The Body of Christ

Many years ago Dom Helder Camara was a much beloved bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Recife, Brazil. He lived in the sacristy of the church. One early morning Helder Camara was awakened by an urgent knock on his door. Opening the door, he found a woman from the parish terribly upset. “Padre, the Body of Christ has been desecrated. There are hosts spilled all over the floor by the tabernacle.” Helder Camara looked at her and replied: “Are you telling me that it is only now that you notice how the Bof Christ is being desecrated?!”

What did the dear bishop refer to? He rightly replied from multiple understandings of the term “The Body of Christ.” After all, as we share the bread and the wine at the Eucharist, we say to one another “The Body of Christ, broken for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you.” And so I got musing on these multiple meanings as if looking at a diamond from different angles and through different light sources.

First and foremost, the “Body of Christ” refers to Jesus, the historical person who lived some 2,000 years ago in Palestine. It is this person who was first given the title “Christ” meaning the “Anointed One.” Jesus revealed to us the face of God – the Source of love and mercy which draws us irresistibly into the fullness of our human potential, of all that God desires us to become as His sons and daughters made in His image and likeness.

Secondly, the “Body of Christ” refers to the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, the simple fruits of the earth and the work of human hands transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic celebration. Next to the historical Jesus, the Eucharist is the second expression of the Incarnation and God’s sacramental presence among us. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus commanded us to do in his memory.

Thirdly, the “Body of Christ” refers to those who are baptized into the death and  resurrection of Jesus Christ. Together we are united in Christ and form his holy body on earth, the Church. This “Body of Christ” extends beyond any one denomination and constitutes the community of salvation.

The most beautiful description of this body is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (…) and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27)

And last, but certainly not least, the “Body of Christ” refers to the poor. When asked when do we see him, feed him, clothe him and visit him, Jesus replies in Matthew 25:45:  “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” I’m quite sure that it is this meaning Dom Helder Camara had in mind when he replied to the distraught woman.

The anguished words of a Sri Lankan bishop shed more and similar light on the connections between the various meanings of the “Body of Christ”: “Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today— and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land?” Dom Helder Camara was right; the Body of Christ is indeed desecrated routinely and massively every day in the plight of the poor.

What if we look at Eucharist not only as Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What if, when Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ he was also telling us, ‘Now go break your body and shed your blood in the service of others.'”

The Eucharist calls us to transformation, so that we leave church “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), determined to live differently and to contribute to the (w)holiness of the world. The Eucharist is to give us new eyes and different priorities. It is to affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote, whom we regard as our neighbour.

Every Sunday the Body of Christ gathers to celebrate and share the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, in order to be sent out to BE the Body of Christ in the world, especially to the Body of Christ in the poor and destitute. In this way, the Body of Christ is both a reality and a revelation, an invitation and a challenge: “Do this in memory of me.”

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Love – an Orientation

This past week the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury to engage in some controversial conversations. As a result of these painful deliberations some disciplinary “consequences” were meted out to The Episcopal Church (TEC) in the USA over its practice of sanctioning same-sex marriage without adequate consultation with the worldwide Anglican family.  This decision, along with a warning to other Anglican provinces considering a similar move (which includes the Anglican Church of Canada), is making blood boil on all sides.

When we feel chastised over something that is deeply woven into our personal and collective identities and lived reality, emotional fallout can easily blind us to Christ’s command of discipleship of love, mercy and compassion. In the midst of emotional storms it takes enormous willpower to resist our hurting heart’s desire to slide down the slopes of anger and frustration, to vilify enemies and to succumb to despair. Equally, if the stormy winds blow in our favour, making for our own smooth sailing, it takes enormous willpower to resist wallowing in smug self-righteousness and judgment, inadvertently dismissing the need for respect and dignity amidst conflict, thus blatantly betraying the need for compassion and solidarity with hurting sisters and brothers.

In the western world, we live in a socio-political cultural climate that now considers same-sex relationships as normal. Those who struggle to accept this are often considered homophobic and judgmental, deficient and grossly outdated. Such labeling can easily result in a reverse discrimination of sorts, as if relieved that the shoe’s on the other foot now. Is it still possible to engage in compassionate and respectful conversation on same-sex attraction and relationships without sliding into emotional mud-slinging or risking glib but unhelpful labels and judgments no matter what perspective is voiced?

The Anglican instinct of inclusiveness and embracing diversity is being tested severely at this time. Every denominational strength comes with its accompanying weakness. Yet it is that particular Anglican expression of discipleship that constitutes one of the Anglican gifts to the Christian family. As recently as a couple of months ago, Father Raneiro Cantalemessa, the Vatican’s papal preacher, pointed this out in his homily at the Church of England’s General Synod: The Anglican Church has a special role … . It has often defined itself as a “via media” (a Middle Way) between Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. From being a “via media” in a static sense, it must now become more and more a via media in a dynamic sense, exercising an active function as a bridge between the Churches.

