by Edward Foley, OFM Cap
One of my personal challenges
about preaching at Old Saint Pat’s
is that I am not here every week,
and like other preachers move around from Mass to Mass …
Last week the 8:00, this week the 11:15, next week in LA.
The fun is that I get to celebrate with assemblies,
different teams of ministers of hospitality and musicians.
A downside from my perspective, however,
is that each homily ends up being sort of a discrete adventure,
often without the possibility of referencing
some previously made point.
This is especially true these special feasts after Pentecost –
last week Trinity, this week of the Body and Blood of Christ,
each of which have distinctive readings
out of sync with the lectionary cycle.
Last week I suggested that the Feast of the Trinity
could be considered “a feast of ideas.”
This is a designation that some theologians use
to distinguish those feasts
that do not have some historical basis
such as Christmas, or Good Friday
or what David Tracy calls “the Christian fact.”
Feasts of saints also have an historical anchor
like the feast of Patrick … we know he lived and died.
Which is why feasts like that of St. Christopher
were removed from the calendar after Vatican II
because there was no evidence
that the Christ-bearer ever actually lived.
Now you might be saying to yourself,
“Now just a minute Padre,
you seemed to have overlooked the gospel
which proves that the feast of the Body and Blood
Is NOT a feast of ideas … but an historical remembrance
of Jesus actually saying
‘This is my body … this is my blood!’
So the feast is not “idea” based … but history-based.”
And therein lies the mystery of this feast.
And also the danger of bad theology … even heresy.
For if we hold that this is essentially an historical feast
we could similarly assert
that when we go to communion
we receive the historical body of Jesus,
his natural flesh and blood born of Mary.
Which is not the teaching of the Church.
A few years ago, I read a powerful, dark and brooding novel,
The Buried Giant, by Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro,
set in mythical post-Arthurian England.
Central to the narrative is some form of amnesia
that has enveloped the British countryside
and all its inhabitants,
both Saxons and Britons,
who live in a foggy peace with each other.
Besides the amnesiatic fog,
the novel follows Wistan, a young Saxon warrior,
and the Briton Gawain, an aging knight
and nephew of the long dead king Arthur.
Wistan and Gawain are respectful yet mortal enemies,
not fighting over some beautiful woman but an aging dragon,
whom Merlin enchanted years ago
after Arthur’s bloody conquest of the Saxons.
The dragon’s breath is the fog that induces this societal amnesia,
dampening the memories of hatred and slaughter,
rivalry and division,
that grew out of Arthur’s bloody conquest of the Saxons.
And so there was a Camelot of sorts,
but more a camelotic ruse,
and once the dragon is slain
memory returns …
A memory that will once again feed a smoldering anger
between Britons and Saxons
and lead to war.
Memory is the buried giant here,
and when it raises its fiendish head,
personal division and societal chaos ensue.
The revelation here is that the death of the dragon,
the lifting of the fog,
did not create the hatred and division,
rather it revealed it … in all of its destructive ugliness.
From time to time we witness the lifting of an amnesiatic fog.
Recently those have included the #MeToo movement,
exposing the destructive ugliness
of sexual harassment of women.
The “NeverAgain movement” begun by the survivors
of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School
has helped lift the boomerang fog
that induces national amnesia
a few weeks after one more school mass shooting.
And then this last week
we witness an apparently Ambien-assisted tweet
by a high profile television celebrity.
Did not create, but revealed again
the vile and abhorrent racism
that yet courses through our national body.
All fog lifting, however, does not pull away the veil,
only on the abhorrent or obscene.
One could suggest, for example, that the recent wedding
of the now Duke and Duchess of Suffolk
not only lifted the veil that sometimes shrouds
the very diverse, even racially mixed British population,
But also that Meghan Markle may not be the first royal
of African Ancestry,
a first that seems to go to the 18th century –
Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III.
On a smaller scale I find the best contributions
from “Storycorps” or “This I believe”
or the long-running Harry Porterfield feature
“Someone You Should Know”
(featured on Chicago CBS Television Station Channel 2).
As welcome veil-lifters,
and laser pointers
to the good, the gracious, and the generous
that surrounds us each day in bountiful and beautiful ways
What is always staring is in the face
is not always clear,
is not always even perceptible,
until someone … for good or for ill …
disperses the fog and lifts the veil.
