The Good and The Bad at the Table of the Lord

On Sunday’s celebration of Corpus Christi, I was struck by a line in the Lauda Sion sequence recited at Mass:  “Bad and good the feast are sharing.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how God seems to have a preference for imperfect people.  Read a few pages of Scripture and you discover a murderer was the greatest prophet of the Old Testament (Moses), and one who was at least complicit in murder was the greatest missionary of the New Testament (Paul).  King David was an adulterer but also a man after God’s own heart.  Peter betrayed his best friend and his Lord but in the eyes of that same Lord, he was a Rock.

Bad and good this feast are sharing – this Eucharistic feast, this feast of life, feast of divine love that seeps in and around us.  If we had to be “good” before we could come to the feast, what would be the point?  It is this feast that heals the bad in all of us. 

When it comes to human beings, God prefers transformation to perfection.  This is what his friendship and his table are all about.

Very bread, good shepherd, tend us,
Jesus, of your love befriend us,
You refresh us, you defend us,
Your eternal goodness send us
In the land of life to see.
— Lauda Sion Sequence, Corpus Christi
  The Table  by Julie Delton.  Originally published on the cover of  The Christian Century  magazine and published here with permission.  Click on the image for more of Julie's artwork (www.juliedelton.weebly.com).

The Table by Julie Delton.  Originally published on the cover of The Christian Century magazine and published here with permission.  Click on the image for more of Julie's artwork (www.juliedelton.weebly.com).

Corpus Christi: 3 Prayers

In the rhythm and beauty of the Church’s liturgical year, Sunday brings the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ.  Here are three short prayers that I hope will enhance your preparation for and celebration of this life-giving feast. 

The first prayer is from the book of Psalms.  The psalmist is recalling one of God’s wondrous deeds – the feeding of the hungry Israelites with manna in the desert.  Exodus 16:35 says that the Israelites ate this manna for 40 years, until they came to the land God had promised them.  The manna, which they considered to be “bread from heaven” (Ex. 16:4), was their food for the journey, just as the Eucharist is ours.  We can read these ancient words in a “Eucharistic sense.”  (If you have time to reflect on Exodus 16 in the next few days, please do.  You will be amazed at the Eucharistic parallels!)

In the second prayer, Thomas Merton captures many truths of the Eucharist in a poetic way.

I especially love the last prayer from The Didache* – using the imagery of scattered wheat gathered into bread, it envisions the Eucharist as a source of unity for the Church, the Body of Christ.  In some ways our Church still appears to be scattered across the hills.  May the Eucharist heal our divisions and unify us in the love of Christ.

*****

God commanded the skies above,
    and opened the doors of heaven;
he rained down on them manna to eat,
    and gave them the grain of heaven.
Mortals ate of the bread of angels;
    he sent them food in abundance.

-- Psalm 78:23-25

 

O God, give peace to Your world.  Give strength to the hearts of men.  Raise us up from death in Christ.  Give us to eat His immortality and His glory.  Give us to drink the wine of His Kingdom.

-- Thomas Merton, Entering the Silence

 

We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through Jesus your Servant; to you be the glory forever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom; for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.

 -- The Didache 

*****

*The Didache is an early Christian “handbook” of sorts, likely written around the turn of the first century C.E.  It is a brief, fascinating document that gives a flavor of the early Church.  It can be read in its entirety at www.earlychristianwritings.com.

  The Last Supper  by Fra Angelico

The Last Supper by Fra Angelico

Let the Sun Do Its Work

Spring has finally come to Connecticut, which means a beautiful light through the trees and everyone gathering outside – fixing up the yard, starting the garden, or walking at the beach.  Remember that sunny day I told you about – the one that finally comes – when you know you can leave the fleece behind for good?  The one we earned with every miserably cold morning and every slip on the ice?  That day has arrived!

It’s that time of year when the sun block comes out and reclaims its spot near the back door.  But it usually takes a surprise or two before I take the sun block seriously.  On Sunday, after just an hour or two at the beach, my sons' faces were a shade or two darker, and my own arms had lost the “winter white.”  The sun had done its work without me realizing what was happening. 

The sun works on us with a silent, gradual, transforming power.  If I go to the beach and stare at my skin, I don’t see a change taking place.  It’s only later that evening when I look in the mirror that I see the change – the warm glow of color restored, the abiding result of happy times spent in warmth and light.

