Homily for the 20th Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2012
I know that many of you were a part of the Way of the Cross procession that our parish organized on Palm Sunday this year. It was a moving event and I think that a number of the scenes from that day have stuck with many of us. The way that Jesus was portrayed by the young man from our parish certainly had an impact on many people. In particular, the last stations at St. Johns church would be hard to forget, as we watched this young man stripped half naked, shaking as he hung from the cross because he had dragged that huge thing a mile and a half across town. To be so vulnerable and exposed before hundreds of people like that, before being gently lowered into the arms of his mother. The Church was quiet, very quiet.
I was pretty involved in rehearsing the scene – practicing taking Jesus down from the cross. And even during the rehearsal, there was a sense of respect or of what I might even call reverence as we worked to figure out how to take Jesus’ body from the cross and lay him gently so that he could rest in the arms of his mother. The fact that we were just enacting a scene did not change the fact that we were carrying in our arms the body of another human being who was entrusting his safety to us.
It reminds me a bit of carrying a newborn. My brother and sister in law just had a baby a couple weeks ago and I was down the day after she was born. I found myself up at 4:00am holding the little one – not a common experience for a priest. How can you not have a certain, again, I’m going to call it reverence, as you gingerly and carefully hold that little child who is so vulnerable and precious?
Another experience I had of that same kind of reverence was when I was in Calcutta as a seminarian, working for a morning at Mother Teresa’s house for the dying. We were asked to help bathe the male residents. So each of us went to cot after cot, lifting up these young men who were so weakened by disease that they could not stand and weighed half our weight. And there was a sense of profound reverence as we carried them, naked and vulnerable, to the shower room, washed them head to toe, and then brought them back to their beds.
Why bring these experiences up? Because they came to mind as I reflected on the words of Christ in our Gospel today: Unless you eat my body and drink my blood, you do not have life within you. We might also put it this way: When you eat my body and drink my blood, you have my life in you, you hold my body, my life in your hands, entrusted to you, given to you.
We need to think about what that means. It means that the bread and wine in a moment are transformed and become the flesh and blood, the body, of this man, Jesus Christ. Just as his body was taken down from the cross and placed in the arms of his mother, so his body is taken from this altar and placed into our hands, our mouths. In a sense, every time a Christian receives communion, he or she takes the place of Mary in the pieta. The body of Christ is laid in our arms in a profound act of vulnerability, of intimacy. Christ could not give us anything more personal of himself: his own body, his own blood: placed in our hands.
What if the Eucharistic minister handed us a newborn baby? How would we hold that child, what kind of reverence would we have? What if the Eucharistic minister handed us a naked, dying man? How would we hold him, how would we reverence his body? My experience is that the rest of the world goes away for a moment – all of your attention is focused on the life, the existence of the person you are holding in your arms. The full weight of what, of who, you are carrying holds your attention fast. Every move you make, every thought, is directed toward how you can respect and revere the body, the life that has been entrusted to you. Your world is entirely consumed by what you are carrying.
In a few moments, the Eucharistic minister will place the body of the Risen Lord of Heaven and Earth in your hands, upon your tongue. Will we carry his body with this same reverence, allowing it to consume us – our attention, our desires, our hopes and dreams? And not just for the few steps on the way back to the pew, but for the rest of the week?
Jesus teaches us in the Gospel today that the Christian is a Christ-bearer: one who is entrusted with Christ’s body, and whose life must be consumed through, with, and in the Body of Christ.