Sunday, June 10, 2012


I've used this quote from Annie Dillard before (according to my records, also on Corpus Christi, back in 2007), but it's a great one, so it bears repeating.

   The Most Holy Body & Blood of Christ   B 

The Jerusalem Temple was the scene 
of daily animal sacrifices.
But one sacrifice in the course of the entire year
stood out above all the others.
On the annual Day of Atonement, and only on that day,
the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies—
the temple’s inner sanctum, 
where the Ark of the Covenant was kept—
to sprinkle a bull’s blood as a sin-offering 
for himself and for the people.
But before passing through the curtain,
the high priest had a rope tied around him
just in case, while he was in there,
he encountered God face-to-face and died;
then the other priests would be able to drag him out
without having to go into 
the sanctuary themselves.*  (cf. P. Feldmeier)

The Letter to the Hebrews 
builds on this potent imagery.
Jesus Christ is our great high priest.
And he stands on our behalf before the Divine Presence—
not drawing back the curtain of a temple made of stone,
but piercing the veil between heaven and earth.
To the Father, Christ offers—
in atonement for the sins of the world—
not the blood of bulls and goats,
but his own Precious Blood, beyond all price.
“This is my blood of the covenant,” 
he says at the Last Supper,
“which will be shed for many.”
By his perfect sacrifice, 
Jesus reveals that those who approach God
do not so much have to fear dying
as they should come expecting a new life.
While his own Passion 
was, indeed, quite gruesome, 
Christ offers us communion 
with his saving death and Resurrection
under the common appearance 
of bread and wine—
in the familiar, comfortable context of a meal.
We believe his blood becomes 
really and truly present for us…
…but there’s no gore, as at the temple.
I get enough smirks from you 
when I sprinkle you with holy water;
I can only imagine the reaction
if I were to sprinkle you with blood, 
as Moses did the twelve tribes!
In Jesus, the true Lamb,
Israel’s long history of bloody sacrifice is fulfilled.
Perpetuating his self-offering sacramentally in the Eucharist,
Christ has made God infinitely more approachable
than in the temple rites of old.

But this incredible approachability—
being able not only to see God and live,
but to hold him in our hands, to receive him as our food and drink—
while its one of the Eucharist’s greatest strengths,
is also one of its greatest liabilities.

American author Annie Dillard 
once observed
that most people 
set about going to church
in much the same way 
they would a pleasure cruise:
getting on board like tourists 
ready for the packaged excursion,
hoping to enjoy 
the program of entertainments,
if not also take in 
some lovely views along the way.

But Dillard finds this perspective 
most inappropriate.
To her mind, 
going to church 
should be a whole lot more
like heading out 
on an expedition to the North Pole.
If the words 
we dare to speak here are true,
and the rituals we enact 
have the capacity 
to do that which they claim,
then participating in the Mass
means embarking on 
a much more daring 
and dangerous journey.

Dillard writes:
On the whole, I do not find Christians…
sufficiently sensible to conditions. 
Does anyone have the foggiest idea
what sort of power we so blithely invoke? 
Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? 
The churches are children playing on the floor
with their chemistry sets,
mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. 
It is madness to wear ladies straw hats…to church;
we should all be wearing crash helmets. 
Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares;
they should lash us to our pews.  (Teaching a Stone to Talk)

How often do we stop to realize the lofty mysteries
which we are privileged to handle when we come to Mass?
Are we conscious of the staggering power we invoke—and unleash—
when we call upon the Lord at the altar?

We do not need all the studies that have been done
to convince us that many Catholics today
no longer believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist;
we can see it in our empty pews.
When—due to falling attendance—
Mass schedules change or churches close,
it’s hard for me to fathom why so many otherwise faithful folks
can’t make the switch to another time or another building
[though we’ve experienced that very thing right here in this parish].
I can understand the struggle of dealing with change…
…but how can Catholics choose to live without the Eucharist?
And if faith in this cornerstone of our religion had gotten so shaky,
then neither should we be surprised
that so many First Communions are also the last for quite awhile,
or that the Church is repeatedly rocked by scandals,
or that she’s rapidly loosing her voice—
losing her place as a moral authority
in the lives of individuals and of society.

All, however, is not gloom and doom. 
There are signs of hope.
The number of men studying for the priesthood in American seminaries
is on the rise.
In some parts of the country,
Catholics are building new churches rather than closing old ones.
Even right here at home,
when we took a headcount at all the Masses last weekend,
it was the highest attendance we’ve seen for an “ordinary” Sunday
in the past two years.
I’m not sure how to explain that…but it’s very encouraging!

Once upon a time,
this Sunday’s feast was marked by public processions.
I’ve seen old black-and-white pictures from my home parish
where thousands of Catholics on Corpus Christi
were prayerfully marching through the streets of Plattsburgh
accompanying their priest, who was carrying the Blessed Sacrament.
Even just seen in photographs, that makes quite an impression!
It unmistakably said to the entire community
that something very, VERY important was being celebrated.

It’s high time for us, once again, to take our faith out into the streets.

I, for one, am convinced
that if we could make our Catholic faith in the Eucharist
clear and credible,
then people would be crawling over each other to get to Mass.

So how do we do that?
We can begin by considering the manner in which we come to Mass.
(1) How we dress for church says something about what we believe.
I’ve more than once had people tell me after Mass
that they’re headed home to change into nicer clothes
for a party, or a meal out, or even to go shopping at the mall.
(2) Getting to Mass a little early and staying until Mass is truly ended
are other ways to show our faith in the Eucharist.
A retired priest I once worked with regularly announced:
“I should be the first one out of here!”
What are we rushing in from…or rushing off to?
(3) And how we approach the altar for Holy Communion
is another thing to consider.
We’ve gone from—just a few decades ago—
always receiving on the tongue and on one’s knees at the altar rail
to often being exceptionally casual
in the way we take the Sacred Host.
We should always handle the Lord’s Body
in the same way we would handle gold dust,
for it is, by far, more precious.

But the witness we give to our faith in the Eucharist
must also go well beyond these four walls.
I recently read a reflection online by an adult convert to Catholicism.
In his earlier days as a Protestant,
he hated Catholics for what he thought was our bad theology.
But after studying Catholicism carefully,
he ended up joining the Church precisely because of her doctrine:
teachings which made good sense to him—more than all the others.
But there’s a part of him, he confessed,
that still hates Catholics…even though he’s now one of them.
What he hates are the Church’s “robot dissidents”:
not those vocal Catholics who picket on the street corner
or write letters to the editor
because they take exception to some dogma or another;
what troubles him are—as he writes—
“those people who go [through] their life,
[sleepwalking]**—immune from Catholic teaching
and behaving in ways that the Church characterizes as gravely sinful,
but still calling themselves Catholic, [still] taking the Eucharist,
apparently oblivious to the logical inconsistency
between the two acts.”  (The Daily Eudemon, 10/27/08)

What we do here at Mass
must make a real difference in the rest of our life,
and how we lead the rest of our life
really and truly matters 
when it comes to what we do here.
Non-Catholics can see this about us;
we must recognize it about ourselves.

I am glad, as a priest today,
that I don’t need to tie a rope around myself
for fear that I should die
whenever approaching the presence of God on the altar.
But I look forward with great hope to that day
when Catholics are tempted 
to lash themselves to their pews
because, in the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,
God has chosen to dwell right here in our midst
and they can’t even begin to imagine 
living apart from him.

*This story about the rope is not found in the Bible, and may be apocryphal...but it's still a great story.
**Author's original wordsomnambulist.   (Yes, I had to look it up, too!)

No comments: