Come to the Feast

Come to the feast of heaven and earth here at the table of plenty.
God will provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty.

I see them Sunday after Sunday: women, men and children approaching the table of the Lord to eat the bread from heaven and drink the cup of salvation, the weekly parade of virtues and weaknesses, of gifts and sins (characters and descriptions are fictitious):

  • Harry, the man with the cane, lost his wife last year and is drinking away his grief.
  • Carrie, a young mom, struggles to make ends meet but in the process spends a lot of dollars on smoking cigarettes.
  • And Lorin, the teenage boy, is heavily burdened with the knowledge that a one-night date resulted in a pregnancy.
  • Gary is sick and tired of casual gay sex; he wants a permanent relationship but doesn’t know how.
  • So good to see Mavis again; I wonder if she’s over her broken marriage yet.
  • And then there is Mac, who is now flirting with several women at once – why not?
  • Once in a while I see Marissa and Peter – I can usually tell when it’s been another one of those violent outbursts the night before.
  • Cynthia is a regular, beautiful woman inside and out. Her same-sex partner does not support her Christian devotion, a cause of heartache in their relationship.
  • Poor James and Cindy: they’re only here because their parents make them come. Slouched in the pew, they clearly have no interest and claim no faith.
  • Jane and Mark’s marriage has long lost its flame; despite the death of their love, they stay together out of convenience and “for the kids.” Their lifeless faces speak volumes.
  • And see that man with the big white mustache? That’s George; he’s 75 and lives with Martha, 73, and says that at their age why bother getting married.
  • Arthur was baptized as a child, but hasn’t been to church for well over 50 years. Events in his life prompted him to give the church another chance even while he remains suspicious of any organized religion.
  • Joan has flaunted the Church’s teaching on birth control in more ways than one: not only does she use contraception, she’s had two abortions.
  • Anna, at 19, comes to church but is filled with scepticism about the meaning of it all. She receives communion without quite knowing whether it’s “real.”

And on and on and on … a motley parade of humanity. Human flaws everywhere, failure and sins galore shuffle to the front, famished for divine grace in food and drink. God’s holy meal — primary sacrament of reconciliation.

Each son and daughter of God, forgiven by Jesus in the Eucharist – Lord, have mercy.
None of us come to Christ’s table with a perfectly clean slate; but, praise God, Jesus himself wipes the slate clean. – Christ, have mercy.

Jesus had no trouble with sinners; it was the hypocrites he couldn’t stomach. – Lord, have mercy.

Jesus turned no one away … no one: “Take and eat, Take and drink, this is my body, my blood, given for you and for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.” God’s own holy table with food from heaven for sinners …

In the face of daily sinful behaviour in baptized and unbaptized alike, it is a miracle that God desires us at all. God has claimed us in baptism for himself in Jesus. Baptism is the door to the sacrament of Holy Communion. In baptism God makes us worthy and righteous. In Holy Communion we receive divine medicine to heal, restore, reconcile us into right relation.

The Eucharist, although the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 47)

Can we say yes to all of the above? I certainly can, especially now as part of the Anglican family of Christian disciples. As a Roman Catholic I was needled by persistent, uncomfortable questions. I would see a discrepancy between Catholic Eucharistic teaching as articulated so eloquently above by Pope Francis on the one hand and Roman Catholic regulations of practice at the communion table on the other. With humility and sincerity of heart, I would ask … why does the “sin” of ecclesial divisions, along with the “sin” of divorced and civilly remarried, seem to fall into a category altogether different than any of the horrendous things each of us can secretly bring to the Holy Table every Sunday? Christ’s blood courses through everyone’s firmament and was shed so that ALL sin may be forgiven every time we remember how he loves us even to this day.

Is it because certain sins are more “public” than others? Is it because we know who is and who isn’t “in the fold” even though the Roman fold is nowhere near the entire fold? How can the Eucharist release its healing and unifying power if it is withheld in precisely those situations and for those persons most in need of that healing and unifying power? Why do certain sins, such as the ones of ecclesial divisions and civilly remarried Catholics, get singled out? I mean let’s be honest, an X-ray of hearts in the weekly communion procession would easily reveal how unprepared, how unworthy, and how inadequate we all are to receive the heavenly food.

But most of us don’t tell. So we approach the holy table in great spiritual need and without anyone deeming us unqualified to receive the heavenly medicine of soul. Why penalize those who follow Christ in another room of his mansion, or who find happiness in a second marriage, while possibly much greater sins come to the table unnoticed?

Setting criteria and boundaries on reception of Eucharist is very risky. We can easily become gatekeepers instead of servants. We can all too easily set ourselves as judge over one another, as arbiters of grace instead of its facilitators. Does “policing” the table of the Lord not mock the unity Christ won with his own sweat and blood? Does barring God’s table not reveal a lack of trust in the reconciling power of the Eucharistic offering of Christ? Ecclesial divisions and marriage break-ups are a result of sin, not the outcome of God’s intent. Every time we use divisions to keep us from sharing God’s holy meal – the medicine for our souls – we become complicit in the very sin that caused these divisions in the first place. Human divisions of any sort cannot be resolved in human ways. That is precisely why Jesus came; Christ won the victory over human divisions, ecclesial and otherwise.

Jesus poured out his life so as to overcome all division and strife. How did we get from Jesus who scandalously ate with sinners and rif-raf to a fenced-in holy table? Is it not a violation of the highest order to the integrity of Christ’s Eucharistic sacrifice on the cross to use his holy banquet as a human ledger? Where do we find the audacity to evaluate who’s in and who’s out at the Table whose servant we are, not whose host? How is it that the sins of ecclesial divisions or of civilly remarried Catholics are treated differently than the general daily human sinful condition? And even if it is Christ’s will that we monitor the state of grace of the guests at his table, whose criteria do we apply? And who gets to decide and how if conditions are finally ready to share the Table of Mercy?

Every Sunday I, a sinner, share the Bread of Heaven and the cup of Christ’s blood with sinful, fallible, weak, flawed, devious, dishonest men, women and children. In solidarity we come forward, in repentance we seek God’s mercy through partaking in God’s sacred meal. As we eat and drink, Jesus feeds our souls, heals our spirits, and reconciles us to the Father.

I’m on the Canterbury trail now, having become part of a church family where all baptized sinners are welcome at the Holy Table of its host, Jesus Christ himself. Technically speaking my Anglican move bars me from the Roman Catholic Eucharist, even though my faith in and my hunger for the holy sacrament has not changed one bit.  I’m grateful to live in an RC diocese where a local Diocesan Policy is in effect on sacramental sharing with baptized Christians from other denominations, a policy especially generous towards inter-church families (my husband remains RC). No doubt there are glaring shortcomings in the Anglican tradition, but when it comes to the Eucharist the Anglican church family takes Pope Francis’ words literally and puts them into practice:

The Eucharist, although the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.  These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. (Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, par. 47)

Come to the feast of heaven and earth here at the table of plenty.
God does provide for all that we need, here at the table of plenty…

Lord, oh Lord, have mercy…

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Unlikely People, Unlikely Faith

Note: On this Roman Catholic Feast Day of Corpus Christi the Anglican liturgy features the encounter between Jesus and the Roman centurion from Luke’s Gospel. The centurion’s words, brought to Jesus by his friends, have become an integral prayer of the Roman Catholic Eucharist in preparing to receive Holy Communion. From my new Anglican perch, however, it strikes me as ironic that the prayer of the centurion, an outsider by all criteria, has become part of a communion practice that reserves the right to determine who is and isn’t worthy to receive. Jesus makes all of us worthy; I don’t think church membership or our own efforts to become worthy were meant to be part of the deal. Contrition yes, but anything else, no. Is Jesus’ reply to the centurion not a gentle rebuke on any attempt to restrict access to Jesus, the healing Bread of Heaven, not least on our tendency to judge others by “policing” the communion table? I mean, with all due respect, I’m just wondering …

Homily for May 29, 2016 on Luke 7:1-10
St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, Humboldt, SK

Today’s Gospel opens the seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel. A very interesting chapter, as it turns out. The chapter begins with a Roman army officer, a Gentile, who believes that Jesus can heal his servant without even being there.  “Just say the word, and I know it will happen.”  Luke says that Jesus was amazed at his faith; he hadn’t seen anything like it in Israel. The chapter ends with an immoral woman crashing a dinner party where she kisses Jesus’ feet and anoints them with perfume. The hosting Pharisee is offended.  Jesus forgives this woman and says, “Your faith has saved you.” She believed that Jesus would forgive and accept her—He did. Not exactly your run-of-the-mill folks… or are they?

