I got up this morning at 9:30. That’s about four hours later than normal. There are really only two reasons I’d do something like that: exhaustion or illness. The truth is, I’ve got both, and they are spiritual and mental as much as (or even more than) physical. If there is any solace for me, it is in knowing that I am not alone.
To be honest, that’s fairly cold comfort. I’m a preacher and a priest, and I want to offer people relief and release. As willing as I am to get into the dark valley, one of the gifts entrusted to my care is the opportunity to set a table in the presence of all that troubles us. But I just can’t wrap my head around setting out the Eucharistic elements without a congregation physically present to participate in the liturgical action.
In the opinion of Diana Butler Bass, this is a form of spiritual hording on my part. My unwillingness to celebrate the Eucharist, she asserts, is a manifestation of my devotion to the institution of the individual, of my lack of imagination about what the Eucharist can be (as if any imagination can fully encompass the very presence of Christ in the Eucharist.) She bemoans a church that is “unable to recognize that we live in the virtual reign of Christ.”
The gospel stories we read in the season of Easter seem to support her point. Jesus shows up and disappears, unbound by space and time and undaunted by locked doors. Yet is the actual Jesus that Thomas longs to see, not a virtual one. And what is more, he longs to see Jesus’s actual wounds, to know that the anointed one really suffered for us and with us, and that he will carry all of us — especially our woundedness — to sit on the right hand of God.
Is it any less of a failure of imagination to regard this as a fable from a benighted era, suitable only for children’s stories and the comfort of the elderly? What is Christ’s reign is not only virtual but also real? Surely the image of God is upon all created things at all times. The issue is not whether we can believe that, but whether we can see it. We come together to remember that Christ is particularly present in this very bread, this very wine and in the very persons who gather around the table.
How a transcendent God can be immanent to this moment is, of course, the great mystery of the Eucharist. It is a mystery, the scholar Elizabeth Anderson argues, which should not be stripped out of the liturgy. She is concerned that when we make the liturgy too easy, and too obvious, we reduce the Church to boring aphorisms. She relates that her students explain their reluctance to attend services that are simply “about hearing that God loves you and that you should be nice to other people.”
In my experience, however, there is nothing simple about either of those things. I know I should be nice to people, and still I impatiently honk at the elderly person who is trying to make a left turn onto a four-lane highway. I roll my eyes at someone’s blindly arrogant blog post. Why am I not a better Christian? Why do I not love more?
In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton suggests that “the root of Christian love is not the will to love, but the faith that one is loved. The faith that one is loved by God. That faith that one is loved by God although unworthy-or, rather, irrespective of one’s worth.” Who is worthy to receive the sacrament? Who is worthy to administer it? If we are honest, not only about our own worth but the mysterious extent of God’s grace, this question of worth fades into oblivion.
And what remains is each other, which makes your presence not incidental but essential to me. We are essential to one another if we are to become what we are created to be: fully human, to fulfill the law of nature. Merton continues “The plainest summary of all the natural law is: to treat other [people] as if they were [people.] Not to act as if I alone were a [person], and every other human were an animal or a piece of furniture.”
Nothing is more mysterious that how to actually achieve this seemingly simple task. Beyond the obvious narcissism and greed of the world, seeing beyond ourselves, loving beyond ourselves, is a recipe for discomfort. “As long as we are on earth,” Merton claims, “the love that unites us will bring us suffering by our very contact with one another, because this love is the resetting of a Body of broken bones.”
There is healing in the Eucharist. There is a setting straight of what has been broken, not just within ourselves but within all of creation. Priests can’t do this alone, and neither can the people. We must do it together. Being separated sucks, and nothing is more emblematic of our separation than the absence of the Eucharist.
“And the dogs on Main Street howl ’cause they understand
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man
And I believe in a promised land”
– Bruce Springsteen