point.  Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life and I will raise them on the last day.  I have never heard anyone gasp when that message was proclaimed.  I don’t think anyone ever stomped his feet and stormed out from the Assembly.  No one ever put her hands over her ears and cried, “Enough!”

Why then, do you suppose, did the first audience have such a violent reaction and added to that cries that Jesus was a madman?  John is quite clear that at the end of this discourse most of those present turned on their heels and departed.  There were only a few, stunned, shocked, who remained with Jesus.  Of them he asked, Will you also go away?  We don’t know the thoughts that raced through the disciples’ heads as they watched the scene unfold.  At the beginning of the address there were crowds pressing in to catch every word that came from Jesus’ mouth.  (Remember, crowds are made up of those who have not yet made up their minds about Jesus.  They watch and listen and wonder if he is the one.)  The size of the gathering would have affirmed the disciples’ conviction that Jesus was the Messiah.  With the Messiah would come the kingdom he would establish and they would have prominent places in it.  Wouldn’t they?

How quickly things can change.  At the conclusion of Jesus’ lesson, near violence erupted and some may even have picked up stones to hurl at him, so revolted were they by what he had said.  The few who remained with Jesus probably wanted to duck for cover lest they find themselves in harm’s way.  What degree of confidence do you imagine was in Peter’s voice when he was asked if he would go away also, he responded, Where can we go?  We believe that you have the words of everlasting life.  These disciples were, after all, the ones who had given up everything to follow Jesus.

What is so shocking in Jesus’ remarks?  He leaves no wiggle room.  Remember the line from the song?  With me it’s all or nothin’/ it’s all or nothin’ at all.  Crudely put, that is exactly what Jesus has said.  Everything of importance depends entirely upon Jesus.  Life today and for all eternity depends on gnawing at his flesh and drinking his blood.  That is the language he used.  Jesus wants his disciples to devour him.  I am the living bread come down from heaven.

Accommodation takes over after that for many of us.  As we celebrate the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ we immediately think we are celebrating the feast of the Eucharist.  Of course that is part of this feast.  With that we objectify the meaning and mystery that Jesus puts before us.  We think of a host.  We think of a cup of wine.  In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer, we look at the bread and proclaim the Body of Christ present.  We look at the cup and proclaim the Blood of Christ present.  And we adore.  All well and good – but there must be more.  To look and to adore keeps the reality at a distance.  We focus on the transcendence of the presence and do not have to deal with the imminence.  Nowhere in the Gospels and certainly nowhere in the Institution Narrative does Jesus say, this is my body, adore it.  Nor does he say that about the blood.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  Now, you do this in my memory.  Everything depends upon this.

Again, accommodation takes over.  It always has.  We look for more palatable interpretations for so much of what Jesus announced.  The centrality of poverty in the Christian walk – surely he didn’t mean that literally, did he?  What, then, do you suppose he meant when he said, Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and come and follow me?  What did he mean by the injunction: If you would follow me, take up your cross every day and follow me?  Then there is the commandment Jesus voices in John’s Last Supper account that says nothing about the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.  During John’s Last Supper, Jesus washes the feet of his stunned and embarrassed disciples.  When he has finished he returns to the table and says to those gathered at table with him, As I have washed your feet so must you wash one another’s feet.  Don’t miss the force of the word, must.  That is quite a bit stronger than, I think it would be a good idea if you would do this.  No, basic to discipleship is total dependence on Jesus, simplicity of life, and the pouring out of self in service.

There is a term that you might hear frequently today in reference to people who are inactive in the practice of their Catholic faith.  They are called Cultural Catholics as if Catholicity were an ethnicity the way being Swedish, or Italian, or German is.  Being Cultural Catholics means they were baptized into the Body of Christ in the Catholic Church, have never denied that they are Catholics, but the faith has no practical bearing on decisions made or lifestyle lived.  And of course they do not attend Mass on Sunday, that action that is central to our identification as Catholic Christians has gone by the wayside.  I think it is safe to say that that is not what Jesus had in mind in issuing the call and challenge to be his disciples.  Jesus expects us to live lives that make no sense were it not for our faith in him.  And that only happens as a result of our eating his flesh and drinking his blood and devouring his every word and putting that faith into action.  Today’s feast then is a call to action, formation, and transformation.

Did you ever ask yourself what difference it would make if Jesus were not in your life?  Would there be any observable difference besides not having to go to Mass on Sunday?

One final note: the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ is also the feast of the Church.  The Church is the Body of Christ.  That is what Vatican Council II defined and declared to be an article of faith.  We, you and I, and all one billion of us are that Body.  What impact does that have on our lives?  Certainly that is not something to boast about.  Nor should the fact become an icon on a tall pedestal to be gaped at in awe.  The truth is a call to action.  The Body of Christ in every age is to be broken and distributed though loving service.  It is all about love as the supreme call.  The commandments by which the Body lives are reduced to one all encompassing mandate: As I have loved you, so must you love one another.  There is nothing more demanding than love.

I have written before about my admiration for Dorothy Day  (I strongly recommend Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own.  The book is intertwined biographies of four great Catholic writers of the last century.  One of them, Flannery O’Connor, whose short story gave the title to the book, was Catholic from infancy.  Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day were converts.)  It was the reality of the Church as the Body of Christ that motivated Dorothy Day’s conversion.  She had been an avowed atheist and a Communist.  She had had an abortion.  Then came the experience of the Church that resulted in her conversion.  Actually, it happened through a Catholic who challenged her to serve the poor, and when she did, she found Christ.  She lived the rest of her life witnessing to what acceptance of that reality meant in practice.  The Catholic Worker movement and houses of refuge for the poor are only two examples.  Her life of poverty and prayer are others.

Rejoice in the Feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.  Rejoice and be glad.  But please don’t stop there.  Embrace the implications.  You will never be the same.  You will never regret it.  Dorothy Day never did in her lifetime and neither will you.  It is not my word you have on this.  It is the Lord’s.

Sincerely,

Didymus

ONE COMMANDMENT

Dear Jesus,

“If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

No one can spend any time with the Gospels without coming across that line.  I read it and pray over it time and time again.  It never fails that a stab causes a twinge in my gut and there will be a catch in my breath.  I read the line and your voice echoes in my mind.  I feel a constriction in my throat, something that no swallow can dislodge.

Depending on the intensity of emotion, I have lain awake in my bed staring into the dark with your words haunting me.  I have shed tears and felt them running down from my eyes to settle on my pillow.  Should I cry out in the night, you would not answer.  Nothing I do, no diversion upon which I try to fix my thoughts can ease the pain of that simple declarative pulsing through me like the blood in my veins.  Why do I weep?  Why do sighs escape me?

I need to tell you how this began so that you might take my pain away.  A story on the evening news filled me with horror – and fascination.  When the grisly story – graphically told with details I would rather not know – ended, I remember thinking in one moment how grateful I was that I could never do such a terrible deed.  No one would ever suffer like that at my hands.

In the next moment an image from the distant past surfaced like a nightmare and enveloped me.  I clenched my jaw and a queasy sensation shuddered through me.  I saw the red welt left by my hand on the face of my friend, red fingers etched on his ashen cheek.  Unlike the sin in the story I had just devoured from the nightly news, the memory of my own violent act made realize that I would never want anyone to know what I had done in that moment of rage following a betrayal, a breach in loyalty, and the severing of a friendship.  Somehow what I had done, at the time, seemed an acceptable and understandable sin.  Who wouldn’t have acted as I did?

“If you loved me, you would keep my commandments.” Such a simple sentence, direct and to the point.  There’s no wiggle room.  I know that I have told you many times that I love you?  Why can’t I say that now?  The words stick like dried bread on a parched pallet.  Is it that I can’t find the evidence to convict me of loving you?

It frightens me when I do not know where you are.  You promised to be present to your followers, with them to the end of the world.  Where is that presence now?  The weight of knowing that I am a sinner oppresses me and I wonder if I am a believer, a follower, a friend of yours at all.

A moment before I began this note your words were pounding in my head like hammer blows on an anvil.  I stopped my ears with closed fists and prayed for silence, and at last silence came.  My breaths were shallow.  Now I am able to breathe in and breathe out with ease.  Yet, sleep doesn’t come.  Calm returns no because of an acceptance of sin in my life but because I am remembering that I am forgiven.  Your blood takes away my sin and makes it the starting point of conversion, as I turn more and more to you.  I know the emptiness that only you can fill.

“…You will keep my commandments.”  You have only one commandment, don’t you?  Love.  Love one another as I have loved you.  Having to accept the reality of sin in my own life will change the way I keep your commandment.  That knowledge will keep me from judging and force me into compassion.  Another may sin in ways that I would not.  But the other could say the same thing about me.  Perhaps that is why you said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”  The important ingredient becomes the compassion that binds us and makes us aware of your healing presence in us, your living in us, helping us to know your father loving us and living in us.

My tears dry up and I am able to smile.  I remember now and that makes the difference.  When you talked about going away, I used to wish that you would change your mind.  It would be easier if you could be seen, if at a glance one could know you were there.  We have to plumb this presence you have now that is different from what we would have wanted and learn that it is no less real.  You remain with your friends.  But if we stop doing what you do we will miss that presence and begin to wonder if you have abandoned us.  That’s why I wept.  I couldn’t say I loved you.  Those words wouldn’t come until I decided to start imitating you again, keeping your commandment to love.

In the morning I will right my former friend and apologize for what I did so long ago.  I think when I do I shall be able to let go of his betrayal and pray for him again.  Then I will be able to go to Eucharist with a peaceful heart.

Sincerely,

Didymus