The ordinariness of God

I work in a church—literally, in the church, not in the offices attached to it. My work is mostly preparing for worship services.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, which involved a fair amount of preparation. But that’s not what I want to write about.

Because the church where I work combines all our Palm Sunday services, so that there is only one big service in the morning, I was able to ready the side chapel today for Monday’s 12:10 Eucharist. As I was setting the chalice (dressed with paten, purificator, host, pall, and corporal), water and wine, and lavabo bowl on the credence table, I noticed that I was barely paying attention to what I was doing. I’ve been doing this for over eight years; it’s fairly automatic.

Credence

I did this in my sleep.

Working in a church, you develop a very intimate relationship with the sacred space and its vessels and furnishings. When we think of intimacy, we usually think first of special moments of tenderness and delight shared between persons in a close relationship. But as anyone in any kind of intimate relationship (romantic or otherwise) knows, they are also full of the mundane. No matter how hard we may try, we will at times take the other for granted. We’ll fail sometimes to pay full attention; we’ll miss seeing the love and grace and beauty that really are always there.

The vessels for daily Mass are among the plainest that we have. They also pretty much never get put away, and so they tarnish a bit, and sometimes are duller than they ought to be. Those of us who wash, dry, and re-set them tend to take them for granted and treat them as utilitarian objects. It’s one more task to wash and re-set them. Even the Reserved Sacrament does not automatically arouse a sense of awe. You have to be paying attention.

So when I noticed I was working on auto-pilot, I first felt a tinge of…not quite guilt, but a sense that maybe I should be working with more reverence. I thought about how a hypothetical visitor or attendee at Mass might respond if given the object to handle these sacred objects, how they might react to see me treating these items so casually.

But quickly my attention turned instead to one of the things I value most about the Sacraments:

My awe or lack thereof is actually as immaterial to the Sacrament as it was to the prep work I was doing. No matter how carefully I were to line the vessels up neatly, turn the chalice with the cross facing forward, or adjust the linens—or how carelessly I might have performed the same task—these relatively humble vessels will fulfil their function, and they will contain the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Similarly, when we receive Communion, our attention or inattention does not alter the objective reality of what is happening: we are receiving Christ and being incorporated into his Body. Our devoted mindfulness benefits us, to be sure, but either way, Christ always shows up, is always there, always receives whatever we offer, and always gives of himself to us fully. Even if we don’t notice.

This isn’t to encourage inattention this Passiontide—on the contrary: recognizing God’s generosity and condescension to be so ordinary, to risk going unnoticed, can clearly be seen in Jesus’ dwelling and walking with us, even through suffering and death. Christ’s willingness—eagerness, really—to enter our world, and there shed his tears, his sweat, his blood into whatever matter would receive them (clothing, the wood of the Cross, the thin air), his willingness to entrust his body to the tomb—this very human humility of Christ can inspire us to value and imitate his self-outpouring all the more.

Perhaps I might as well have been pre-setting a table in a low-end restaurant with placemats and ketchup bottles. Instead, I was setting a credence table for the celebration of the Mass, and was suddenly caught by the profound significance of those vessels.

Shouldn’t we also be caught by the profound sacredness of all matter? The cosmos, after all, was created for Christ to inhabit, and we are told in Scripture that Christ “fills all things.” His presence in such ordinary things as ketchup or a sock is certainly of a different character than his presence in the Eucharist. But, whether we notice it or not, he fills all things.

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Crumbs of Christ

As I partook in that great banquet—a tiny bite and sip of Infinity—I reflected on the hardened crumb in my left hand. It became for me an icon of our Lord’s chosen vulnerability.

On Saturday, we ordained a new deacon and a new priest at the cathedral where I work. The diocese‘s new Canon to the Ordinary, Stefani Schatz, delivered the homily. She urged not only the newly ordained but all baptized Christians to pattern their lives after Christ. Among the features of that pattern, she named love, and described it as a vulnerability.

Love does make you vulnerable, and we see that nowhere so clearly as in the Incarnation. In joining the human nature to the divine, God the Word became that most vulnerable of all God’s creatures: the human baby. Unlike other species, we humans remain helpless and fragile for years, doing the energy-intensive work of wiring up our brains while our animal cousins are mastering the hunt or achieving sexual maturity. We, instead, still live with our parents who dress us, feed us, and protect us, because we can’t defend ourselves. Willing in love to unite God’s creation with God in eternal wedded bliss, the Logos—the very Wisdom of God that sparked the Big Bang—entered the creation in need of human parents to change his diapers and burp him after feeding.