Let’s take a closer look at today’s Gospel account…

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and let my servant be healed. A close variation of these words can be heard regularly still today: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed. It is the Roman Catholic equivalent of what the BCP (Anglican Book of Common Prayer) calls the Prayer of Humble Access, a prayer that occurs in the same place in the Eucharist, and that echoes another healing story, (Mt & Mk) the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman: We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. (BCP) (“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs gather the crumbs that fall from the table.”)

How peculiar … how very peculiar that, of all the stories in the Gospels, it is this one of the centurion’s faith (like the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith) that became a major part of the church’s liturgical prayer. The centurion represents the occupying force of Rome. He is an emissary of the oppressor. Even Luke’s original readers and those who first heard this story knew full well that there is one thing that hadn’t changed across those decades and that was that Rome was still in charge, still occupying the country, still enforcing its will upon people of all ranks and stations. This centurion is one who – as he himself admits – is used to giving orders in the Roman army and having those orders obeyed. He is, then, one of those directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.

But I wonder if that’s not part of the reason that this story is so important and appears in both Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. I mean, just because this man is in the Roman army doesn’t mean that he is incapable of doing good and having faith, does it? Clearly this man, representing the enemy, is already known for having done much good. Even while an outsider to Jewish society, and representing the oppressor, this centurion is clearly choosing not to act as an oppressor. Rather than letting his power and status make him arrogant and hostile, he chooses to have empathy and respect for those in his care, and makes friends with them. He even worries about his sick slave, one who has no power, no voice, no authority at all. He built a synagogue for the Jews living under his jurisdiction and they in turn appreciate his generosity. “He loves our people” (vs.5).  And he’s most considerate and respectful of Jewish religious practice. Anticipating that direct contact with Jesus might compromise  Jesus because of religious purity laws, this Roman soldier decides not to approach Jesus directly. That deference on his part shows profound regard for Jewish religious customs. Instead, he trusts elders and friends to deliver the message on his behalf. Indeed, the Jewish leaders in his town commend him to Jesus. And, the centurion trusts that Jesus, with a word, will heal the beloved servant. Finally, Jesus is amazed: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

What are we to make of this? First of all, we would do well to always and everywhere assume the best in people, no matter who or what they are, realizing that God loves all people – all people.

All people, literally all people, are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, not just Christians. Even if someone doesn’t share our faith in Jesus, they are our sister, our brother, in Christ. Even our enemies are worthy of our kinship and efforts to find common ground in the goodness of their heart. We need to continuously look for the good and the beauty, constantly looking for the gift and desire of faith in whatever way the other person expresses. Some well-meaning Christians get all tied in a knot and dismiss those who do not share our faith. But perhaps what we should be surprised at is not that unlikely and unexpected people demonstrate faith and do good works, but that we consider them unlikely and unexpected in the first place.

After all, Jesus commends the faith of this Roman centurion even though – and here’s the clincher – there is absolutely no indication that the centurion becomes … a follower of Jesus. I mean, he does not ask to follow Jesus or confess him as the Messiah or even seem particularly interested in meeting him. He simply sees in Jesus an authority that he recognizes and, quite frankly, an authority that he needs. Maybe he becomes a disciple, maybe not. Neither Jesus nor Luke seems particularly interested. Instead, Jesus praises his astounding faith and Luke records it. End of story.

So that kind’a makes me wonder …

We all know and love folks who don’t go to church, who aren’t particularly religious, or even Christian. For the most part, we’re talking about really good people. This story of the centurion is a good reminder that such people are also deeply loved by God, even if they don’t recognize or claim this love as coming from God. A priest once had an argument with a young scientist, who claimed that he didn’t believe in God. To which the priest calmly replied, “That’s okay, as long as God believes in you.”

God does not withdraw his love and mercy just because we don’t believe in God. Just because we don’t recognize God in our lives, doesn’t mean God cannot use us to do good in the world. Many of us love family members and friends  whose relationship to the church is sketchy at best. I have at least two of these wonderful human beings in my own life; they happen to be my own son and daughter. They, like the centurion, may not share my love for Jesus, but they sure know, like the centurion, when they or someone they know needs prayers: “Mom, will you say a prayer for so-and-so? They’re good people; they are worthy of having you do this.” Sounds familiar?

