The challenging lockdown weeks and ongoing consequences of the COVID precautions have brought healthy people to their knees with a renewed awareness of our human vulnerability.
We have lived through this suffering unable to receive the Eucharist which is the food we most need, the nourishment that is Jesus Christ.
I am reminded of one of the first talks I heard Bishop Basil Meeking give soon after he was appointed as Bishop of Christchurch. Speaking on the centrality of the Eucharist he recalled the experience of Christians in the year 304 when the Emperor Diocletian announced that those who were found participating in the Eucharist would be put to death.
Soon after the Emperor’s warning, in a small village of Abitinae (in the country we know today as Tunisia), 49 Christians were discovered at Mass. When questioned about why they had disobeyed the Emperor’s orders one of the group named Emeritus calmly responded:
“Without the Sunday Eucharist we have no power. We cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.”
The 49 were executed and today are celebrated as the Martyrs of Abitinae.
Bishop Meeking, Emeritus Bishop of Christchurch, died on Thursday of this week. I know he would be happy that I am using this post not to eulogise him but to recall the theme of his first parish visitation talks in 1987 on the centrality of the Eucharist, especially this weekend as we return without restrictions to celebrating the Mass, appropriately on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.
This feast is often known by it’s Latin title Corpus Christi. Given that foreign and especially ancient languages can convey a sense of distance, obscurity and other-worldliness, it is helpful that we also name this feast in our own everyday language since this forces us to face the down-to-earth reality of Jesus Christ among us in flesh and blood.
The one who participates regularly and whole-heartedly in the celebration of the Eucharist, receiving Jesus Christ in communion, will be motivated to engage fully and courageously with the messy reality of human life, especially by ensuring that those who are in need are provided for. In turn those who place care for those in need at the centre of their lives will be drawn to the Eucharist.
Pope Francis addressed this last year in his homily for this feast:
“You may answer: “But I have so little; I am not up to such things”. That is not true; your “little” has great value in the eyes of Jesus, provided that you don’t keep it to yourself, but put it in play. Put yourself in play! You are not alone, for you have the Eucharist, bread for the journey, the bread of Jesus.”
In the Eucharist Jesus comes not only TO us but INTO us. In this intimacy we not only become more like God, we become more fully ourselves and more able to put ourselves into play with every dimension of life.
Significantly Pope Francis encouraged this engagement with life in his Wednesday audience this week. It’s well worth the two minute read. He explained that at times prayer is like “wrestling with God” reminding us of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, a man wise and cunning in the ways of the world.
In his earlier ambitious and successful years, Jacob’s prayer was “friendly and close” engagement with God. But there came a turning point when Jacob’s prayer became a wrestling with God. Guess who loses the match, but then by the grace of God wins relationship and abundant life.
Pope Francis comments that after the wrestling Jacob “emerges changed… For once he is no longer master of the situation – his cunning is no use to him – he is no longer a strategic and calculating man. God returns him to his truth as a mortal man who trembles and fears, because in the struggle, Jacob was afraid. For once Jacob has only his frailty and powerlessness, and also his sins, to present to God. And it is this Jacob who receives God’s blessing, with which he limps into the promised land: vulnerable and wounded, but with a new heart.”
This wrestling with God is the stuff of all good intimacy, facing tensions and challenges as opportunities for growth and greater maturity. The same is true in our relationship with Jesus as it is in our friendships and families.
Chances are that unlike the Abitinae martyrs we will (please God) make it home without persecution or martyrdom after Mass this weekend. But the cost of living in relationship with God is always an all-or-nothing adventure, costing (in the words of TS Eliot) “not less than everything.”
This is why people who know their need for God will enthusiastically (lit. full of God) return to church this weekend to be fed with the Word of God and to receive the fulness of Jesus Christ in the bread of life.
In short: this weekend’s post-lockdown return to Mass-without-restrictions is too good an invitation to miss.
- For the past couple of weeks there have been restrictions on numbers gathering in church. This weekend the restrictions are lifted providing the ideal opportunity to return to church. Many who have not been at Mass for decades have an unprecedented opportunity to join the returning crowd since everyone is returning together. Be generous in offering this suggestion to friends and family who may appreciate the invitation to return.
- Full text of Pope Francis’ inspiring reflection on Jacob wrestling with God is available at this link.