He grew, but not into the kind of man our own culture would encourage or admire. He pushed back at all temptations to worldly success, opting instead for the true power of vulnerable love.

That choice got Jesus killed, as we all know. The Roman world saw this as a clear mark of failure. But as early as St. Paul, Christians were foolishly claiming and proclaiming that shameful death as the way of salvation. The vulnerability and self-giving that had characterized Jesus’ life and led him to his death is the same pattern through which the Triune God loved creation out into being and is now, in Christ loving it back into union—unity-in-diversity, not dissolution of difference—with God.

Jesus’ death wasn’t merely reversed in his Resurrection. Rather, his Resurrection reveals the power of that love which has scandalously joined, for all eternity, the human and divine natures. The risen Christ reveals to us what our death, that ultimate ecstasis, now leads no longer to the extinguishing of the self into nothing but to a rebirth into a new kind of being.

Anticipating that new kind of being, Jesus, “on the night before he suffered, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.” Somehow, in a mysterious way we can’t fully understand because we have nothing else to compare it to (it being only possible for the One who alone is fully God and fully human)—somehow, in the Eucharist, Christ comes to us in another most vulnerable form: under the species of bread and wine.

On Saturday, as I knelt at the altar rail to receive Communion, I noticed a sizable crumb—well, morsel, really—of the home-baked bread we use for the Eucharist every Sunday. It was nearly wedged behind the kneeler cushion. Had it been there since the most recent Sunday, or longer? Being a sacristan through and through, I picked it up for proper disposal. It was crisp as a crouton. I held it in the palm of my left hand, my right hand placed over it to receive a fresh morsel. As I partook in that great banquet—a tiny bite and sip of Infinity—I reflected on the hardened crumb in my left hand. It became for me an icon of our Lord’s chosen vulnerability.

Bread that is broken and shared is also easily wasted, spilled, stepped on, or left to harden behind a kneeler cushion, despite our best intentions. That little bit of consecrated Bread was no less potent, no less “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” than all the other bits that did make it onto communicants’ tongues, to be mashed between and into their teeth, and swallowed like ordinary food. But there it was, unused, lost, forgotten, stale. A symbol of the prodigally vulnerable and abundant love of God, willing to risk, to accept such waste in the course of distributing spiritual food to us needy people.

Many paintings of the Crucifixion didactically depict angels collecting Jesus’ blood in little chalices. Yet no one would deny that Jesus’ blood actually soaked into his Cross and spilled into the dirt. Ancient peoples, including the ancient Hebrews from whom Christ and his disciples descended, believed that blood was the seat of life. As such, it possessed great power. In sacrifice, that blood was released, and could be manipulated to ritually cleanse, consecrate, and give life to others. That metaphor was applied early on to Jesus’ death: the shedding of his blood released the power of his life to be applied to us, in much the same way ancient priests had sprinkled blood on the people in various liturgies. What, then, does it mean that such power should fall into the dirt? As Jesus continuously demonstrated during his ministry, when the holy or pure comes into contact with the unholy or impure, it isn’t tainted. It consecrates. It makes the impure pure. It transforms death into life, sickness into health, hatred into love, fear into peace. Light shines in darkness and it is not overcome. It’s completely backwards to our human way of thinking, but it isn’t magic. It’s the actually real, normal course of things: it’s God loving creation back to Godself.

We handle the elements of the Eucharist with respect not because they’re magical and would bring harm to us otherwise. There’s no seven years’ bad luck for spilling Communion wine. Rather, we treat these elements with respect because God has honored our prayer to “sanctify them by [God’s] Holy Spirit to be for [God’s] people the Body and Blood” of Christ. That’s a pretty amazing gift, one that certainly shouldn’t be tossed into the trash or poured into the sewer system. But in choosing bread and wine for the Sacrament, and telling us to share it, surely our Lord foresaw the inevitable and eventual crumb in the kneeler cushion or wine stain in the limestone floor. (Well, maybe he didn’t foresee such things as kneeler cushions, but the point stands.) Like the sower in the parable who scatters seed on the rocky, hard, and thorny ground as well as on the good soil, God is not ashamed or afraid to be profligate when dispensing grace. Rather, God places Godself into fumbling human hands. The potential for spillage is tremendous—but it also means you never know where you might find Jesus.