I’d like to think that the interaction between the centurion and Jesus reassures us that it’s okay that faith comes in different shapes and sizes, and certainly in different expressions, and that it is our job to recognize this … as Jesus did. I give thanks that centurion-like people are part of my life, people who I may not feel much in common with, yet people who, in their dealings with others, show respect and compassion, generosity and humility, nobleness and integrity just as the centurion clearly shows to the Jewish people,  to the soldiers under his command, and especially towards his slave. I pray that God would use my loved ones to do God’s will in the world (even if they wouldn’t call it that), and I pray that we would all have the grace and courage to affirm their goodness, sharing our gratitude as well as our joyful conviction that God loves them and uses them.

If we could sum up the one overarching lesson in the entire seventh chapter of Luke’s Gospel it is this: the people we would expect to have faith, don’t; and those we wouldn’t expect to have faith, do. Today’s encounter reminds us not to put people in a box. God is at work in everyone—even in the most unlikely folk. Next, don’t ever let our religious pedigree get in the way of trusting Jesus. It’s easy to become a Pharisee—self-righteous, trusting in our religious heritage and traditions rather than trusting Jesus.

Can we foster the kind of openness that Jesus shows in today’s encounter? If we do, we too may be surprised by joy when we bump into faith in unexpected places and people. For Jesus continues to turn everything upside down and inside out. The church in fact supports that upside down vision of Jesus, even if it doesn’t always reflect that in its own practice. One of the ways it does that is by allowing the words of two outsiders, the words of two highly unlikely people of faith, the centurion and the Syro-Phoenician woman, to find  their way into major parts of our Eucharistic liturgies. It is with their words that we approach Holy Communion:

We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table. …

Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof,
but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.

“I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

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Eucharist and Justice

If you are surprised by the combination of these two words above, stop and think for just a moment. Your surprise reveals the massive amnesia among most western Christians about the fact that celebrating the Lord’s Supper ought to have huge consequences for how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It is urgent that we reconnect these two principles in order not just to recover faithfulness to Christ, and to ensure that our Eucharist is “valid” (1 Cor. 11:29) but to save the very planet we inhabit, our common home.

When writing the latest essay for one of my M.Div. courses on the above subject, I unearthed some poignant words which are crying out to be reclaimed, from the Gospel itself to the early Church Fathers to today. I am sharing them here with the hope of awakening all of us from our consumer slumber. For if we truly are what we eat, and if we partake in Holy Communion over and over for years, then just about every cell in our body has been nourished with the sacred meal. Christ’s Body and Blood – that’s who we are. From that reality it ought to flow without question that we in turn are then called to bring Jesus’ body and blood out into the world, to lay down our lives for the sake of our sisters and brothers in need.  May it be so.

On the night before he gave up his life for us, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body which is given for you.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, said the blessing, gave it to his friends, and said, “Drink this, all of you: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which is shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” ~ Eucharistic Prayer 5, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada.

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ~ Matthew 25:35—40

Although world leaders have increasingly talked about the need to tackle inequality, and in September agreed a global goal to reduce it, the gap between the richest and the rest has widened dramatically in the past 12 months. Oxfam’s prediction, made ahead of last year’s Davos, that the 1% would soon own more than the rest of us, actually came true in 2015 – a year earlier than expected.  ~ Oxfam Report, Jan. 18, 2016

When we seek liturgy which fosters social justice, we are confronted with an immense challenge – celebrating liturgy which changes not only the hearts of worshipers but, through them, the way the world – and the church – are organized and function. ~ The Liturgy that Does Justice, James L. Empereur, SJ, and Christopher Kiesling, OP. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1990

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream. ~ Amos 5:21-24

The 28 richest countries have resettled only 1.39 per cent of the 4.6 million Syrian refugees – a total of 129,966 refugees – a fraction of the 10 per cent of people who need to be urgently offered a safe haven. Only 67,000 have actually made it to their final destination. ~ Oxfam Report, March 29, 2016

Our habits and our predetermined ways and the structures of our society have fastened such blinders on our harnesses that, as a whole, Christians and Christian churches in our society have only the haziest notion of any moral imperative flowing from the Sunday meeting in which we celebrate God’s word of human liberation and solidarity and then act it out in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. As obvious as those ethical demands are, they simply do not impinge; they do not get through to us. We are too well protected by the world we live in. ~ Robert Hovda in Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008)

Those who hold strange doctrine … have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed … because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour. ~ St. Ignatius of Antioch, 100 AD

I recall you in the last place to the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament. … I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. ~ Our Present Duty, Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’  ~ St. John Chrysostom, 349 – 407 AD.