In the case of same-sex attraction and same-sex marriage discussions, the difference, for example, between Roman Catholic and Anglican conversations is that, while these discussions are taking place in both traditions, they occur of necessity below the radar in RC circles while they occur in the open in Anglican circles. However messy and chaotic, painful and challenging, I’d like to think there is something healthy about the open nature of such discussions.

There’s a popular quote that says, when the student is ready the teacher appears. I am in a season of spiritual learning that makes me open and deeply receptive to this Anglican inclusive and “middle” way. And so my new Anglican spirit prays fervently: can we in the Anglican expression of Christian discipleship, do better than parting ways, tolerating underground and unhealthy ecclesial discussions, or debasing ourselves by mutual mudslinging? Can we keep walking and talking together in love or will we succumb to society’s favourite sport of dismissing and labeling those who disagree with us, shutting them out of our lives? Can we foster together a spirit of mutual learning and correcting as part of our common call to holiness?

Just as none of us are innocent of sin, so none of us are outside of God’s mercy: I think we are people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord’s most powerful message: mercy. ~ Pope Francis, March 17, 2013

Loving as Christ loves us is demanding and painful and sometimes distasteful. Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to echo St. Teresa of Avila when she’d tell Jesus: “No wonder you have so few friends!” Yet Jesus loves each of us, sinful creatures who, by God’s crazy design, nevertheless walk around with God’s dream imprinted on our souls. Loving in Jesus’ name involves deep listening — why else do we have two ears and only one mouth? Divine loving requires living humbly and open-mindedly, patiently and graciously with everyone, but especially with those whose lives are most different from our own, never forgetting that “there for the grace of God go I.”

Back in August I wrote with great affection about my dear friend Jordan who became the new Moderator for the United Church of Canada (Holding Tension). I expressed my desire to be a bridge of reconciliation and healing, striving to grow my capacity to love. I am copying here some of those August words as we, in the Anglican Church of Canada, continue a most difficult conversation at General Synod this coming summer.

As a new Anglican, still green, I desire to take part however difficult that might be. I appreciate the weariness by many on both sides of the question and who feel that they have been discussing this “ad naseum.” Yet in a tradition that discerns over and moves in centuries, the conversation has barely begun. And it deserves the very best we can be for and with one another for the sake of the entire Christian family and for the sake of our beautiful yet broken world:

Love is an orientation, the foundational orientation: God is love, and those who live in love, live in God (1 John 4:16). Such is truth — a relationship of love: “Truth is a relationship. As such, each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life.” ~ Pope Francis

Whether we are right or wrong on the question of same-sex marriage, can we entrust this to our loving Creator and to the future? Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it from within, that is to say, according to one’s own circumstances, culture, and situation in life. Falling and rising, we can only do our best with what we have been given. And as far as being right or wrong: “Naming anything as prophetic is dangerous and fraught with the potential for hubris. The Spirit of God and time determine whether our acts are prophetic or corporate ego run awry.” (~ Sr. Janet Mock, LCWR 2015 Assembly)

Thanksgiving Collect for Primates 2016
January 17, 2016

Gracious God:
Your people found wisdom in the wilderness
and faced challenge in the promised land.
We give thanks for the many signs of your presence
with the leaders of your church
as they sought to discern your spirit
amid tension and conflict, humility and grace.
Sustain them as they return to their people;
renew them in mission and ministry;
comfort and encourage any who find themselves
hurt, disappointed or dismayed;
and restore the unity of your Spirit
in the bonds of our peace.
Through Christ our Lord.
Amen

Update February 8: Numerous commentaries can be found on the Primates’ Meeting by now, each revealing their ideological bent in how they perceived what happened. Among these I’ve selected one for my readers: Perspectives on the Primates Meeting

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Alone No More

Fourteen of us women gathered for our monthly lunch, each of us active in (or retired from) professional church ministry, some ordained, some religious sisters and others in a lay-capacity; Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Community of Christ, Pentecostal/Evangelical, United, Lutheran. Some of our sharing centered around human pain and suffering far and near; the tsunami of refugees flooding Europe and now arriving steadily on Canadian soil, the couple with two young children killed in a tragic car accident in Saskatoon earlier this week, our First Nations missing and murdered sisters, beloved friends–family–co-workers facing sudden death and illness. How do we, ministers of the Gospel of Jesus, respond to such a perfect storm of human pain, a lot of it unsolicited, unnecessary and almost always undeserved?

Our conversation reminded me of the destruction brought on by tsunamis. In the two tsunamis the world has witnessed in this century (2004 & 2011)  contact with water ended life abruptly, within minutes, for multitudes of good, innocent people while leaving millions without the basic necessities of life. The elements of nature – water, fire, air – have a power beyond our understanding and beyond our control. Worse than this is happening in Syria at the moment, where calculated evil by human design is using food, water and medicine as weapons of war, systematically starving ordinary beautiful women, men and children.

Today, Sunday January 10 2016, the Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus. Does this event have any message for the millions of desperate people in every corner of our broken world? Jesus comes to John to be baptized in death-dealing waters. But why? Why does Jesus need to immerse himself in these waters if he is the Holy One, the one without sin, the Son of God?

