Awakened by the Spirit, the Water, and the Blood

“So there are three who testify,
the Spirit, the water, and the Blood,
and the three are of one accord.”

1 John 5:7-8

     At church this past Sunday, we stood in line to receive a personal dousing of Holy Water from the priest in renewal of our Baptisms.  My baby girl had finally fallen asleep in my arms, but you better believe she awoke when she felt that Holy Water spray her!  Luckily, and no doubt in God’s freshly bestowed grace, she fell right back asleep.  Earlier during the liturgy, drops of the Precious Blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic form of wine woke her from her slumber as the priest placed them upon her teeny lips.  Twice on Sunday she was awoken by sacramental encounters with Jesus. 

If you have never heard of a baby receiving the Eucharist or a communion line-style Baptismal renewal, don’t worry.  These traditions were foreign to me a few years ago.  They are traditions of the Byzantine Catholic Church.  When I met my husband he introduced me to the Byzantine Rite, an Eastern rite of the Catholic Church in full union with the Pope and the Roman, or Latin, Rite of Catholicism.  While the Roman Catholic Church will celebrate Jesus’ Baptism this coming Sunday, we celebrated it last week in the Byzantine Church.  In both rites of the Church, especially through the Sacraments, we encounter the Spirit, the water, and the Blood John speaks of in today’s first reading

Some of us may be familiar with this standard definition of a Sacrament: “an outward sign of an inward grace” instituted by Christ Himself.  Indeed, the sacraments are physical realities in which we encounter the living Christ and His Holy Spirit.  In the three Sacraments of Initiation, Baptism, Confirmation/Chrismation, and the Holy Eucharist, we encounter the water, the Spirit, and the Blood of 1 John 5.  (NOTE: In the Eastern Tradition, babies and children entering the church receive the three sacraments of initiation at the same time.  Yes, even the youngest, the baby Byzantines, receive a drop of the Precious Blood of Jesus on their lips.  This explains why my baby had been awoken by the Eucharist on her lips in church this past Sunday.)

The waters of our Baptism, through God’s grace, signify that we have become His precious son or daughter.  The Holy Chrism, or oil, of our Confirmation or Chrismation, is the sign that communicates the seal of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit which were made ours through our Baptism.  The Precious Body and Blood of Jesus present in the Eucharist unite us more fully to Him and allow us to enter into the Mystery of the Cross.  We are members of a Church that makes the spiritual realities of the faith tangible.  We actively participate in these Sacraments to signify our spiritual relationship with the Living Son of God.  John’s words in the first reading are a call to action, a call to live out our faith in Christ.  The Sacraments of Initiation provide our initial encounters with this Spirit, this water, and this Blood of Jesus. 

The Gospel shows us how this call moves outside the sanctuary of the Church to the world beyond Her walls. Jesus’ healing of a leper reminds us of the cleansing He has imparted on our own souls — and how we can now be His hands and feet to impart this on others.  See, not only have we been healed by Christ for our own sake, but for the building up of the Kingdom.  We have been sacramentally initiated, welcomed into the family of the Church by our good Father through His Son Jesus and His Holy Spirit. This is why celebrating His Baptism every year, renewing our baptismal promises, and being doused anew with the waters of the Spirit, is so important for our spiritual life.  Each week we are nourished by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  God provides us with the grace we need to share our own healing with others, so that they may know that they are loved by God in this same way, and may be invited into His healing love.  Most of us are in a continual process of healing of whatever forms of “leprosy” we are sick with — the Divine Healer continues to heal, cleanse, and purify us.  Though even as we are in the process of deeper healing, He wants to use us to bring the people we encounter into His healing Love.

May we all be awoken by the drops of Holy Water that land on our faces and by the drops of Jesus’ Precious Blood that touch our lips.  His Spirit is alive and well and among us.  In fact, it dwells within us.  Let us ask Him how He wants us to share the Spirit, the water, and the Blood that we’ve been so blessed to encounter.

The Miracle of God’s Food

Two pots were on the stove, both were empty. My grandmother had just finished portioning out dinner for everyone; a little bit of white rice and one piece of meat. Simple. There was no fancy side dish. No stewed beans. No green salad. The rice that was boiled and the meat that was cooked was measured out exactly to feed the nine people that lived under one roof. Simple. Small. Sufficient.

One night I came home with an unexpected guest. I hadn’t told my family that I was bringing my friend, and so dinner—already scarce and proportioned out—was not made to include her. Already knowing the answer would be no, I asked my grandmother if there was any extra food that she may eat. I remember seeing a quick flash of emotions in my grandmother’s eyes: shock and anger, sadness and concern.

