Very Bread, Good Shepherd, Tend Us: The Body and Blood of Christ

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (C)

Many years ago, in another city, I participated in my parish’s bread baking ministry. This was a group of people who took turns making the large loaves of communion bread that the priest elevated during the consecration.

Many bakers, me included, consider bread-making to be a spiritual practice, but the ritual behind preparing this unleavened, soon-to-be-consecrated bread elevated the task of following a simple recipe of a few ingredients to the level of contributing an essential element to the liturgy.

I baked my bread in silence. No phone. No music. No distractions. I lit a candle and said a prayer of gratitude for the work I was about to begin. As I measured and sifted the flour and salt together, I reminded myself that this was the way bread had been made for thousands of years. Slowly adding the water, oil, and honey, I worked the dough with my fingers until I could gather and turn it out on a kneading board. I handled the dough gently, almost caressingly, and divided it into six pieces, one for each of the weekend’s liturgies. I flattened each piece to the exact thickness and diameter specified by the recipe and carefully scored the surface with a knife before baking so the celebrant could break it quickly into pieces for distribution with communion.

The homemade, whole wheat, unleavened bread was chewy and delicious, and no doubt those who received it in its consecrated form savored it, but the pieces from one loaf could not feed the entire assembly, so it was supplemented with enough communion hosts to serve everyone.

Confession time. If you haven’t already picked up on it, I experienced a bit of self-congratulatory, church lady pride from my bread-baking experience. And during the consecration as I watched the bread that I made with my own hands, in my own kitchen, being elevated, well, sigh, wasn’t I so blessed? What beautiful and delicious bread I baked, and how perfectly round it was, how perfectly scored and easily torn it was! How I loved to see the secret smiles on my young daughters’ faces as they chewed my bread instead of the standard issue wafer.

Egads! This is horrifying. I don’t know whether to laugh, cry, or hang my head in shame. Everything about this confession is appalling. Not only did my pride obstruct my reception of the Eucharist, it interfered with my knowledge of God’s will for me.

Don’t misunderstand. Bread baking ministries are wonderful. My fault is that I became attached to the act of baking bread, and to the bread itself because I lost sight of what I was doing, and why. What began as way to serve God through the liturgy became the means of my own self-elevation. I’m sure we can all think of other ministries, liturgical or not, which run the same risk. We must always be careful.

I’ve been researching the topic of detachment and am discovering how even virtuous acts born of good and holy intentions (such as baking the bread used for the Eucharist) can, if we are not attentive, become material attachments that push their way between us and God. Thomas Merton, in his classic book, New Seeds of Contemplation, says, “Attachment to spiritual things is therefore just as much an attachment as inordinate love of anything else.”[1]

Merton names the very things people do in order to draw closer to God. In our efforts to detach from worldly things like power and money and prestige for example, Merton says we cling instead to the means of being virtuous and holy. Prayer, fasting, devotional practices, penance, holy books, religious orthodoxy and the like often usurp the priority of seeking and doing God’s will.

We risk being blinded by our zeal, thinking God is pleased by our endless busyness. Merton says even spiritual goals like seeking a sense of God’s presence are attachments that get in the way of God’s pure communion with us.

Merton’s words recall the story of the rich young man from the gospel of Mark 10:17-31, who approached Jesus asking what he must do to inherit eternal life. A sincere man who loved God, who did the right things and was obedient to the laws and observed the rituals of his faith, he turned away when he learned the cost of heavenly treasure was his belongings, his identity and social status—everything he had. As the disappointed man walked away Jesus said “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Can you picture the faces of the disciples, who literally gave up everything to follow Jesus, when they heard these words? We also wonder “Then who can be saved?”

The ability to detach from our will to listen for God’s will is a herculean but essential practice if the words “thy will be done” are to have any meaning. It seems that our well-intentioned activities run the risk of becoming a kind of spiritual filibuster intended to hold off God’s will. It’s like we are saying, “Thanks for everything, but we’ll take it from here. Aren’t we wonderfully made?”