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? ~ Sri Lankan Bishop, in Gabe Huck’s Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008

As each Sister is to do the work of a priest — go where he cannot go and do what he cannot do, she must imbibe the Spirit of Holy Mass, which is one of total surrender and offering. For this reason, Holy Mass must become the daily meeting place, where God and his creature offer each other for each other and the world. ~ Blessed Mother Teresa, Rule Book, Sisters of Charity, p. 31; R. 33.

The Eucharist, whether seen as Holy Communion or as the Mass, can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. It’s supposed to have a trans-forming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote. ~ Gabe Huck,  Let’s put the Eucharist to Work, in US Catholic, June 12, 2008

In the third century, the North African bishop, Cyprian, wrote once to reprimand a wealthy woman in his church who made no offering of her resources for the care of the poor but who presumed nevertheless to show up at the communion table. From Cyprian’s perspective, the poor and rich alike must spend themselves for others. This is the concrete self-gift of the church, the gift celebrated in the Eucharist. The wealthy woman who refused her gift was denying – even mocking – the thrust and imperative of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is, above all else, a sacrifice: yours–joined to Christ’s. ~ An Easter Sourcebook, Gabe Huck, Gail Ramshaw & Gordon Lathrop, LTP, 1990

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and – if you cannot do more – have heartfelt sympathy. ~ Martin Luther in “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519, published in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

If a poor man or a poor woman comes, whether they are from your own parish or from another, above all if they are advanced in years, and if there is no room for them, make a place for them, O bishop, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make any distinction between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing before God. ~ Didascalia of the Apostles, 230 AD

Anyone who celebrates the Lord’s supper in a world of hunger and oppression does so in complete solidarity with the hopes and suffering of all men, because he believes that the Messiah invites all  . . . to this table and because he hopes they will all sit at the table with him. In the mysteries, the feast separates the initiated from the rest of the world. But Christ’s messianic feast makes its participants one with the physically and spiritually hungry all over the world. ~ Jurgen Moltmann, in Liturgy, Justice and the Reign of God, Frank Henderson, Stephen Larson, Kathleen Quinn, 1999

The Eucharistic celebration. . . is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life . . . . All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ. … Reconciled in the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection. As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the Eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the Eucharist. .. Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry, par. 20 & 24, World Council of Churches, 1982

In the fullness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He healed the sick and ate and drank with outcasts and sinners; he opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and to those in need. In all things he fulfilled your gracious will. ~ Eucharistic Prayer 1, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada

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Step by Step

With no less than three certificates declaring me a member of the Anglican Church now, it was very moving to be formally welcomed through the Rite of Reception in a beautiful celebration of the Easter Vigil – Christ is risen, alleluia!

So, you may ask — how am I doing in all this? Extremely well, thank you. This entire experience continues to be a fascinating school in spiritual lessons and especially, in discernment. The fruits of these lessons are God’s gracious gifts. Could it be that fruits such as these further authenticate the path now embarked upon? Could it be that such lessons can serve as markers in any situation, a way of assessing whether important life steps are truly being taken honestly and thoughtfully, with both personal and communal integrity? I’m sharing some of these lessons below, inviting you the reader to find parallels in your own ways of making life choices. This sharing is not an end in itself nor a way to draw attention to myself. Rather, my prayer and hope is that the sharing can help all of us develop healthy and wholesome pathways to fullness in Christ, which is the baptismal call of all God’s holy people.