“There isn’t any more food left,” she told me, “but we can take a little from our plates and make her a portion.”

Today’s Gospel is about the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. This miracle is so grand at showing the mighty hand of God that it’s the only one of Jesus’ miracles mentioned in each of the four Gospels. Friends, this should immediately tell you something: in our faith, community and communion are important. We attend Mass, we pray and worship as one body. We receive the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus Christ together.

After much work, Jesus and the twelve disciples had gone into the desert to be alone and rest. The crowds of people saw them leave and followed. They went by foot, which was a longer and harder journey, and followed Jesus into the desert. They wanted to be near Jesus, to be healed by Jesus and through him know God. They wanted this so badly that they traveled to a place that was far away, isolated and alone. The disciples told Jesus to dismiss the people so that the people could find their own food. Jesus did not agree to this. For some unknown reason the disciples were not speaking with reason—God never walks away from His people. He is with them through everything. Just as God was with the chosen people of Israel providing for them in the desert for 40 years, so too God will provide for His people here and now. After wrongly suggesting that the people be dismissed, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves. Naturally the disciples question this, just as we question all the obstacles in our own lives in disbelief that we cannot overcome them. How can we possibly feed so many people? How am I supposed to do this? But something beautiful happens. The disciples give Jesus the very little food they had, five loaves of bread and two fish (now being without any food themselves) and Jesus performs a miracle.

“Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish.”
—Mark 6:41–43

How similar is this to the blessing Jesus said at the Last Supper? How similar are these words to the liturgy of the Eucharist? They are one and the same. It is the same God speaking then and now. It is the same grace and the same love. The Gospel tells us that Jesus fed 5,000 men with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Now given that approximately half the population is women, let’s double that number and add a few thousand more for the underage children. That number in your head, multiply it by two and double it again and multiply it by itself (yes, a little bit of math here). The new large number in your head, it’s still itty-bitty small compared to the love our God has for you.

I remember my grandmother taking from the very little we had and sharing it with someone she did not know. I learned a valuable lesson that day. We didn’t have much in material possessions and at times we didn’t even have enough food, but grandma’s heart was gentle when it came to feeding people. Every time I cook I am reminded of my family. Every time I cook I do so with love—because God is love—hoping that by inviting those to my home I not only feed the physical body but also help in feeding the spiritual body.

God is good. He fed the people in the desert before they entered Canaan. He fed the people throughout Jesus’ ministry. He continues to feed His people as we await for the Second Coming. God feeds us with everything we need. Give yourself completely to Jesus. Give him the little that you have and watch how he multiplies it: an overabundance of grace. God always provides. Share it with others.

Image Credit: The Multiplication of the Loaves by Musée de Valence [Public Domain]

Eucharistic Hearts

“Oh humble sublimity! Oh sublime humility! That the Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God, so humbles Himself that for our salvation He hides himself under the form of Bread. Consider, brothers, the humility of God and pour out your hearts before him.” -St. Francis of Assisi

The chapel is bare, except for the San Damiano cross, the Our Lady of Guadalupe image, and a tiny vase of yellow flowers. A single sunbeam falling across the room seems to make the tabernacle glow with an inner light. In front of our small group of volunteers, gray-cloaked sisters and friars vowed to Lady Poverty kneel in prayer, quietly saying the words we say each Mass when we lift our hearts up to the Lord.

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest…

Faithfully joining with the angels and the saints and the sounds of the city streets, we behold our Love, who is love, and who daily descends to be with us, even to the end of the age. “And as He appeared in true flesh to the Holy Apostles, so now He shows Himself to us in the sacred Bread; and as they by means of their fleshly eyes saw only His flesh, yet contemplating Him with their spiritual eyes, believed Him to be God, so we, seeing bread and wine with bodily eyes, see and firmly believe it to be His most holy Body and true and living Blood” (Admonitions). The priest standing before the altar begins to raise his hands. It is the “the point of intersection of the timeless with time…the gift half understood.”

Take this, all of you, and eat of it, for this is my Body, which will be given up for you…

Hundreds of miles away, a little girl stares up at the same cross with folded hands and wide eyes. Her gaze darts from the cross to the priest, and then to the tiny host in his hand. An even smaller boy kneels beside her, squirming slightly and leaning against their mother, whose head is bent over clasped hands. As the white-cloaked priest genuflects, their father catches her eye and smiles slightly. She can’t help but smile back, gently putting an arm around her son and holding him close.

Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me…

The family then proclaims the mystery of their faith: their Lord and Love has died and risen from the grave. He sets them free, breaking open their stony hearts and slowly giving them natural hearts—hearts that pour themselves out little by little in “service, love, sacrifice, and courage” (Admonitions). United with our friends in gray, they see Christ in the breaking of the Bread and are given strength for early morning holy hours, first steps and last days of school, and unspoken hopes and murmured prayers. It is “a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender.”

Repair My house which, as you can see, has fallen into ruin…

Finally, we kneel in silence, having received the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In those precious moments, our hearts—having fallen into ruin—are also changed, are transformed and repaired by Love. As St. Thomas Aquinas says, “The Eucharist is the Sacrament of Love; It signifies Love, it produces love. The Eucharist is the consummation of the whole spiritual life.” For “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). And for this reason, staring up at the San Damiano cross, “we call [that] Friday Good.”

For our Lord is here, hidden under the forms of Bread and Wine, the “one great thing to love on earth.” He is with us; he has not and will not abandon us. Even if we leave and follow our own devices, even if it feels like we are held in captivity and only prayers for deliverance can escape from our lips. He is here, and he is waiting to bring us home. Oh humble sublimity! oh sublime humility!

Oh loving mercy, oh merciful love…

St. Francis of Assisi, pray for us!

 

Reading & Listening Suggestions
St. Francis of Assisi, Admonitions
Scott Hahn, The Lamb’s Supper
Catholic Underground Music

Created for Communion

Some Pharisees approached Jesus, and tested him, saying,
“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning
the Creator made them male and female and said,
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?
So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”
They said to him, “Then why did Moses command
that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss her?”
He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts
Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,
but from the beginning it was not so.
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife
(unless the marriage is unlawful)
and marries another commits adultery.”
—Matthew 19:3–9

As human beings, we are made for communion with one another. God created us in a way that makes it impossible for us to go it alone, for He made us in His own image. Just as He exists as a loving community of three Persons, we also are designed to live in relationship with Him and with one another. We see this in the complementarity between men and women: each is a reflection of the love of God, but they express this in different ways. Their complementary strengths bring them closer together.

Whether our need for communion is fulfilled through the vocation of marriage—a relationship that echoes the love of the Trinity—or through consecrated life—a sacred relationship with God Himself—it points to a deep desire written upon our hearts: to love and be loved, to make of ourselves a gift to others. Even while we are still waiting upon our vocation, God still calls us, here and now, to be part of His family. Each time we receive Jesus in the Eucharist, it is an opportunity for intimate connection with our Beloved.

Jesus is the Bridegroom, and we, the Church, are His bride. He lays down His life as a gift for us, and He assures us that His promises to us are eternal, never to be broken. When Jesus speaks against divorce, it is not to shame His disciples or to place burdens and restrictions upon us. He even acknowledges that in some cases, the marriage was unlawful and fundamentally lacking in what is needed to establish a true, healthy marriage as He intends for us. Rather, He wants us to understand that marriage is a great gift, not to be carelessly tossed aside. It is not merely a well of contentment that eventually dries up; rather, it is an opportunity for us to fulfill our deepest purpose through serving one another. To be truly fulfilled, we must each offer a gift of our whole selves—not just the parts we like about ourselves, not just one stage of our lives, and not just a surface-level desire for comfort.

God has blessed us with many great gifts, but do we truly understand their purpose? Or do we see them only for our own benefit? Our own personal gifts are meaningless if we cannot understand ourselves in relation to others—how we are called to serve them, what we have yet to learn from them, and how we need to rely upon them. We can form a true sense of self only when we look outward.

The Law of the Sabbath

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath.
His disciples were hungry
and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them.
When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him,
“See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”
He said to them, “Have you not read what David did
when he and his companions were hungry,
how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering,
which neither he nor his companions
but only the priests could lawfully eat?
Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath
the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath
and are innocent?
I say to you, something greater than the temple is here.
If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
you would not have condemned these innocent men.
For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”
—Matthew 12:1–8

Jesus’s response to the Pharisees in this passage highlights the purpose of the Mosaic law: it is was not implemented as a means of controlling and restricting the Jewish people, but rather as a way to establish a relationship between God and His chosen people and to serve as a constant reminder of the covenant that was yet to be fulfilled. Jesus gives examples in which God called people to violate the letter of the law in order to serve a much higher law. Though unworthy of drawing close to God by serving Him in the temple and of consuming the bread of offering, the Jewish priests perform these actions because God has called them to do so. When they are serving in the temple, their actions, though technically against what is prescribed for the sabbath, are holy, for they are standing on sacred ground and fulfilling the duties of their calling. They prefigure a closer intimacy between God and man, when God will sanctify men to be in relationship with Him and serve at the highest altar.