According to Merton, what God asks of us is to be quiet and allow the “secret work” that has begun in our souls to take place. Quiet means learning to silence our minds and pay attention. It also means quelling our need to take charge, to win, to be number one.

Which begs the question: What are we supposed to do?

I think part of the answer can be found in Luke’s account of the feeding of the multitudes, which we will hear proclaimed this weekend as we celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The story picks up after the newly commissioned apostles returned from their mission of “proclaiming the kingdom of God and healing.” [LK 9:2]. Jesus tried to retreat with them to a remote city where they could regroup but his presence attracted an enormous and hungry crowd. (Remember, in the days of Jesus hunger was a given; everyone was always hungry.)

We know the details of this story: Jesus welcomed the crowd and told them about the kingdom of God. The disciples saw both the lateness of the day and the crowd’s rising hunger and asked Jesus to dismiss the crowds so everyone could find food,  but Jesus’ challenged the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. All they had was five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus organized the crowd into manageable groups of fifty, blessed the spare meal and set it before them. Everyone ate, and there were twelve baskets of leftovers.

If we are attentive we will remember that in the kingdom of God there is no hunger or thirst. Yes, this was a miracle. Through the alleviation of their hunger, the crowd was given a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Still, some of us have to demythologize biblical miracles in order to settle on a logical human explanation. We miss the point when we insist there is no way that Jesus could have multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 people. We are positive it had to have been the people themselves who out of embarrassment or forgotten generosity, or love, opened their sacks and shared their food with one another.

It was Jesus who fed and who continues to feed the crowds, but that’s not to say the crowd also didn’t share their food with one another. It was love that fed the multitudes.

If anything this affirms our faith in the goodness of humankind and restores hope for the world. The theory that humans are inherently selfish is a lie. People want to give of themselves and help others in meaningful ways, such as sharing our food with those who have none. But the point Merton makes about attachments is important. How many of our works are motivated by the pure intention of drawing closer to God? Do we seek the face of God in the hungry? The poor? The refugees? How about our enemies? Does it matter? It does if we want to share the Love that feeds the world.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesu, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see. [2]

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint. New York, New Directions, 2007.  205.

[2] Excerpt from the Lauda Sion sequence which is sung or proclaimed at the liturgies celebrating the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.

The Innerness of All Things

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity (C)

The Innerness of All Things, by Ranier Maria Rilke

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days—
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as a coastline, to the shore as a ship.

—The Innerness of All Things. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours II, 22.

On the first Sunday following Pentecost, Christians around the world celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Trinity—the union of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as defined by the Doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinitarian language, in an effort to describe the nature of God, expresses the means of human salvation: it is the Creator’s self-surrender through Jesus which infuses all of God’s creation with the power of the Holy Spirit.

According to the gospel of John, while Jesus was gathered with his disciples the night before he died he spoke of this progressive action of divine giving and receiving, and told them to anticipate the Spirit’s taking and declaring the Father’s truth, by way of Jesus, to them.

“Jesus said to his disciples: “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now. But when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears, and will declare to you the things that are coming. He will glorify me, because he will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” [JN 16:12-15]

The mystery of the Triune God’s self-giving love is irrevocably tied to our reception of the truth, our salvation.

Yet for centuries efforts to describe the Trinity, the three divine persons-in-one, have resulted in analogies such as two men and a dove, a shamrock, a pretzel, a braid, and a three-part harmony, to name a few examples, or explained away with confounding and alienating paternal language that feels more like spiritual somersaults.

Our comprehension of the Trinity must emerge from the Christian experience of salvation; it cannot be forced into a concrete geometric object or intellectual exercise.

And so, our eyes glaze over. Every week we profess our Trinitarian belief, but I’m pretty sure most of us don’t really get it.

One of the problems is that we can’t resist dividing the Trinity into three parts. It’s natural. In order to understand something, we deconstruct it for a closer examination. But we aren’t sure how to mentally reassemble Trinity in a way that truly makes sense to us, so many Christians choose to favor one of the three persons over the whole, thereby depriving themselves of the fullness of Trinitarian spirituality.

“Jesus is my homeboy.” “I only pray to God the Father.” “I feel most connected to the Holy Spirit.”

This is really important: Trinitarian doctrine is not Tritheisim, it cannot be divided. We believe in one God, not three. And as Cardinal Walter Kasper says in his book, The God of Jesus Christ, “Trinity is the Christian form of monotheism.” The Trinity is the inseparable action of the Creator, Redeemer, and Advocate.

This is why I was inspired to lead with Ranier Maria Rilke’s poem, The Innerness of All Things. Although the poet does not mention God or the Trinity, he seems to grasp God’s immanent and wordless infusion in human activity and the flourishing of all creation.

“You are the deep innerness of all things, the last word that can never be spoken.”

This is the one Triune God who creates and emerges and is revealed and can be known in countless and surprising ways. This is our divine Source who dwells at the center of all things, sanctifying, redeeming, inspiring and drawing all of creation towards the divine Three-in-One.

Where Trinitarian language tends to confuse, perhaps the concept of the Triune God actively dwelling in the innerness of all things can provide some clarity.

Happy Feast of the Holy Trinity!

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) has been called “the greatest German poet of the twentieth century” (The Economist).

Rilke’s poem, The Innerness of All Things, can be found on page 243 of A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Anita Barrows, and Joanna Macy.  (1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009.)

You can find “A Year with Rilke” here, or through your favorite bookseller.

 

The Breath of The One Who Gives Us Life

Pentecost Sunday (C)

(Adapted from a previous post: 2015)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter.

I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. My breath calmed her.

Any new parent knows that some infants continue to cry even after every possible need has been taken care of. Babies cry. It’s what they do. Unless there is some kind of health problem, newborn crying may just be related to the developing central nervous system; some experts suggest that parents should, on occasion, allow an infant to “cry it out.”

I was convinced that my daughter’s distress was more about her adjustment to life outside my womb, so I carried her in a baby sling wrapped tightly against my chest. Now it seemed that my breath had the ability to calm her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart did.

I later learned that this breathing technique is used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to take a deep breath and hold it. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believed my ability to calm my newborn daughter with my breath had less to do with science and everything to do with her recognition of me through it.

The breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, have a significant presence in the Bible, and for Christians, no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Jesus’ Holy Spirit was poured out onto the disciples.

The Christian Liturgy for the feast of Pentecost includes two distinct accounts of this event: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. In both instances, the disciples were in Jerusalem, together in one place, grieving their beloved friend, Jesus.

The first account comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes place after  Jesus’ ascension, seven weeks after the Passover on the festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The second account comes from the Gospel of John. It describes the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the group of disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his death. Recall that the grief-stricken, and confused disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just days before [John 20:19-23].

In Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of Jesus’ disciples, nor would they have gone over the heads of John’s or Luke’s astute readers. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, the Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols served as links between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and pointed to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although calm and reassuring, has the same powerful effect as the wind and flames in Acts. Jesus breathed on the disciples, and with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renewed, reassured, and empowered his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been.

Recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man:

Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. —Gen 2:7

For Jesus’ disciples, the communities for whom Luke and John wrote, and all Christians ever since, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples responded with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization of their ability to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now renewed and empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the church was born.

The memory of my inconsolable newborn daughter being calmed and reassured by my breath makes me wonder what it felt like for the disciples to have the risen Jesus breathe on them. I wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on me today. I hope that I would recognize him. Do we recognize the breath of the one who gives us new life?

[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Immediately before his arrest Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples. He prayed for their mission, for their unity as a group, and for their unity through him and with the Father. The final part of this prayer is read on the Sunday before Pentecost. It is one of those mind-bending scriptural passages that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. Some readers simply scan it, not absorbing a word, or they turn the page in search of something Jesus says that is easier to understand, something like “love one another.”

But this prayer from Jesus to his Father on his friends’ behalf is beautiful and enlightening and deserves to be read slowly. Jesus’ words challenge us to wade into our deepest spiritual waters in order to contemplate this union we share with God and with one another. Sitting with this reading can help us make sense of our Christian mission.

As part of my own study of the text, and to feed my logic (which is illogical) I attempted to diagram Jesus’ words. Pencil in hand, I began to draw circles.

In my mind this “you in me, and I in you, and they in us, and we are one, and I in them and you in me, and I know you and they know that you sent me, and your love for me is my love for them, and therefore, our love is in them,” (deep breath) takes the form of concentric circles that expand and recede and shift to accommodate the fullness of the described union in an endlessly twirling helix.

My first attempt was to place God at the center of the Jesus circle, which I put at the center of the disciple circle, in which both the Father and Son dwelt. Hmmm.

Dissatisfied, I drew another set of concentric circles with disciples in the center of the Jesus circle, who was in the center of the God circle. But no.

Then I drew two concentric circles, one with Jesus at God’s center, and then God at Jesus’ center which was just as confounding as my earlier attempts because each one resulted in a picture of a picture of a picture, and so on. This is known to visual artists as mise en abyme, which translated from French means “placing into infinity.” In painting and photography mise en abyme can continue only so far as the artist is able to depict it; eventually, the image becomes too small to be perceived. Although it is theologically intriguing, the mise en abyme was inadequate. Or, was it?

My final attempt involved two overlapping circles, one for the Father and one for Jesus, with the disciples in the intersection of the two. This sketch I tossed out immediately because the union of the father and son was more representative of a mutual giving between two persons whose “product,” for lack of a better word, is revealed in the giving, such as in a family. Hmmm. Not perfect, but not bad, either. I sketched it again.

These attempts to diagram a satisfactory translation of Jesus’ prayer were inadequate precisely because the relationship between the Father and Jesus and Jesus’ followers cannot be contained or reduced to a concept of fractal geometry or artistic theory. So, you see, I have not added any clarity to the discussion. I apologize.

However, inadequacy is not the same as fallacy. The mise en abyme, the overlapping circles and the endlessly twirling helix each hold a portion of the truth.

  • Jesus is and always has been in the picture of the picture of the picture of God. In today’s second reading from Revelations, which we have been reading throughout Easter, John tells of hearing a voice that self-identifies as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” and as “I, Jesus,” the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus’ death was a departure, a transition; he returned to the Father where he has dwelt since “before the foundation of the world.” [John 17:24c].
  • And of his friends, Jesus says “Father, they are your gift to me.” [John 17:24]. It is a mystery why seekers begin and continue to search for God, or, in the case of the poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), who wrote about the divine pursuit in The Hound of Heaven, why they attempt to resist their spiritual stirrings. But Jesus’ words acknowledge that Peter and James and John, and all the other apostles, and every disciple and follower throughout Christian history, including you and me have found our way to him because of the Spirit’s urging, inspiration, and nudging; we have accepted the invitation to know God through Jesus.
  • The fullness of our union with God and Jesus and with one another is very much like an endlessly twirling helix. Christians understand that Jesus—the Word made flesh—made God known through his teachings and actions and love. Jesus remains, he dwells within the hearts of his followers, not so they can hoard Jesus for themselves but so they can share him. Jesus has made God known, and it is now the task of the disciples to do the same—this is the work of the evangelist—you and me.

mise en abyme

And here is the message about our mission. Unlike Jesus’ actual disciples, none of us can claim to have known the man, Jesus. We only know what has been passed on to us and what we have experienced with Jesus.

It is that experience—our interaction—that we share. We can spout off bible verses and tell people what the church and theologians say about Jesus, but without a heartfelt expression of one’s own experience, these things are dry, inconclusive, and unconvincing. Jesus expressed his loving relationship with God with his words and works and his love for God and his followers. Our job is no different.

Looking at my sketches now I began to notice something resembling a seed within a seed within a seed, and it occurs to me that this “seeding” is the work of God, the work of Jesus, and the work which we have been commissioned to fulfill. This is the union. We in them, them in us, Christ in all, Christ in God, God in all things.

We receive the gift of life-giving water which Jesus offers us and we accept our Christian mission: to make God known to future generations through our unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This is the way of being that has the power to change the world.

In my mind, I imagine hearing Jesus speak to me, “I wish you could experience what I know about the Father. I want this for you, for you to know this. Because, if you knew God as I do, you would love one another as I have loved you. But the world does not know God, and this is why loving is so difficult. This is what you do know: you know that my works are of God, you know that I am of God. All that I say and do, these words and works are not my own, but God’s. It all comes from God. Listen, if you know me and you know these things about me, you know God. God’s love for me is my love for you. It is one and the same.”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

Not as the world gives

6th Sunday of Easter (C)

Speaking to his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Then he said, “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Which leads me to wonder, how does the world give peace?

A few examples come to mind. We contemplate putting down weapons, disarmament, or at least restricting the use of arms. Policy makers search for common ground; they come to the table looking for mutuality. Citizens of the world seek ways to better understand one another, to be more considerate, to share to planet’s resources, and to resolve issues that lead to intolerance and division. All noble steps towards a peaceable kingdom.

It’s complicated, though. The way in which the world gives peace is complicated by the fact that the Peace that Christ left with us, which motivates and inspires us, is opposed by so many.

Yesterday Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet, and pacifist died. He was 94. Early on, Berrigan’s tireless work for peace took the form of protest and civil disobedience against the Vietnam war, most famously when, in 1968, he along with nine other activists seized and burned hundreds of military draft cards.

Considered by many at the time to be both a traitor and an anarchist, Berrigan tirelessly articulated, in word and deed, the unheeded message of nonviolence which he located in Scripture. His death came after nine decades of personal risk, multiple arrests, imprisonment, and ceaseless opposition to societal injustice, something he knew to be an offense against God.

Berrigan’s campaign for peace not only earned him the contempt of the US government, but it also antagonized many members of the Catholic Church hierarchy who rejected his tactics and attempted to squelch his influence on the young Catholics whom he taught in university.

As a poet, Berrigan frequently blended his pacifist and theological vision into striking commentaries on religious blindness. In the following poem published in 1964[1], Berrigan suggests that the Church’s attention, while sincere, is misdirected away from the essential work of Christ in the World.

We Are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say

They hold up Christ for ascension
like twelve earnest athletes at a trampoline, but

If I go, I return, He says
skilled in gravity and the dynamics of flesh

Which decree His continuing declension
like dew or fiery napalm

Or the seeding of streams with trout eggs.
The twelve earnest orantes hold their hands

Safe as stone up to the absent One
which He presently strikes, forces and fills—

World, and world’s Body.

—Daniel Berrigan, SJ

Prophets like Daniel Berrigan and his brothers Phillip (1923 – 2002), and Jerry (1919 – 2015), walk amongst us, nudging us to awaken from our complacency. In the coming days, there will be accolades and honors and likely calls for beatification. Those of us who esteemed the work of the Berrigan brothers will read every word. But even as we hold them up and admire their vocation, we recognize that prophets are difficult to be around. Their means to peace make us uncomfortable. We dislike having the status quo challenged, and we don’t like messes.

Prophets disrupt our “peace,” which we have misunderstood to mean a lack of personal discomfort. Why can’t we just enjoy our Sunday afternoons and not be bothered? It’s just so tiresome to hear someone complain about injustice all the time.

Undoubtedly, we are responsible for some of the stain the church bears on behalf of its rejected prophets, but it is not a permanent mark.

Modern day prophets like Daniel Berrigan challenge us with every step to receive the Peace of Christ and give it to the world, not as the world gives it, but as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Daniel Berrigan, SJ, ed. John Dear. We are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say, from And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems, 1957-1997. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998) 58.