Reflection 16th October 2011
An old friend of mine, Trevor Smith, used to say about the Bible ‘If you can’t see happening now, what was happening in the Bible, then it makes the Bible harder to believe.’ This is a big ask, because it asks of us to risk as much to ‘get at’ God, as the people who knew Jesus risked to ‘get at’ him.
The same is true of the Eucharist as an expression of life lived with God. If the actions and events that are described in the drama we call the Eucharist do not happen in our lives then there is no ‘recognition factor’ I am a fan of Henri Nouwen, but one of the things I find irritating about him is that he is very good at the ‘description of the Eucharist’ part of things, that is describing what is supposed to happen, but not very good at making the connections. Listen. He says ‘When we gather around the table and eat from the same loaf and drink from the same cup, we are most vulnerable to one another. We cannot have a meal together in peace with guns hanging over our shoulders and pistols attached to our belts. When we break bread together we leave our arms – whether they are physical or mental – at the door and enter into a place of mutual vulnerability and trust.’
Well I have been in, and presided at plenty of Eucharists where there has been lots of mistrust and not much vulnerability! Just saying a thing does not make it so.
But there have been times when I have been blown away and really changed by what has happened in the Eucharist for me.
I remember when I was teaching school (untrained) to support myself when I was studying theology. There was a Eucharist to keep St. Ignatius’ Day. (It was a Jesuit school) . As a person who had grown up a Methodist, I excluded myself from the Mass for that day, although I loved watching the children put on plays of the conversion of St. Ignatius. I also did not feel like a very good teacher. I could not exercise the kind of discipline that other teachers seemed to be able to exercise. So I was ready to go home. All the staff came and begged me to stay. I did. I felt so embraced as someone who was willing to be an outsider that this Eucharist set me on the way to a sacramental understanding of the Faith.
Some time later, I was an assistant at another St. John’s. That year was an amazing year of change and growth for me as the first time I’d worked in a parish full time. There was some conflict with one person. During the Eucharist, just as a matter of course during ‘The Peace’ I went up to them and said ‘Peace be with you.’ They, taking the need for genuine ‘peace’ more seriously than I did said ‘I don’t think that that is particularly appropriate.’ I was taken aback. Here was a person who really wanted to be ‘in love and charity’ with their neighbor, but was not, and was not going to pretend otherwise in the Eucharist. A risky truth, that one!
Another time, just recently I has done something hurtful. I left my home to go to Church with a sense of guilt and a strained relationship. Then came the confession. At that moment the words became not just ‘words’ to say, but a true expression of how I felt. I received the absolution, and went home, able to say what I had done wrong, and able to repair a relationship.
I have become increasingly aware of the role that the intercessions play in the Eucharist too. Over the years I was at my last appointment, we left spaces in the prayers, where members of the congregation could add their prayers. This took a while to get off the ground, but slowly people began to speak out loud the things that moved them. There was joy, and some tears, and some pleading as we brought into the circle of God’s love those concerns of our life which were important to us at that moment. This kind of sharing bound us together more closely in the Body of Christ, because we had risked something with one another.
So these are stories from the past, that illustrate the kind of power that taking risks in the Eucharist can set loose. I tell you about them because last Sunday I noticed some very powerful things happening in the Eucharist that also were able to happen, because people took seriously the words and actions that we have prepared for us in the Liturgy.
A person who was not well known to me had to go early. As they went out the welcome that day just went to check up on them to see if they were ok. They wrote me an e.mail saying ‘Thank you the welcomer for coming to see if all was well when I had to leave early on Sunday…much appreciated.’ Our welcome is the ‘front door’ of the Eucharist. There is no point in gathering for communion at the Wedding Banquet if people are not invited in and made welcome when they come. Although this was in the ‘P.S.’ of an e.mail, it shows just how important it is to everyone who comes, that they be welcome, and cared for.
The other event occurred for me at the communion rail. There are so many people going whom I have got to know. It makes me sad to see them leave. I’m glad we were able to farewell several people over the last couple of weeks. Last Sunday in the distribution of the bread and wine, I felt a wave of affection for all the people who have left for warmer climes recently, and for those who had come back in good health after illness. The communion rail is a place of intimacy, and another way in which the bonds of being the Body of Christ can be expressed.
Then came the thing that warmed my heart the most. I had come to hear of a conflict between two members of the congregation. They had told me their stories. I did what I could to encourage them to ‘make up’, but these things are a matter of actions freely undertaken. Then, right at the peace I caught out of the corner of my eye an embrace of ‘peace’ and a kiss, and a hand shake. I saw two people who knew that they really belonged, taking the risk, using the structure of the Eucharist provided for them, to do what it offered: to make peace.
For those willing to risk the weight of their lives in this drama, it is no wonder that we say ‘we come near to the uttermost depths of God.’
Your Companion on ‘the Way’