It follows then, that Jesus’s words carried an implication that would have been shocking to the Pharisees. He is speaking with authority above the law, declaring that His disciples are following a higher purpose just by being in His midst. Simply being in Jesus’s presence is sacred—even more so than the temple itself. He is the fulfillment of God’s covenant, of the Holy of Holies. He is the Temple of God’s new covenant of mercy. Through His sacrifice for us, the veil between God and man has been torn in two, and we can behold the Face of God without perishing.

In Jesus’s presence, the disciples ate grain on the sabbath to assuage their hunger. Hunger is an inescapable part of the human condition—both the hunger of our bodies for sustenance and the hunger of our souls for meaning and redemption. Jesus responds fully to our hunger, ministering to the deepest aches and longings within us: body and soul, mind and heart. Every Sunday, we consume Bread on the sabbath, opening ourselves up to receive the only food that can truly fill the deep, piercing hunger within us. It is the fulfillment of God’s promise to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Jesus, present in the Eucharist, looks upon us with mercy and invites us to draw closer to the mystery of His overwhelming love for us.

Intimacy and Change

Many years ago, I was on plane with my friend Jen, heading back from a wedding in Minnesota.  As we boarded, we were joined in our seats by a young man whose name I’ve forgotten—I will call him Steve.  I remember only that Steve was cute, and that he was Christian, but not Catholic.

During the flight, Jen and Steve became involved in a friendly debate about the Eucharist.  Steve held that it was only a symbol, whereas Jen defended the Catholic position: that it is in fact the true Body and Blood of Jesus.

Sitting in the window seat, I could hear the discussion but was not an active participant.  I had in fact been trained in apologetics, in how to defend from Scripture the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist.  But as I listened, I was surprised to find rising within me a strange sense of pain.  I admired Steve’s Christianity, but I could feel for just a moment the heart of Jesus.  Could a symbol have shown greater love than the Real Presence?  If the idea of the Real Presence was a mere human invention, did that not suggest that human imagination was in fact greater than God’s actual love for us?  Steve clearly loved Jesus, but could he recognize the depths of Jesus’ love for him?

The Gospel this week recounts what is known as “The Bread of Life Discourse” in the sixth chapter of John.  After the feeding of the five thousand, the crowd has come, hungering for more, but thinking only of food.  Jesus offers Himself as the answer to their hunger: “I am the Bread of Life.”   He compares Himself to the manna which the Israelites were given in the desert, but says of His own flesh: “Whoever eats this Bread will live forever.”

The manna given in the desert was not only the daily sustenance of the people; it was tinged with the taste of honey—a foreshadowing of the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.  Similarly, the Eucharist, uniting us with Jesus, is a foretaste of the more perfect union we will experience in paradise at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

I recently attended a talk by Sister Marie Pappas, CR, in which she spoke about experiencing the Mass as the Wedding Banquet.  She noted that a wedding connotes intimacy; that even stronger than the intimacy between husband and wife, is the intimacy which Jesus desires with each one of us.  This intimacy will be perfected in Heaven, but begins now and is real in each Mass.

In the Mass, Jesus comes to be with us, but also invites us to offer ourselves, to be with Him.  This intimacy can be enhanced by our preparation and participation, notes Sister Marie.  While her talk covered each part of the Mass, I will present just a few observations.

“Intimacy requires nakedness” she said. This means that we come before God as we truly are, without posturing and pretense.  “It is not like a job interview”—or a posting on social media, in which we want to present ourselves as perfect, without flaws, having it all together.  Intimacy requires true, honest, self-exposure.  Therefore, rather than hiding our faults, we acknowledge them, publicly and out loud: “I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do…’”

At the Offertory, we bring to Jesus not only the bread and wine to be changed, but also our hearts, with our insufficiencies, our brokenness, our prayers, needs, hopes and dreams.   When we place these on the altar with the Bread and Wine—we pray that these too may be transformed.

We then watch prayerfully as the priest standing in persona Christi repeats the sacred words from the Last Supper: “This is my Body…This is my Blood.”  When God speaks it happens.  When He said, “Let there be light..” there was light.  And when through the priest Jesus says again, “This is my Body…:This is my Blood” it becomes indeed His Body, His Blood.

Why?  So that receiving Him in Holy Communion we can be united in an actual unity more profound even then the consummation of marriage.

This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?

The Opposition Voice from the beginning has tried to change the Word of God.  When he does—it is always to suggest less than God’s desire for us.

