Thursday, March 24, 2016

For His Body

   Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper   

Although Catholics by-and-large realize
that the Middle East is the birthplace of their faith—
the land where the Son of God was conceived and born,
worked and taught, was crucified and rose again—
most of us don’t give too much thought
to the Christian community that lives there today. 
I should say: what’s left of the Christian community there today. 
The Christians of Iraq, for example,
form one of the oldest continuous Christian communities
on the face of the earth. 
They trace their history directly to the preaching of the Apostles. 
Their liturgies are still celebrated in Aramaic—
the language Jesus himself spoke. 
But Iraqi Christians are nearly all gone from their ancestral homeland. 
Many have been killed—victims of one war right after another. 
Most of those left alive have been forced to flee. 
The ancient monastery of Mar Benham in Mosul
had been occupied since its construction
all the way back in the fourth century. 
But in 2014, ISIL troops took it over,
expelling all the monks with nothing but the clothes on their backs. 
Then, one year ago last Saturday, the same troops blew the place up.

Olga Yacob grew up a Christian in Kirkuk. 
At the time of the first Gulf War,
her parents arranged to fly her to safety in London. 
Instead, she fled to Baghdad.  
In that devastated city—
without clean water, electricity, or gas, and cut off from her family—
she dedicated her life to service. 
She first started a door-to-door youth movement—
of both Christians and Muslims—
that collected food and water, clothing and medical supplies,
to distribute to the needy. 
At the age of 29, Olga founded an order of nuns.

But of all the things Mother Olga did, I’m most moved by the accounts
of how she and her sisters cared for the bodies of the dead. 
In a war-torn country like Iraq, there are many corpses left unclaimed.
Mother Olga would carry the bodies
back to the convent in her own arms,
where they would be washed and prepared for burial
according to local custom. 
She looked to the Virgin Mary as her model,
“who—as she says—stood at the foot of the cross
when they took down the body of her only Son and laid him in her arms,
that precious body, beaten, pierced, and covered with blood.”

Mother Olga is particularly haunted
by the memories of the children and elderly who were killed. 
One Holy Week, without a priest, or Mass, or even a Bible,
she recalls gathering the children in the desert
to tell them about Jesus,
about his Last Supper and how he died to save them. 
A few of the children asked Mother Olga
if they’d have colored eggs for Easter Sunday. 
But some of them did not live to see the holy day. 
“We had to bury them wherever we were staying each night,” she said.

“In the midst of the darkness of violence, hatred,
bloodshed, and death…,” she recently wrote,
“faith in God became my anchor in the face of such a storm.” 
Reflecting on all the things she felt called to do,
she discovered that these “were not only a service to others
but also a much deeper encounter,
in which Jesus invited his followers
to see him in those whom they served.”

Jesus said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another’s feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

It’s more than mere coincidence that on the very same night
that Jesus bequeathed to his Church the precious treasures
of the Most Holy Eucharist and his sacred priesthood
that he gave us as well a mandate of loving service and fraternal charity.  
As Christ supplies his disciples with the greatest of spiritual goods,
and ordains a spiritual order to see to its perpetuation
as the new Passover in his own Blood,
he also establishes a whole new pattern of life. 
The tender care with which the Lord provides for his Body, the Church,
and the awe-struck reverence with which we
are to adore and receive the Sacrament of his Body in Holy Communion,
must also be found in the care and reverence we show to one another. 

We may not all be called to wash the bodies of war’s forgotten dead,
but we are all called to wash one another’s feet:
to visit the lonely, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger;
to speak on behalf of the forgotten,
forgive our enemies, and work for peace. 
It’s about so much more than doing a good deed for somebody else;
it’s a matter of encountering Christ himself on a deep level
in those we are privileged to serve.

Mother Olga—like so many other Iraqi Christians—
left her native soil in 2001, and settled in the Boston area. 
She cried the first time she heard Mass in English. 
“I’ll never learn this language,” she told the American priests. 
Ten years later, she founded another religious order,
this time here in the States: the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth,
whose ministry is focused on loving God and neighbor
through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. 
“I tell the Daughters,” she says,
“the Catholic Church gives us three symbols for Christ:
Christ in the crib, Christ on the cross, Christ broken in the Eucharist.
In each one, his arms are open wide to the world.” 
And so Mother Olga, and the women gathering around her,
likewise open their arms to a world
that needs to encounter Jesus now as much as ever.

"As I have done for you, you should also do."

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