Whose Meal is This, Anyhow?

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood (Corpus Christi) (B)

I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same
–Garden Party ©1972 Words and Music by Rick Nelson

If you are of a certain age you know the words to this song. You may have heard it a thousand times on your Radio Shack™ AM transistor radio which you bought with your babysitting or paper route money. Ricky Nelson, the wildly popular 50s teen idol and co-star of the Ozzie and Harriet TV series, wrote the song in response to an experience he had in 1971 while performing with other musicians at Madison Square Garden. The lyrics describe his sense of being unwelcome in a community to which he thought he still belonged. Although Nelson performed his old hits he was literally booed off the stage because he didn’t fit the clean-cut image the audience expected. His shoulder-length hair, bell-bottom pants, velvet shirt and attempt to perform newer music was more than the audience could stand. He exited the stage and did not come back.(Ironically, “Garden Party” rose to the top of the charts, obviously pleasing a different, more welcoming crowd.)

The boundaries the Church sets up around the Eucharistic table are like a “garden party” experience for many baptized Catholics who share the status of persona non grata. Readers of this blog already know I stand shoulder to shoulder with those who find themselves no longer welcome in the Church of their baptism. Oh sure, they are “welcome.” Anyone is “welcome” so long as they don’t expect to be invited to the table. I am well versed in Church teachings on this subject, but I also have a fair understanding of the Gospel message and feel confident in stating that Jesus would welcome our alienated brothers and sisters.

Much has been written on the topic of Christian hospitality and welcoming. I own several titles related to widening the welcome of the church. The Church absolutely loves the word “Welcome!” We hang banners, we insist “all are welcome” and host welcome events; we train parishioners to greet worshipers on the way in, and invite them to return on the way out. Some churches have marketing committees for the recruitment and retention of parishioners. This is all very sincere and these are very worthwhile efforts. But while the four percent of Catholics cited in a recent CARA survey, considered to be “core members” (and who are likely on the welcoming committee), work tirelessly to build community, church attendance dwindles. It is not just alienated adults leaving the Church, most young people now eschew affiliation with any organized religion. These are our sons and daughters who on their confirmation day were told they were the future of the Church!

As a Eucharistic minister I have looked spiritual hunger in the eye. People come, eyes brimming with tears, their open hands extended. They look at me and say amen! So be it. As Pope Francis says, “Who am I to judge?” We come to the table broken, needy and empty handed. We also come joy-filled, celebratory, and thankful. Above all, we come as sinners. We respond to the invitation simply because our Host loves us and has chosen to share the feast of his life with us.

The meal we share in the Eucharist prepares us to be Christ to the world. “Jesus obviously knew the power of meals,” author John E. Burkhart says, “so he shared them gladly, graciously using them to question and erode the various boundaries religion and society had erected between people.” When the church decides who among all of Jesus’ invited guests can sit at the table and who cannot, it pushes Jesus back into the kitchen and shows his guests to the door. Is it for the sake of the gospel that we reduce the number of seats around the table that Jesus has set?

In the Eucharist, Jesus is both the Host and the meal. It is his meal, and everyone present should remember that the Host knows who has been invited.

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