7 Jun 2015
“While they were eating …” (Mark 14:22) In the name …
Last weekend Kristin graduated from college, which means that as parents we were able to go from the pomp and circumstance of a stately, dignified graduation ceremony to the grime and grit of cleaning-out a dorm room and loading it all into two waiting cars, and I would like to add, in the rain. But both are part of that day; both are part of that day’s memories. Often times my memory isn’t great, but I think I will long be able to connect feeling so proud when Kristin received her diploma and then feeling so squeamish when we had to move the dorm room couch and vacuum up stuff that seemed to have a life of its own. And I do have to say that I am surprised at how popular table tennis is with college students today because in the common-area there were a whole bunch of ping pong balls, and what else could they be doing in college during Senior Week with them besides playing table tennis? But the profound and the ordinary, the dignified and the practical both came together to define that day.
Now let’s jump back about 2,000 years to another sort of graduation ceremony. It took place in an Upper Room somewhere in ancient Jerusalem. Jesus was passing the torch of His mission and ministry to His students, His disciples. Whether they were ready or not, they were graduating because that very night 2,000 years ago Jesus would be taken away from them and just like other graduates they would have to take what they had learned and witnessed and create something useful out of it all. And just like other graduations, there would be the dignified and proper. There would be that sacred moment when Jesus pronounced for the first time, to last for all time, the words, “‘This is my body,’” and, “‘This is my blood.’” (Mark 14:22, 24) We treat this mystery with the greatest reverence we can muster. Children must come to private Confession. Adults are asked to judge themselves at the beginning of each Mass to see if they have lived up to the standards of receiving the body and blood. Everyone who is healthy is required to fast for two hours before approaching the altar. That lesson is so well ingrained that my extremely ill father remembered to forego supper on the Saturdays that I brought him Communion in the nursing home. He didn’t even need to do that because of how ill he was, but he insisted on doing so because it was part of his practice of reverence.
The dignity of the sacrament is everywhere present in the church. The Eucharist is front and center of the building. The entire structure of the church is based on respect for the Body of Christ. Steps lead higher and higher from the nave of the church where the pews are, to the Sanctuary on this side of the Communion railing, to the highest platform right before the tabernacle. The eternal light burns constantly to remind people in and outside of this building that the sacrament is present. When we held our guitar concert recently and later this month when we will welcome people here for an organ recital, I remove the sacrament from the tabernacle and turn off the eternal light so that people who may not understand our reverence practices will not inadvertently treat the Eucharist disrespectfully. And there is so much more that is all part of treating as sacred the Body of Christ, the Corpus Christi, from which this Sunday derives her name.
But just like any other graduation combines the noble and the ordinary, the leather bound diploma and the Petri dish of life beneath a college sofa, so we as church can’t only concentrate on the sacred and the liturgical. We can’t forget the rest of the story around those words “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Jesus and His disciples had gathered together for a meal. What happens to the bread that is passed around and to the cup of wine are the very definition of mystery in the church, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore that fact that they were passed around to people. And not all future saints either. Today’s Gospel jumps over the section speaking about Jesus’ betrayer because that belongs to Holy Thursday and the Passion of Jesus, not to Corpus Christi and the celebration of the Eucharist. But that omitted selection makes absolutely clear that Judas is still at the table when Jesus shares the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. Jesus knows that one of them will betray Him, but Jesus does not withhold the Eucharist from any of them.
I remember visiting Fort McHenry with Sharon many, many years ago. There you can still see the flag that inspired our National Anthem. That flag had the tar beaten out of it. It was torn and shredded by the British bombardment, but those very desecrations are what made that flag such an important piece of our American heritage. Sometimes it’s the very flags that have suffered through the worst treatment that are the most hallowed. Sometimes the flag has to stand-up for something rather than only be protected and treated with the greatest of care. Maybe we need sometimes to think along these lines when it comes to Holy Communion as well. The Eucharist was Jesus’ last attempt to transform His betrayer. The Eucharist wasn’t something reserved for the saints; it was on the front lines of trying to make a sinner saintly. And the Eucharist didn’t become any less holy because Judas still did what he did. We obviously need to reverence the great gift of the altar, but we don’t need to protect it to the extent that it can’t be a powerful tool of bringing someone in moral need back into the embrace of God’s Holy Communion. This is why we practice Open Table. This is why we leave it up to an individual’s conscience to come forward or not. But we will not withhold the sacrament.
Just like graduation, the mystery of the Body of Christ is both the reverence and the practical. We are surrounded by the reverence in this sacred place, but the practical is each of us. The Eucharist that is not received as Holy Communion remains holy, but ineffectual. We’re the reason for the sacrament. Let us count this as part of the sacred mystery that is the Body of Christ and let us try to be as worthy of this mystery as we possibly can. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo