Living Bread, Flesh and Blood (John 6:51-58)

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The content of this Gospel reading would have been thoroughly shocking to its original hearers in its original context. To be candid, it can even sound shocking to us today, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of theology, eucharistic and otherwise, to interpret it. Here is the crux of it in excerpts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

If it sounds jarring, it was meant to be. Jesus knew his audience and knew his context, and sure enough, many in the crowd of listeners deserted him after this one. But the thing that made these words so hard to grasp also happens to be the very key to interpreting them. Leviticus 17:11-14 prohibits the Israelites from drinking the blood of any creature that they eat. They are to pour the blood out onto the earth, for it represents the life of the creature, stands for atonement in the case of sacrifice, and may not be consumed. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). Continuing in verse 14, “For the life of all flesh is its blood. Thus I said to the Israelites, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever consumes it shall be cut off.”

This was the cultural and religious context that Jesus’ listeners knew very well. The Gospel tells us that some of them, therefore, could simply not accept his words on any level, and dispersed. Jesus understood that. But with these words, he is really talking about two central things: his coming into this world from heaven for our sake, and the giving of his life in a definitive sacrifice that demonstrated his love for the very creatures whose dark and murderous impulses led to that sacrifice. It is this divine sacrificial love, culminating in Resurrection, that “makes atonement” for our lives and redeems them from sin and death. 

It is in this way that Jesus’ “blood” is the life that we need to consume. When he says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he knows exactly the background context that is Leviticus 17:11-14. He knows it is written that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and he knows it is written that the blood, by means of its life, makes atonement. So he tells his followers that he gives his body and blood in the definitive sacrifice, fulfilling the first Covenant yet also inaugurating “the new Covenant in my blood” — as he says during the Last Supper, the institution of the first Eucharist. 

The reading from Paul for today, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, speaks of this Eucharistic meal that Christ instituted for us: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and practiced even by the earliest Christian community, beginning immediately following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as his disciples began to carry out the teaching he gave them about the life that comes from his body and blood. 

Atonement and redemption through self-sacrificial love are his divine gifts to us. But we must, he says, “feed on him” — that is to say, we must rely on him, turn to him, get our nourishment from him. We must draw from him and remain in him, and he will remain in us, giving us the gift of eternal life, which is nothing less than to abide in the glory of God’s love forever. 

Redeemer, help us to draw on you, the “living bread from heaven,” for our true sustenance. Help us to open our minds to what your self-sacrifice of redemptive, atoning love means individually for each one of us, and help us to accept that gift of your love. Inspire our hearts to drink in your life, which you want to give in abundance, so that your life may remain in us, and we may dwell with you eternally. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

They Knew Him in the Breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:13-35)

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24:13-35 shows us two of Jesus’ disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem, on the very day of the Resurrection. We know that it was a little later on in the day, because these disciples had already heard the unbelievable story from the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb only to find it empty and to witness an angel informing them of Jesus’ Resurrection. While this was taking place, the apostles were huddled together back in Jerusalem, having heard the same report but still dwelling in fear and uncertainty, until they would see Jesus.

These two disciples on the road to Emmaus kept talking over the strange events of the past few days, when the risen Jesus himself drew near to them on the road and began walking with them. However, “their eyes were held back from recognizing him.” The Greek root translated “recognize” here is epiginosko, which also means “to fully know, perceive, understand.” He was there with them, but they did not perceive him for who he was. One practical theory to explain this is that perhaps Jesus was wearing some kind of a traveler’s cowl that obscured his face, and this was enough to deter them; after all, the disciples had no reason to expect that he would be anywhere in the vicinity in the first place, and they did not even know what to make of the women’s report that he had been raised at all. Another theory is that they could not recognize him because spiritually they were held back somehow, in a kind of spiritual blindness.

Whatever the case, they do not recognize him. He asks them what they were discussing as they look so downcast. “One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place in these days?'” It’s not hard to imagine the incredulity in Cleopas’ voice. Jesus claims that he doesn’t know anything about it and asks them to tell him. So they tell him about how the chief priests and rulers in Jerusalem had handed this man called Jesus over to be crucified, and how their hopes were shattered, for they had all thought he would be “the one to redeem Israel.” Yet it had all come to an ostensibly terrible end in crucifixion. “Some women from our group, however,” they went on, “have astounded us.” And they told him of the women’s report and how some of the men had gone to the tomb to see what the women were talking about; the men had found it empty but they had not yet seen Jesus.

Jesus says to them, while they are still unaware of his identity, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the prophets spoke; was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Still not knowing it is Jesus who is speaking to them, the two disciples continue walking with him as they listen to him interpret everything that refers to him in the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with Moses and then the prophets. Incredibly, they still have not figured out who he is. Now we come to the crux of the story. The hour has grown late and they have finally arrived at Emmaus, and “he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him [again epiginosko, to perceive and fully understand]; and he vanished from their sight.”

It is in the breaking of the bread that he gives to them that they recognize him. At the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, one of his final actions before his arrest, he had broken the bread, given it to them, and told them it was his Body. He was giving himself for them, in a new covenant. This is who he was and is. And he had told them to repeat it when they would come together to remember him. In this action he was giving them the Eucharist, a sign of his mystical Presence, to be given out over and over again to those on Earth until the end of the age. A way for them, and us his followers today and in the future, to experience his Presence as often as we come to it in this concrete and communal experience, until we are with him more closely in heaven. This has been done over and over again, for over two thousand years and counting, every day now, across the world. And most wonderfully, just as in his multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry crowd of thousands who had come to see him, he will give and give yet it will never be diminished. He will give himself and his Presence eternally, to everyone who seeks it and as often as they seek it, without diminishment — just as one candle can distribute its flame to an infinite number of other candles, without ever losing any of its own original light and heat and substance. And so when he broke the bread and gave it to the two disciples in Emmaus, that was when they finally fully understood who he was, and their eyes were opened.

What if they had not invited him to come in and stay with them? After all, when the three travelers arrived at Emmaus, the one who was Jesus — never one to force himself on anyone — looked as though he simply intended to leave them with what he had told them about the scriptures and continue on his way. But they, perhaps sensing something special about him, or perhaps simply acting out of neighborly charity as he had taught them all along, invited him to come and stay with them. That turned out to be the only opportunity they had to finally recognize him. What if they had blown it? What if they had thanked him for his interesting conversation and graciously waved him goodbye on his way? They never would have known what they had missed. They had to invite him in first, for he forces himself on no one. We have to invite him in and give him the space to give himself to us.

Luke concludes, “So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying, ‘The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!'” [Perhaps that is where he went when he vanished from their sight at the table]. “Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”

Redeemer, may I always take the opportunity to invite you to come and stay with me. May I always be open to receiving what you want to give me.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

A Community of the Imperfect

many candles

Yesterday I read this article from America Magazine, titled “A Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an Imperfect Church,” and I was touched by its insights. The writer, Leonard J. DeLorenzo, reflects on how the church can simultaneously hold so many sins and failures, and yet also be the life-giving source of healing, joy, sustenance, and communion that so many of its members know and feel it to be. Musing over this perhaps counterintuitive reality, DeLorenzo writes:

The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.

What Congar and others rediscovered at the [Vatican II] council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be.

That is often what strikes me each week when I go with my husband and our daughter to Mass. Sitting in our pew after receiving Communion, I watch all the rest of the people approaching the Eucharist, lining up together, advancing slowly forward together to receive the same Body of Christ, each one together participating in a worldwide communion of 1.2 billion Catholics — and a broader communion with another billion non-Catholic Christians — found to varying degrees in every corner of the globe in thousands of different cultural settings. And I think to myself as I watch them that, in the words of St. Paul, each one of these is a member of Christ’s mystical Body; each one is precious; each one is equally important; each one is sinful in his or her own ways, and each penitent one is lovingly redeemed. We are a vast yet intimate community of one body having many parts, sharing in the wounded-and-risen Body of our common Lord. In the words of a favorite hymn of ours: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone…”

We do not stand alone — even though our communion is imperfect and consists of very flawed people. It’s impossible to be fully in relationship with Christ without also being in relationship with the rest of his flock. While each member of the church has his or her own individual relationship with Christ, Christianity isn’t a religion for individualists preferring to remain apart from the community of Christ’s people (as Pope Francis has reminded us on many occasions). Christianity is in fact a deeply communal religion that calls its members not to a purely solitary spiritual journey of individualistic isolation, but rather to a spiritual life lived as a vital part of Christ’s earthly Body-in-community. This Body-in-community is the whole church.

The notion of real community often doesn’t rank very highly in our individualized Western culture, which can make it seem easy to think that the church as a community is irrelevant, or at least unimportant, to a person’s active living practice of his or her faith. But this would be a very incomplete understanding of what Christianity, as a relational religion, truly is. The church community, comprised of ordinary folk, certainly isn’t a perfect society in either its human leadership or its laypeople. It will always bear sins and failures within itself, some very grievous. It is us in all of our humanity: the beauty and the ugliness are both there. More importantly, the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit is always there — in that communal body, in the sacraments, in togetherness — just as his grace also dwells in the individual prayerful heart. The grace is always there, always offered to us, the flood of light to warm our spirits, to comfort us and beckon us to walk toward it, to let it guide us on our way.

