The celebration of the Eucharist in this time of pandemic is a changed experience, a blend of the familiar with things strangely disjointed and out of place, as though some non-communicating stranger has now taken up residence in our home, and given a place at the table, but who we could never really name nor speak with nor look straight in the eye. But whether we like it or not, most of life is now changed anyway as once friendly faces are now hidden behind face masks and we exchange uncomfortable glances wondering whether the other person is smiling, wondering what they are wondering about us, and whether it even matters at all or not; as we extend signs of friendship and gestures of hospitality while avoiding any human contact; as we observe social distancing and self-imposed quarantine permitting us to avoid everyone without cause or distinction. It feels as if the very meaning of intimacy and fellowship, and the very substance of social interaction and engagement no longer matter. And instead of affirming and expanding our reach, our lives are mostly stilted and measured now. Even communities that once gathered with exuberance and spontaneity are suddenly shrouded in sadness, without truly grasping all we have lost and who we have become.
This perspective I described belongs to those like you and me who are now able to resume some form of gathered worship experience. Those joining us by livestream probably feel that separation more intensely still. And some have shared how painful a loss their entire experience has been altogether, being disconnected from the Eucharistic table, as previously I only heard it from the homebound and those in hospice care. It is an entirely unfamiliar viewpoint to me since I have celebrated mass uninterrupted before and through the lockdown. And until Tom arrived I still failed to appreciate my unique privilege, making light that it feels lonely that I am alone in an empty church.
We think we know what it means to hunger for Eucharist. But do we truly? It is not simply a longing for a more innocent time or a carefree life. Nor is it a craving for comfort food or a familiar routine of religious customs and practices. Rather it is a deep longing that feeds on God’s life within us, as we spend our breath and our energy in the service of the Gospel, giving joyful witness to God’s loving presence and transforming action in our lives, fueling the work of reconciliation between us and God and between us and one another, and with the Holy Spirit creating anew all who live upon the earth. Our sharing in the Most Holy Eucharist is more than just a personal privilege. It is an invitation to immerse ourselves in God’s own life, and a sacred summons to ignite a living flame in the hearts of all God’s people. St. Paul reminds us that the bread we break is a sharing in the work of unity with the members of Christ’s body the church. And the cup of blessing is a sharing in the work of redemption that Jesus completed by the shedding of his precious blood. So our sharing in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ is privilege and blessing and nourishment for ourselves that we might share privilege and blessing and nourishment with everyone we encounter.
Pondering the mystery of the Holy Eucharist, I discovered in this current health crisis a consuming desire people have to return to a life without constraints, a life we may have grown attached to, a life that blessed us with ample room to stretch out, to interact and engage, to prosper and find fulfillment, and to grow comfortable, fat, and lazy. It may have been a good life for many, but it really is the only life we have ever known. So returning to exactly what we had known was the summit of our creative imagination. We just wanted back what we had lost, just exactly what we had lost.
Then we witnessed the tragic death of George Floyd. For many of our sisters and brothers who have suffered for so long under the yoke of systemic injustice and racism, simply returning to that former life would not be good enough. It wasn’t really good the first time. Many doubted their own worth and were subject to shameful and cruel treatment. Their lives and inherent dignity were often called into question. They had to work much harder than most just to survive and to give their children a decent chance of success. Fear and danger were always near, draining them of joy, depriving them of hope. Still they held their heads high and trusted God would deliver them. A fortunate few may have gained some success but not without much struggle and loss. So many more were held back by poverty, a lack of education, and few opportunities. And for generations they were reduced to servitude and living off the scraps from a prosperous society. It broke my heart to hear how black parents would warn their children about the terrors that awaited them out in the world, that some of them may not make it back home at the end of the day. And all the chaos and violence that followed in the wake of recent protests have little to do with these aspirations for a better life. Their hunger was much deeper, and just ordinary bread would not be enough. The bread they had been eating did not give life. Not even close. It was not a life they wanted for their children.
“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” What is this life Jesus speaks of? Is it not the life he himself possesses, the very life he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit? But if we truly desire a share of the very life of God, how can we also possess death within us? How can we harbor within us what denies our neighbor’s worth and diminishes their dignity? How can we claim a share in God’s life yet see nothing wrong that the least of God’s children live with fear and danger, that they are deprived of hope and drained of joy? How do we justify calling on God and claiming innocence and righteousness while for generations our sisters and brothers are reduced to poverty and servitude, inadequate education and limited opportunities? How are we content to feast in abundance while they live off our scraps? What kind of life do we claim that belongs to God? Does it resemble the life Jesus wants to give us? What have we been eating and drinking this whole time?
“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … (they) remain in me and I in (them).” St. Paul reminds us that the bread we break is a sharing in the work of unity with the members of Christ’s body the church. And the cup of blessing is a sharing in the work of redemption that Jesus completed by the shedding of his precious blood. So our sharing in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ is privilege and blessing and nourishment for ourselves that we might share privilege and blessing and nourishment with all we encounter, no matter their race or ethnicity or culture or language, no matter their gender or orientation or politics or faith.
Our ancestors ate manna from heaven, but they still died. Death is the telltale sign that God’s life is not to be found in us. For if we truly possess God’s life, our hunger will be satisfied, and the world will hunger no more, and all will share God’s own life.
Rolo B Castillo © 2020