I sensed the authenticity of this call into the Anglican family of faith from the moment this new beckoning began over one year ago; its time had truly come, it was for real, and it originated in God. That certainty never wavered – each day in this past year of preparation peace, clarity and joy were my constant companions. Even when faced with seeming “setbacks” or unexpected challenges this threesome provided an anchor, orienting me gently and surely to the learning and the growing here and now. There is a calm wholeness to the current move that was noticeably absent ten years ago when I first considered turning onto this Canterbury trail. God is so very good and full of surprises …

Honesty, intentionality and integrity are among the primary values I strive to live by. That is why the denominational transition did not proceed 10 years ago; I knew in my heart of hearts that proceeding then would have seriously lacked the personal and ecclesial integrity both I and the Anglican tradition deserved despite all my best efforts (and the support of many) in that intense love affair. I know others who have changed traditions out of frustration and anger; that did not sit right for me. I couldn’t ground such a switch in motives that were too mixed and utilitarian, in energy that was too negative, with too much unresolved ecclesial baggage tagging along like a stowaway. Even if no one notices on the outside, the fact is that I would know on the inside. And it would feel way too much like building my house on sand … Maybe that’s why I received three certificates — just to make sure the Anglican piece sticks this time … 🙂

For today is a different story. Don’t get me wrong though; the past ten years have been filled with rich ministry opportunities, both in RC and ecumenical circles, and I am deeply grateful for God’s faithfulness in all these years. But today is a new day, a new invitation. There is a distinct qualitative shift to the way the Anglican beckoning entered my life’s orbit this time: unexpected, unbidden and undeserved, yet playing intimately and skillfully the strings of my desire in ways calling forth the very best I can be for God and with God’s holy people. The beautiful gift of today’s undivided heart now makes possible a new capacity to embrace and surrender to whatever the future holds in peace, trust and joy.

Every Sunday, for two whole months before Easter, I made a 215 km round-trip to go to the mother church in this Anglican Diocese, St. John the Evangelist in Saskatoon, along with my sponsor. We joined other adults with their sponsors who were preparing for their final step in joining the Anglican Church (Confirmation in their case). After having coordinated RCIA in my years of RC pastoral ministry, it was interesting to now find myself on the other end of that process, and I am immensely grateful for the opportunity.

Every Sunday we began the Eucharistic service with the entire congregation until, after the homily, the priest would call us up, pray a blessing over us and dismiss us. We would then go to the adjacent parish hall where we would have our catechetical session for the day. We shared prayer, our lives, our questions and thoughts about how to grow more fully into our common baptismal calling as Christ’s disciples. We learnt about the distinct features of Anglican discipleship in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church of Jesus.

I thoroughly appreciated this preparation process; it was exactly what my heart and spirit needed, making the journey towards formal reception in a spirit of community and prayer. On the outside it maybe looked tiny and insignificant, esp. for me who has studied and ministered so extensively in many church settings, both Roman Catholic and ecumenical. I discovered and experienced the gift of slow, the meaning and power of an incremental and ritual “yes” Sunday after Sunday. Each deliberate step into this yes deepened and strengthened my decision in a most inclusive both/and way, i.e. without denying any of what was before but bringing it along in a new configuration – how very Anglican. And each Sunday my joy, peace and clarity grew in depth and breadth, enabling me to make the Anglican tradition my new home. Ritual truly does deepen one’s experience.

Hard as it was, I fasted from receiving communion for the two months of preparation at the Cathedral along with the other group members. This made Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil extra special, almost as a “first communion” all over again. What a nourishing gift the Eucharist can be to famished souls and parched spirits. This awareness grew steadily in the weeks of Eucharistic fasting. Sometime in early March, I attended a Eucharist on a weekday. I had become acutely aware of my hunger for the Bread from Heaven; here was an opportunity to receive and I so desired to do so. Yet receiving would have broken my solidarity with the group and would undoubtedly have affected my experience of receiving Holy Communion at Easter. I struggled in the pew with my famished spirit; even when I went up to the communion rail I still didn’t know what I would end up doing. But then I knelt down, crossed my arms across my chest, received a blessing,  and thanked God for the depth of my Eucharistic hunger – what a beautiful gift this awareness is now.

On Good Friday I sought out the sacrament of Reconciliation (yes, Anglicans can do this and some in fact do!). It was an emotional experience to name and leave behind all the hurts of the past, all those I have hurt and to forgive those who have wronged me. It was an opportunity to check for unwelcome and unhealthy stowaways in heart-mind-spirit, and to seek God’s mercy in ridding myself of these. I even asked forgiveness for things that happened ten years ago which, I learnt recently, have sown distrust in some Anglicans about today’s denominational change because of memories of feeling used and betrayed by my transition struggle at that time. Through tears of repentance God’s mercy flowed generously, setting me free for this new leg on the journey.

