Sunday, April 29, 2018

Staying Connected

   Fifth Sunday of Easter   B 

As my family and friends will tell you: I’m not the person you want to ask about the latest technologies.  I’m not afraid of or opposed to all these new devices.  It’s just that I’ve seen too many people who buy them hoping to make their lives simpler and easier…only to end up with things getting a whole lot more complicated.

I bought my first laptop computer when I arrived here in Malone, replacing an old desktop model that was on its last leg.  With house and office at opposite ends of Main Street, I needed something I could pick up and go.  

Then a few years later, some of my priest friends bought me an iPod touch. I didn’t own a cell phone, and I think they wanted to nudge me in that direction…but they’re still waiting. I use it all the time to carry music and podcasts with me, and sometimes to take pictures.  I’ve even got my address book on there so that, when I’m away from home, I can look up a number and call…using someone else's phone.  

And just this last Christmas, my parents bought me a Fitbit.  It tracks everything: my footsteps, my heart rate, my sleep, the calories I’ve burned.  It even counts how many times I climb a flight of stairs—which is often, living up on the third floor of the rectory.

The thing is, to keep these three devices working as they should, I have to keep them all connected. They connect with each other to exchange data invisibly—over WiFi or Bluetooth.  But they need a visible, physical connection to stay charged.  They can be programmed with all the information in the world, but if they run out of juice, they’re good for nothing.  The result is that my desk is now covered with chargers and cables—looking like a high-tech bowl of spaghetti.

I bring all of this up on this Sunday when Jesus speaks to us of vine and branches because—well—there probably aren’t any vine growers in the room, but most of us are using these kinds of technology…and they can actually help us begin to understand what Jesus is getting at.

Just as our devices need both visible and invisible connections to work right, so too do we. The human person is made up of both a visible body and an invisible soul.  We require both to be truly human, and so both must also be engaged in our life of faith.  That is to say, it’s not enough to be spiritual (the invisible part); we need to also be religious (the visible part). 

Christianity isn’t a path to be studied; it’s a person to be loved: Jesus Christ.  Jesus left us his message—his gospel—which we are to pass on faithfully from generation to generation, like data downloaded from one device to the next.  But how are we supposed to stay in touch—in visible, physical contact—with Christ?  How do we remain plugged in?

This is where we leave high-tech and move to low-tech—or maybe I should say, "old-tech."

In Rome, there are beautiful churches everywhere you turn.  But one of the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Clemente—named in honor of St. Clement, the martyred third pope.  The church that you walk into from the street was built in the year 1108.  But if you go downstairs, you’re able to see what’s left of the “old” church, built in 384—one of Rome’s 25 original parishes.  And if you go down more stairs, you can walk through some ancient Roman buildings from the time of Christ and before; one of them is a home in which Christians gathered to worship before the year 200.  The faith—literally—runs deep there.

Let’s go back upstairs to the “new” church—the one from the middle ages.  The thing that captures your attention as soon as you walk in is the half dome over the sanctuary.  It’s covered in the most spectacular mosaic: millions and millions of small tiles of gold and stone and colored glass, all catching and reflecting the light.  In the center is Christ, hanging on the Cross.  But out of that Cross grows a luxurious, swirling, flowering vine that fills the whole space.  

Among its many branches are birds and fruits of countless kinds.  But also among them are a number of little people—men and women, rich and poor.  There are nobles in their finery.  There are monks writing books.   But there’s also a shepherd with his flock, a boy milking a goat, and a woman feeding her chickens.  And just who is this motley crew coming from all walks of life?  Why, it is the Church: the assembly of God’s holy people.  And all of this is purposely placed right above the altar.

So what does it mean? What’s the message?

On the night before he died—the very same night on which he said, “I am the vine, you are the branches”—Jesus did not hand his Apostles a book and say, “Take and read this; this is my mind.”  Instead, he broke bread and passed a chalice saying, “This is my Body; this is my Blood.”  So we have the Body of Christ which hangs upon the Cross—the same Body that was born of the Virgin Mary, was raised from the dead, and is now seated at the Father’s right hand.  And we have the Body of Christ which is the Eucharist, celebrated on the altar.  And we have the Body of Christ which we see amidst the branches and seated around us in the pews: the Church.

How many bodies does Jesus have?  Not three!  Jesus isn't a three-headed monster, nor does he have three bodies.  He has only one.  If we want to stay in touch with Jesus, risen Body and soul from the dead; if we want to remain in him and he in us, then it’s not enough for us to be spiritual, aware of his teaching; we must also be religious, staying in visible, physical contact with his Body in the ways he has provided: in the Holy Eucharist and the other sacraments, and in his Church.

This is where the comparison to our devices falls short in a couple of very crucial ways.

To be part of the Church isn’t to be a cog in a machine or a member of an organization; it’s to be part of an organism.  We don’t belong to a club, but are intimately united with Someone who is very much alive.  They used to say that, to be a “good Catholic,” you only needed to “pay, pray, and obey.” If it were only that simple! Being a member of the Body of Christ much run so much deeper than that.  It’s not about paying your dues; it’s about becoming a new person. Like sap from a vine moves out to the branches, we have—thanks to the Eucharist—Christ’s own Blood flowing through our veins.  And that is meant to change how we relate to God, and to the world, and to each other as brothers and sisters.  Each one of us is a living cell in a living Body. Which ought to make it clear how important it is to stay connected: it’s a matter of life or death.  As Jesus warns: if we fail to remain in him, we wither away and die.

All our many high-tech devices can be plugged in just about anywhere: at home, in the office, in your car.  They’re pretty much interchangeable.  But you can’t do that with branches on a vine.  There’s no switching them out.  That’s to say, there’s only one source for the life we seek, the life we need, and that’s Jesus Christ.  Without him—he tells us—we can’t do all things, or most things, or even a few things.  “Without me you can do nothing.”  Jesus cannot be exchanged or replaced.  And neither can you or I.

Just as you need to make sure your gadgets are connecting both invisibly and visibly to keep them working as they ought, make sure you’re engaging both your body and your soul in your life of faith.  Be both spiritual and religious.  Yes, study the gospel with your mind, but also stay in close contact with the one living Body of Christ: in touch with the Eucharist and in with touch the Church.  Draw all your power, your life—your new life—from Jesus, by loving him in your neighbor and pumping his Precious Blood through your heart.  Remain in Jesus, as a branch growing from the true vine, and you will surely bear much good fruit—now and forever.

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