I have taken this excursus into
the work of Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro,
racist tweets and royal weddings,
because of their fog-dispersing
and veil-lifting power
to teach us something important
about today’s gospel,
about today’s feast,
about the very act of communion,
and thus about Christian life.
It is true that three of our Gospels – Mark, Matthew, and Luke –
have Jesus identifying the bread with his body
and the wine with his blood …
But it seems to me that those were fog-lifting,
attempting to provide clarity for his disciples
about the schooling he had provided them
over the previous three years
as his earthly life was clearly and precipitously
coming to a close.
In selecting, mentoring, and sometimes chiding his disciples,
it is clear that Jesus has been concerned
about their moral and spiritual and social development
in standing with the poor and the marginalized,
the contaminated and the sick,
the widows and the orphans.
It is also clear, in his rejection of empty ritualism,
that Jesus was not overly concerned about rubrics,
and he did not put the letter of the law
ahead of the good of God’s people.
Thus he had no problem with healing people on the Sabbath.
Thus in these famous words about body and blood,
Jesus is not teaching his disciples how to say Mass
or giving them a doctrinal lesson on transubstantiation.
Rather, as I imagine it,
Jesus is saying to his disciples something like:
“For the past three years you have feasted on me,
you have devoured my teaching,
dined on my Word,
basked in the glow in my intimacy with my Father,
drunk too much wine at that wedding feast,
and been nourished by the power of healing.
You have eaten me up and sometimes spit me out.
In case you haven’t noticed it,
the authorities are hunting for me
and soon I will go the way of John the Baptist,
decapitated or crucified … one way or the other,
I will be gone.
Eucharist, Daniel Bonnel, 2011
And who will carry on this ministry,
who will announce good news to the captives?
Heal the sick?
Protect the children?
Offer respect to the divorced and the outlier?
In a phrase, who will be my body in the world?
If you eat this bread … which I now identify as my real self,
then you too become my real self,
for this bread is my body … and if you eat it
you commit yourself to being my body as well.”
“But there’s a catch.” Jesus continues. “If you want to be my body,
it is not about prestige or privilege,
about apostolic honor or clerical pride …
For if you want to be my body in the world
You have to drink of the cup.
It is a cup of joy and a cup of blood,
a cup of blessing and a cup of sacrifice,
a cup of dying and one of rising.
Drinking of this cup is drinking of the covenant in my blood,
the blood that will soon drain out of my earthly body.
If you drink of the cup
you enter a life of sacrifice …
which is the only way you can truly be my body in the world.”
From the horrors of the death camps during World War II
comes the story of a small group of Christian prisoners,
forbidden to worship, as were their Jewish sisters and brothers.
But one night, as their Jewish friends kept the guards busy,
the Christians huddled together.
The pastor began: “This meal reminds us of the torture, the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He asked us to remember him by repeating this action in the spirit of fellowship. The bread which we do not have today, but which is present in the spirit of Jesus, is the body which he gave for humanity. The fact that we have none represents very well the lack of bread and the hunger of so many millions of human beings. When Christ distributed bread among his disciples and when he fed the people he revealed the will of God that we should have bread and be bread for each other.
The wine which we do not have today is his blood present in the light of our faith. Christ poured it out for us to move us toward freedom in the long march for justice. Christ made all persons of one blood: the blood of Christ represents our dreams of a unified humanity, of a just society without difference of race or class.”
The pastor then held out his empty hands to the person on his right and left, and others around the circle did the same; as he placed his hand over theirs he boldly exclaimed: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me. Take, drink this is the blood of Christ which was shed to seal the new covenant of God with humanity.” Then they raised each other’s hands to their mouths, kissing the scarred and bony flesh of their fellow prisoners, and so received the body and blood of Christ, and returned to prison life with new hope, and awareness of the presence of Christ that lived in and through them.
Soon most of us will join a wondrous procession.
Accept the bread and affirm it as the body of Christ.
Drink from the cup and affirm it as blood of Christ.
But that is not the only procession we need this day.
For if it is an authentic feast of the Body and Blood of Christ,
we need a second communion procession
out the door,
into our city streets, neighborhoods, workplaces,
schools, shopping malls and homes,
becoming fresh flesh and blood incarnations
of the living bread for which the world hungers –
through sacrificial living
for which we were baptized.
In the words of St. Theresa,
“Christ has no body now but yours ….”
Let us, as St. Augustine urged us,
become what we eat,
and do so in the sacrificial spirit of what we drink
through Christ our Lord.