John the Baptist knew of death and destruction, knew of sin and decay that is as real as the current moaning and groaning breaking the sound barrier all around the globe. Everywhere good people are perishing because of war and violence, illness and sudden death, natural disasters or starvation. Sin and decay are real, says John, and he called out for people to repent, and to “die to sin” in the waters of the Jordan, and be baptized.

For just as water can destroy, so water also gives life. Water is what the survivors of the tsunamis needed most and right away. And from all over the world water purification systems were flown in at amazing speed. Just as water kills, water also saves. Clean, safe drinking water means LIFE! Clean, safe drinking water and shelter, food and medicine is what refugees need right now. Clean and safe support and comfort is what loved ones need to dry tear-stained faces and mend broken hearts.

And just as we can kill others in so many subtle and blatant ways, we can rise to the radiance of compassion and mercy. Baptism holds in tension both the destructive and the life-giving qualities of the human spirit, of human existence. Baptism enacts ritually a dying to the destructive forces of life (within and without), so as to rise from the waters a new creation. Every time we baptize a new member of God’s family, every time we bless ourselves with holy water, we recall both these destructive and life-giving powers of life symbolized in water.

At the start of his public ministry, Jesus insists on being immersed in waters that can destroy and re-create, waters filthy with decay and capable of cleansing, waters that hold the key to salvation. The Jordan River was not exactly filled with clean, calm and warm water like the fonts in our churches. People and animals “lived” in the river; the forces of nature controlled the river, and both food and poison swirled between its banks.

It is this identification which reveals the central message of incarnation and redemption. Jesus entered into complete solidarity with all women and men everywhere and in every time. Jesus’ baptism reinforces the incarnation – God entering into radical solidarity with all humanity, indeed with all creation.

In the waters of the Jordan Jesus takes upon himself sin and destruction, grief and suffering, even though he himself was without sin, was the Holy One. The “one more powerful” assumes the position of weakness. It is precisely in this radical act of solidarity that Jesus is the Beloved of God. And it is from this baptism that he is sent, to love and forgive and heal — a way of life that lead right onto the cross where he experienced the pain of utter abandonment. The powerful message in Jesus’ witness is that, from then on, no one ever has to bear pain alone and abandoned, for Jesus has been there, done that, and he will hold us close.

In much the same way, we are sent forth from our baptism – to continue, to complete, to bring about that which Jesus inaugurated and revealed as God’s way, God’s truth and God’s life: God’s reign of peace and justice, mercy and love for all – no exception.

The great opera composer Giacomo Puccini, while composing Turandot, was told in 1922 that he had terminal cancer. Rather than quit his beloved project, however, he told his friends “I am going to work on my masterwork as hard as I can and as long as I can. If I don’t make it, the finishing will be up to you.”

Puccini died in 1924, and the opera premiered in Milan, Italy, under the direction of one of the composer’s best students, Arturo Toscanini. The performance continued up to the point at which Puccini’s work had abruptly ended. Toscanini paused, turned to the audience with tears in his eyes and said: ‘This is where the master left off ….’ Then Toscanini turned back to the orchestra, picked up the baton and shouted over his shoulder to the audience, ‘And this is where his friends begin.’ And the orchestra completed a remarkable performance.

And this is where our lunch conversation ended up: we all face our share of suffering in life. Worse than the suffering itself, however, is to feel abandoned and alone in bearing it. Like Puccini’s friends, we are called to carry on where Jesus left off. Allowing Jesus to mold our very identity and purpose, our task is to pull one another from destructive waters – of sin and death – into life-giving waters by our compassionate and merciful presence in one another’s pain –avoiding fear, resisting indifference, staying clear of pat answers or saccharine pity. Through simple and great acts of mercy and communion we bring, in time, God’s peace and justice to all people everywhere. Knowing that we are not alone to face the world’s demons, big and small, feeds hope and courage and resiliency. Whether in Europe, South East Asia, in the Middle East or right in our own cities and towns, we have Good News to share: to demonstrate with our own lives that contact with God’s waters of life does not destroy, but gives life.

While Jesus fulfilled God’s will, and showed us the pathway to everlasting life he did not leave a finished product. Rather, he showed us the way, the truth and the life or, as some of our churches are fond of saying, opened the gates of heaven. He left us an unfinished symphony, a symphony that needs our very lives in order to be completed. Baptism officially commissions us to help complete Jesus’ masterpiece in progress called the reign of God. It’s a matter of life and death for the many who are crying out in pain, who are burdened with suffering.

The Christmas season ends today, at the banks of the Jordan River. But the Messiah remains. The adult Jesus begins his precarious journey to Jerusalem. The good news as spoken by the angels is not to be forgotten, but needs to continue in our lives. On the cross, Jesus’ mission was completed. Now it’s up to us, who are part of the world’s two billion baptized people, an entity some have called a sleeping giant. We are commissioned to bring healing and mercy, to bring God’s divine touch of love each day and everywhere. Jesus has no other plan but us.

Getting up from our lunch table, each of us returned to our respective churches and ministries, strengthened and nourished in body and spirit by one another’s clean and safe love, courage and faithfulness, equipped anew to mend our broken world.

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