I began to experience an awareness of the church’s communal wholeness in a new way when I recently signed up to be a eucharistic minister (one of the people who offers either the eucharistic bread or wine to those coming for Communion). It happened that the very first person to whom I ever gave Communion was my husband, who himself chose to become Catholic two years ago, followed by our daughter, who had her First Communion almost one year ago. There I was, holding the chalice of wine, looking into their faces and hearing myself say to them, “the Blood of Christ,” as I gave them the cup. (Our daughter, who is 8, always gives me a big hug right after I give her Communion before she heads back to the pew, which makes it that much sweeter!). As each person after them approached me, I felt more and more a sense of humility; of how, despite my flaws, I am a part of this body of equals before God, and how awed I felt to be able to serve that body-of-many-parts in this very modest way. Each time that I’ve served as a eucharistic minister since then, I have experienced this sense of humility and awe. There’s something very special going on in that body, imperfect though we all are.

In a somewhat related way, all of this reminds me of what Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have repeatedly said about what Christianity is: Christianity can’t be defined as primarily a system of ethics and morals, as though it were simply a kind of philosophical humanism. Christianity is primarily a relationship with a divine Person, from which these things then flow. It’s a relationship with a God who emptied Godself to become enfleshed as a human born of a woman, to become a Person both fully human and fully divine; this Person suffered torture, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven in his luminous, resurrected physical body — as witnessed by many women and men who would later go to their deaths for refusing to say this did not happen. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians around the year 50 (and scholars say he was likely quoting an even earlier source), this divine Person demonstrated the divine love for Creation in the most self-emptying of ways, which in some mysterious way also brought about our own redemption and salvation.

DeLorenzo reflects on the church community as Christ’s ongoing earthly instrument in this:

And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.

This sinner thanks God for that!

 © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

A Response Boston Catholics Can Be Proud Of

Crowd inside Saint Paul Cathedral Boston

Catholics and their supporters gather in St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowds process from MIT chapel to St. Paul's Cathedral

Crowds walk in Eucharistic Procession from MIT chapel to St. Paul’s Church. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowd in St. Paul's spilling out the door

Crowd in St. Paul’s spilling out the door. Photo by Boston Globe.

As many are aware from coverage in the local and national news, a satanic “black mass” was to be performed in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall on the night of May 12, 2014, sponsored by a student “cultural awareness club” from the Harvard Extension School. The black mass was to have been performed by members of The Satanic Temple of New York. As was extensively reported throughout the controversy leading up to the event, the main purpose of a so-called black mass is to parody and denigrate the Catholic Mass, which is the most sacred rite in Catholicism and beloved worship liturgy for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

Although the satanists insist they are atheists and do not believe in an actual devil or in any supernatural being, the black mass itself is designed to “invert” and mock the Catholic Mass through the use of satirized similar language, parody vestments and, apparently, the desecration of a Eucharist (a consecrated host). As many people know, the belief that the consecrated Eucharist contains the Real Presence of Christ — the Body of Christ in reality, not in symbol — is a central pillar of Catholic faith. Therefore, even as The Satanic Temple eventually changed their plans about “obtaining” (stealing?) a consecrated Eucharist to use during the black mass and claimed they would use an unconsecrated host, the impending event remained a source of visceral offense for Catholics of many stripes.

But it was also clearly an offense for a great many people of goodwill who supported their Catholic brothers and sisters. Some pointed out that for an event that purported to be about “cultural awareness,” not much “awareness” was shown by the organizers. The black mass would have been no different from any similar performance denigrating a Jewish Shabbat, or a Muslim or Buddhist prayer service, or a Native American sacred ritual. People should renounce any such denigration as uncivil, disrespectful, and hurtful to our human community. At the last minute, following an enormous yet non-violent outcry which evidently included a petition with 60,000 signatures, the student club canceled the event about an hour before it was due to take place.

Nevertheless, my purpose in writing this post is not to recap what happened. My main point is to express my happiness with, and my admiration for, the community’s response to the black mass. The Archdiocese of Boston, led by Archbishop Séan O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap, did not make any call for angry protest marches or fist-pumping. Instead, the archdiocese arranged to have a Eucharistic procession starting at the MIT chapel and ending at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Harvard Square, where participants would take part in a quiet prayer service to honor Christ, the Eucharist, and to pray for those involved in the black mass. The Catholic Church, being full of human beings, will never be perfect, and it is often painfully not-perfect. But I have to say that Archbishop O’Malley and the Catholic community of Boston hit this one out of the park. The Catholic response was not to start fires, not to throw bottles or Molotov cocktails or even pies; the response was not to condemn any person (only the event itself); the response was not to shout angry slogans or incite riots or damage property. Not a single stone was thrown.