Below is a brief excerpt from Fr. Murray Bodo’s Landscape of Prayer.   Fr. Bodo shares a charming account of a fellow Franciscan who taught folks to pray before the Blessed Sacrament.  He wanted them to stop trying so hard.  He wanted them to stop stressing about “what to do.”  He wanted them to enjoy their time in this Eucharistic Presence in the same natural way that I enjoyed the warm sun at the beach with my kids.  He wanted them to “let the sun do its work.”  And then later – as they went about their lives or glanced in the mirror – later they might discover that they had been changed by this silent, transforming power:

Brother Carlo used to expose the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance and ask those who would learn to pray to sit in silence for two hours before the Blessed Sacrament. Usually they were, to say the least, nonplussed. And he would then explain, ‘Imagine you are lying on the beach, thinking of nothing in particular, just letting the sun’s rays work gradually on your skin, a beautiful tan emerging day by day. The host in the monstrance is the sun. Just be in its presence, not worrying about so-called distractions or whether or not you are concentrating on the ‘sun.’ A change gradually takes place in you the way a suntan emerges on the skin. Relax, let the ‘sun’ do its work. Your work is to be there.’
— Fr. Murray Bodo, OFM, Landscape of Prayer, St. Anthony Messenger Press

"He Vanished"

The story of the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples on the road to Emmaus is well-known – perhaps too well-known!  It’s been used for so many meditations and lessons that you might actually think you’re tired of hearing about it.  But you knew eventually I would have to go there!

And the reason I have to “go there” is because this story is nothing short of completely and utterly remarkable.  It has so much to say to us as “modern Catholics” that I can’t even think of where to start.  (Well, obviously that isn’t really true because I’m about to write about it!)  If you haven’t read the story lately, you will find it at Luke 24:13-35.

Of course the most exciting part of the story comes when Jesus breaks bread with the disciples, and in the midst of that Eucharistic event, their eyes are opened and they finally recognize him.  It’s a big moment.  It’s beautiful!  But…then he vanished from their sight!  Just at the moment when they finally really saw him.  Just at the moment when his words about the Scriptures erupted into an experience of understanding.  Just at the moment when they discover he is risen!  Just at the moment when they recognize Jesus Christ, fully alive, human and divine, present on the road, present in the breaking of bread, present at their table – risen and present and close enough to reach out and touch!  Just at that moment, he vanishes from their sight.  (Stay tuned for next week’s topic:  “God, why do you have to be so mysterious?!”)

Friends, Jesus has vanished from my sight.  So many times.  More than I can count.  I too have been on the road or in Scripture or at table or at Eucharist and caught a glimpse of the Lord, only to have him slip very quickly from the grasp of my mind and heart.  I too have blinked and found him gone.  Does the presence of the Risen Lord permeate my life?  I pray that is so.  But am I always intimately connected with him, close enough to reach out and touch?  Do I live in a state of always seeing and recognizing him?  No, I do not.

And I am not dismayed by this.  In fact, as the years pass I grow ever more content with this natural rhythm of the spiritual life.  The disciples had beautiful moments with Jesus.  They also had times of unknowing and distance, times of slowness of heart or blurred vision.  This experience with the Risen Lord – yes, he vanished from their sight – but they did not fret over it or desperately try to call him back or spend much time suffering over the loss.  No, it seems they were quite filled by the experience – brief as it was.  They ran with joy to tell the others.  But of course you remember the story – their hearts were burning!

Lord, give me eyes to see you and a heart that burns long after you vanish from my sight!

 "Supper at Emmaus" by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

"Supper at Emmaus" by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)

Lessons of the Trees #5: O Tannenbaum!

In the U.S., the definitive sign that your household has entered into the Christmas spirit is that the tree is up and decorated.  Although there is great variety in the ways we celebrate, decorate and commemorate the season, the tree is a common, unifying symbol.

As you can imagine, the history of the Christmas tree is long and complicated.  Trees have symbolized many things through the ages, and with good reason.  They are strong and dignified, living and resilient.  Their wood is used to build things (including mangers and crosses) and their branches and leaves protect small animals and birds.  In some cultures, trees are thought to have their own spirits, and to be worthy of worship.  And certainly they do point to and reach toward the heavens!

The conifers we use as Christmas trees have the added symbolism of a triangle shape (Trinity, anyone?).  And of course they stay green through the long winter, symbolizing the hope we always have in Christ, as fresh as the day he rose from the dead.  I can certainly attest to this effect of the evergreen; one reason I don’t mind the long winters in Connecticut is because of the gorgeous view of five stately green conifers in my back yard.  I am not a fan of snow, but snow settling on pines is one of the prettiest things I’ve ever seen.

Despite these symbolic tidbits, the most interesting thing I’ve read about the history of the Christmas tree is a tradition that is really more of a precursor.  It comes from the medieval European tradition of celebrating Christmas Eve as “Adam and Eve Day.”   Evergreens, symbolizing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were decorated with apples, symbolizing the forbidden fruit.  At some point, white wafers, symbolizing the Eucharist, were also hung on the trees.  And so two foods decorated the medieval “Paradise Tree” – one which brought down the human race, and another which is an “antidote”, a sign of our redemption. 

Decorating “Paradise Trees” is a tradition that persisted but evolved.  Fresh apples were replaced with – you guessed it – bright red balls.  Now sure, I’ve thought vaguely before about the relationship between the Tree of Knowledge, the Tree of the Cross, and the Christmas Tree.  But this year, when those bright red balls go on, I might just see old Tannenbaum in a whole new light!

 The lovely pines in my back yard were my landlord's kids' Christmas trees.

The lovely pines in my back yard were my landlord's kids' Christmas trees.