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.
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.