Instead, Catholics and other people of goodwill walked peacefully behind a monstrance containing the Eucharist; they walked from one place to another. When they arrived at their destination, they were over a thousand strong and could not all fit in the cathedral. It was standing room only. And it was quiet and peaceful. These people perfectly exemplified Christ’s call to non-violence and humble dignity, and in doing so they manifested the kingdom of God here in this place. They embodied Christ’s exhortation to turn the other cheek, which does not mean lying down as a doormat, but rather standing in peaceful, redirected resistance. It seems to me that last night’s procession and Eucharistic prayer service was a triumph of the Holy Spirit.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

 

The Open Tabernacle

The Tabernacle at Our Church

The Tabernacle at Our Church

This photo is of the Tabernacle that is in our church. Every Catholic church has one of these, although they don’t all look the same. The Tabernacle is the place where the consecrated Eucharist, also called the Host, resides. The Hosts in the Tabernacle are those that were not received during the last Mass and have not yet been taken out for the next Mass. There is never a time (other than the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass) when the Tabernacle is empty. Because it is Catholic faith that the Presence of Christ inheres in the Eucharist in a real way, in every Catholic church there is a perpetual flame burning beside the Tabernacle, an ever-present witness that in this place dwells the Presence of the Lord. The word “Tabernacle” comes from the Old Testament: it was the structure in which God’s Presence was understood to dwell in a special way in ancient Israel. Each day — depending on the individual church, it could be all day or a certain time of the day — Catholic churches are open so that anyone can come in and pray or meditate in silence before the Tabernacle, in Christ’s Presence.

I mentioned that the only time the Tabernacle is empty is during the Mass’s Eucharistic Liturgy, when its doors are opened and the Body of Christ within is distributed to all present, along with the newly-consecrated Hosts. Last Sunday after receiving Communion, we returned to our pew as usual to kneel in interior prayer and close our eyes, to be in communion with Christ. When I opened my eyes, the final people were going up for Communion, and my gaze happened to land on the Tabernacle (we tend to sit close to it). Its doors were still open, since Communion was still being distributed, and as I looked at it I reflected on what those open doors mean.

Those open doors signify a God who revealed Godself to us through a self-limiting act: becoming incarnate as a human, to be carried and borne by a human mother, to experience human bodily needs and suffering. God did this in an act of supreme humility, of self-emptying (kenosis), of solidarity in suffering and in joy, and of service to us. As Pope Francis is fond of saying, Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, although the ethical treatment of others, especially the most weak and vulnerable, obviously flows from what Jesus taught. Pope Francis frequently and rightly reminds us that Christianity is primarily a living relationship with a person — divine yet human — who suffered, died, and rose from the dead to teach us that death is not the end of life, only its changing. This person, Jesus, taught us to orient ourselves to “the kingdom of God,” which he alternately described as being “within you,” or “like a treasure buried in a field,” or “like a pearl of great price,” or “like seeds that a farmer scattered” that land on three different types of ground (rocky, thorny, and fertile), or “like a mustard seed,” the smallest of seeds, which grows into a full-bodied tree. Jesus came to show us what the kingdom of God is.

The picture that God reveals of Godself in Christ is a picture of self-denial, self-gift, service, infinite mercy, and infinite love. After all, God demonstrates what God is calling us to. The Tabernacle’s open doors last Sunday spoke to me about Jesus’ eternal self-gift through Communion, which he inaugurated when he distributed the bread and wine, pronounced them his Body and Blood “given for you,” and said to “do this in memory of me.” The Tabernacle’s open doors signal that even today, 2,000 years later, Christ is still distributing his Body in a mystical way that never ends, and in which we are invited to take part. Yet a final thing the open Tabernacle made me think of was the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which the Gospels describe as Jesus’ feeding thousands of people from scarcity. The food, to the crowd’s astonishment, just kept on coming, and Jesus just kept on distributing it. The open Tabernacle reminds me of that event because that event (like the open Tabernacle) is connected to the endless distribution of Christ’s self in Communion. Like the day with the loaves and fishes, Christ keeps on giving food to us — but as the open Tabernacle will always remind us, the food that he gives now is Himself.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck