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. 

_______________________________

[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.

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635