The popular contemporary spiritual writer, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, tells the story of a 6-year-old Jewish boy named Mortakai who absolutely refused to go to school. Each day, despite his protests, his mother would walk him to school but as soon as she left him, he would run back home and she’d have to bring him back again. This went on for days, and no amount of words, bribes or threats convinced the youngster to change his mind. Finally, in desperation, Mortakai’s parents took him to their rabbi who listened to their tale and then, without saying a word, bent down, picked up the boy, and held him to his heart for a while. He then gave him back to his parents who took him home and sent him back to school the next day. Not only did he stay, he went on to become a great scholar and a rabbi.
Rolheiser tells that little story to shed light on this wonderful feast we are celebrating today. Through the Blessed Eucharist – and through all the sacraments for that matter – God quietly embraces us and holds us close to the divine heart. Words have their importance, of course – we absolutely need them in order to understand – but words have their limits and when words fail, another language, the language of ritual, takes over. Ritual can say what words cannot. Rituals are powerful.
On the night before he died, Jesus gathered with his friends to celebrate a ritual — the Passover meal. For nearly three years he had taught them day and night with words: parables, stories and sermons. And during this final meal with them he continued to speak words of love and challenge to them, but the most powerful Word he spoke to them that night was what he did when he took bread, broke it, gave it to them, and when he took a cup, gave thanks over it, and handed it to them to drink. But it was no longer bread and wine that he gave them: it was his own Body about to be broken for them, his own Blood about to be poured out. In sacred ritual, Jesus was embracing his friends with love, holding them close to his heart.
All metaphors limp, of course, and this one is no exception. But the gift of the Eucharist we celebrate this day, the gift Jesus gave to his friends the night before he died and the gift that he now gives to us, is Jesus’ way of embracing us, of holding us close to his heart, of telling us how dearly we are loved. And it is more. The Eucharist is also the making present here and now of his sacrifice on the cross, the sacrifice which, as we heard in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, is the cleansing of our consciences and our deliverance from sin.
And this most blessed sacrament is even more: it is food: food for life’s journey — bread to nourish our lives at the deepest level and wine to heal and bring joy to our hearts. And, as St. Augustine was fond of pointing out: the Eucharist, unlike ordinary food which becomes part of us through the process of assimilation, this extraordinary food, when received with faith, causes us to be assimilated – transformed – into the Christ we receive, a kind of reverse assimilation, if you will.
And that is still not all. The Eucharist is also the pledge, the assurance of the glory yet to come, to use the words of St. Thomas Aquinas who, back in the twelfth century, composed the texts for his great feast of Corpus Christi. Every time we come to the Eucharistic table, time gives way to eternity: the veils are drawn back and we get a taste here on earth of the heavenly banquet. This Mass and every Mass is a glimpse of glory, a dress rehearsal for heaven.
And I must mention yet one more layer to this richly-layered mystery of the Eucharist. This holiest of rituals, this most blessed of sacraments in which the divine master embraces us and holds us close to his heart is also our invitation, our call to go out and embrace the world. The traditional Corpus Christi procession says that in a way that no words can. We leave the comfortable confines of the Cathedral and walk out into an anything-but-comfortable world — we, the body of believers, the Body of Christ, accompanied by the sacrament of Christ’s own Body and Blood. In doing so we are not only praying a blessing on our broken world, we are also saying yes to our sacred call to embrace that world as Jesus did and hold it close to our heart: to embrace the poor, the sick, the hurting, the angry, the hopeless, the forgotten, the disillusioned and overlooked – all God’s children whose only experience of God’s love, God’s embrace, may be ours.
My friends, like the sacraments that require words but not too many, this feast of the Body and Blood of Christ requires works of love more than words of love. As we bask in the loving warmth of God’s embrace, let us bring that embrace to a waiting world.
Fr Michael G. Ryan is the pastor of St James Cathedral, Seattle.
Used with the permission of Fr Michael G. Ryan.