“He doesn’t really love you—maybe He loves the Person You Ought to be, but not you…”

“Did He really say, ‘This is my Body?’ He can’t have meant that—He must have meant ‘This represents my Body’ or ‘This is a symbol of my Body.’”

“Do you really believe that Jesus wants to be within you?  One flesh with you?—Get real.  He couldn’t possibly want to get that close to you.  You’re just for the friend zone!”

But to each heart Jesus calls: “The Bridegroom is coming!”  “I have loved you with an everlasting love.”  “I will be with you always….”

 

eucharist elevation resized

Photo by Shalone Cason on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

Due Process

*Note: A disclaimer about today’s writings – I spend some time reflecting on the ways and ceremonies by which some denominations practice their faith. I am very poorly-versed in this arena. I don’t know which jargon is fair game and which is horribly offensive. My musings are my own, as are any possible (probable) heresies. I will answer for them, I’m sure. I just hope what I’m saying even makes sense at this time of day and I’m sending this out in faith that the Holy Spirit found His way in there somewhere. -ab

Some who had come down from Judea were instructing the brothers,
“Unless you are circumcised according to the Mosaic practice,
you cannot be saved.”
Because there arose no little dissension and debate
by Paul and Barnabas with them,
it was decided that Paul, Barnabas, and some of the others
should go up to Jerusalem to the Apostles and presbyters
about this question.
They were sent on their journey by the Church,
and passed through Phoenicia and Samaria
telling of the conversion of the Gentiles,
and brought great joy to all the brethren.
When they arrived in Jerusalem,
they were welcomed by the Church,
as well as by the Apostles and the presbyters,
and they reported what God had done with them.
But some from the party of the Pharisees who had become believers
stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them
and direct them to observe the Mosaic law.”
The Apostles and the presbyters met together to see about this matter.
—Acts 15:1-6

The book of Acts is a gold mine.

The Bible is full of unspeakable depths of beauty and wisdom, and God is His goodness not only teaches us about himself through Scripture, but He also gives us invaluable examples of what it means to be living as a Church in the A.D. world.

Today’s reading makes me proud to be a Catholic. I know our Mother Church doesn’t have the only claim to a “due process” of sorts in theological matters, but in no other church is today’s first reading so faithfully and literally lived out.

I recently had the opportunity to attend one of the largest churches in my hometown of Brainerd. It is a non-denominational church with multiple services on multiple campuses every weekend. The music was wonderful, the sermon was scriptural and sound, and then they began communion. I was confused. Why does a church like this celebrate communion? Every part of the service was so carefully crafted to be accessible, attractive, and modern, and this ritual performance seemed jarringly out of place. Now, I’m Catholic (surprise!), so I have no question about why somebody would want to celebrate the Eucharist! The closeness with Christ and your fellow partakers is unmistakable. But why would a church that was working so hard to establish an identity based on “spiritual, not religious” (one of the songs even had a lyric about God breaking down their ‘religion’) maintain this practice that is historically rooted in Catholicism? A cynical explanation: they want something that feels familiar to all of the ex-Lutherans, ex-Presbyterians, and ex-Catholic in attendance. A more hopeful explanation: even with all of its lack, this celebration with bread and grape juice speaks to the congregation in a deep, yearning that invites them to be truly one with Christ one day in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

Now the whole point of this anecdote is not necessarily to examine the theology behind their monthly practice of celebrating communion (which really is fascinating!), but to examine the process by which they crafted their weekly services. When you’re planting your own church and eschewing “stale tradition”, you’re writing your own ‘liturgy’. Who makes the calls? A group of elders behind closed doors? A public vote once a year? The one pastor who founded it all? Who decided to keep this part of tradition when “tradition” and “ritual” are so anathema to your target audience?

No matter how much you might try to avoid having any stances on any issues (a huge part of the “spiritual, not religious” moment), any church that claims a shared identity will eventually have to take some. There will be disagreement, and there needs to be a way to arrive at a consensus. That’s how science, effective democracy, and a healthy church work. Now how do we get there?

See the above reading.

One last, unrelated note that struck me:

“They were sent by the Church…” and “they were welcomed by the Church…”

Paul and Barnabas are fundamental examples of heroic pastoral ministry. Today’s readings, along with many others in Acts and the epistles, show that these saints were servants in every sense of the word. They were cloven to Christ, the true vine, and servants and pruners of His Church, the branches. They were practical, logical, and yet wildly, radically faithful. They were attentive to their flock, saw their needs, and moved quickly to respond to them. They sought the one Truth, hence their need to come to a consensus.

Let us pray to receive Jesus’s Truth in our hearts and trust in the process He and his disciples established.