And so, my joy was full and deep in that Easter Vigil, fueled not only by a renewal of faith in the risen Christ, not only by the gracious hospitality of the Cathedral parish, but also buoyed by the supportive presence of my RC spouse, my oldest son, members of my Anglican home parish who made the 215 km round-trip just for me, and several Roman Catholic friends. How important community is …

Each step savoured and cherished,
each word pondered and chosen to perfection.
No running and rushing, no tripping or regrets …
Slow motion in momentous choices
adding spice and reflection, depth and meaning
while sprinkling clarity and peace
in heart and mind.
Infusion of courage and patience
in a spirit trembling in fear and joy …

Each slow step affirming yes
falling into a future known
only by tomorrow
featuring glowing colours
of pregnant promises of life
ever green, ever fresh, ever new…

And so, in confidence and trust, I surrender to a future known only to God. That is okay, for surely it is God who saves me; I will trust and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Saviour. (Isaiah 12:1-2)

Prairie Encounters

For previous reflections pertaining to my experience of denominational transition, see the following blog entries:

A Time of Transition

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

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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.”

Prairie Encounters

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My Body, my Blood (Part I)

One Sunday at Eucharist I was pondering once again the meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ. To say that it is a mystery is not to dismiss curious minds and inquisitive queries, but rather to point to something that transcends words or any human understanding. In fact it is only a mystery that can touch our deepest existential reality, because we too are a mystery even unto ourselves.

Anyway, this one particular Sunday I again allowed my spirit to encounter Holy Mystery in the Eucharist. And my thoughts wandered, as they tend to. This time thoughts turned to the Theology of the Body (TOB), a series of catechetical talks given over several years by Saint Pope John Paul II. Several questions have puzzled me over this magnum opus of the\is Holy Father. First of all, the first popular interpretations of the Pope’s TOB insights focused exclusively on marriage and sexuality, creating the impression that our bodies are only worth theologizing about when we become sexually active. Once I explored the TOB on my own (with the help of a dear friend) I discovered that it is about much more than what happens in the marriage bed. A second, way more urgent question, emerged: how come it has taken us 20 centuries to reclaim the sacramentality of the body, something so powerfully communicated in the Word made Flesh? Our human body was good enough for Jesus of nazareth. This very Lord who is the reason for our Church, whose bodily gift of self in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, took on our flesh in the womb of a woman’s … body. How come we have so ignored the radical implications of this truth when it comes to our bodily comfort level? How come we now need the TOB to return us to this fundamental message in the Incarnation?MotherOfTheEucharist2

The sovereign God took on human flesh and redeemed us through the human flesh of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the capacity for the human body to make visible the invisible God. In Christ Jesus the physical and the spiritual were reunited as one. Despite this amazing Good News Christian history has had an abominable track-record in honouring the human body. At varying times we have degraded the body, chastised the body, dismissed the body, even blamed it as the source of all evil, in particular the female body. In light of the Incarnation, and despite St. Paul’s summons “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (I Cor. 3:16 & 6:19), such a track-record could be considered deeply heretical. Given this dubious legacy, it is refreshing to re-read Katrina Zeno’s presentation at a TOB conference in Rome a few years back in which she said:

As human persons we do indeed have a very specific nature, an embodied rational nature, which perhaps could even be called a sacramental nature. At all times and in all places our embodied human nature is created by God to point to something beyond just the material. We are not relative only to ourselves and to our acquired goods and pleasures. On the contrary, “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” to cite one of the most frequently quoted passages from the theology of the body (Audience 19, section 4). Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. (Zenit, Nov. 14, 2011)

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the ordinary food and drink of bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. I find it fascinating that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time their bodies grow another human being, The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

ElizabethMaryIn her yes, Mary became first in offering to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy? God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God: “Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is a Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist.” (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

CupBlessingEvery time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self to others redeem relationships between men and women, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.” It is thus that we glorify God in our bodies, male and female.

An earlier version of this reflection appeared in the Prairie Messenger, June 11, 2014

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