Eating with God

Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord — John 21:12

This is such a stunning scene in context of St. John’s Gospel. Breakfast being served by the now risen Jesus, only days after his horrific execution. God-made-Cook wishes to eat with his friends, with food he has prepared. The surreal transcendence of this scene is reminiscent of Moses and his companions’ dizzying experience in Exodus 24:9-11, as they were summoned up Mount Sinai to dine with God:

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel … they beheld God, and they ate and drank.”

This same God, who pitched his tent with Israel by becoming flesh (John 1:14), and pledged that he would feed us with his own flesh and blood (John 6:52ff), tells us in Revelation 3:24,

Behold! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.

God desires intimacy with us, and again and again in Scripture it is the covenant family meal that stands at the center of that call to intimacy. Indeed, the meal perfectly frames an intimacy that is at once vertical and horizontal, bringing God close to us, and us close to each other. In middle eastern culture, the meal reigns supreme as a sign of friendship, of encounter, of trust, of love’s willingness to share life and waste time with others. As Jennifer Grant once commented,

I have a friend who lived for several years in the Middle East, in Baghdad and Dubai. He is currently at seminary, preparing to be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest. Last summer, as the two of us ate crusty bread and double-cream blue cheese, and drank glasses of good pinot noir, he told me that eating together, or “breaking bread,” is considered an act of worship for his Muslim friends. In the Middle East, he said, people who are merely acquaintances do not “grab lunch” together. Eating together is too intimate an act to be shared with strangers. It is too important. It is holy somehow.

This “eucharistic” view of eating and drinking, which stands at the heart of Scripture, must be seen as defining for people of faith. It should shape a Christian-inspired culture that wishes to welcome God’s ongoing desire to extend his tent-pitching Incarnation and divinize the whole of creation — through us. In every meal, humans, who are the priests of nature, ingest the created order and raise it up, as a sacrifice of thanksgiving, to God — and, in Christ, with God.

I remember when I worked at a Jewish nursing home in Connecticut back in 1989, a resident named Golda once said to me, “You know when you Catholics went all wrong? When you stopped your meatless Fridays. See, when you take God out of the kitchen and dining room, everything falls apart. It’s why we Jews are so fixated on kosher laws. It keeps us always mindful that God is in food.”

It’s why family meals are a non-negotiable for those who wish to mesh their family with divinity. It’s also why, when people want to speak with me about matters of significance, I prefer not my sterile office, but the coffee shop, the brewery, or a dining room table.

An incidental remark

Deo gratias

I won’t be writing again for a bit, but thought I would share this excerpt from a journal entry in January:

Yesterday, I was listening to Catholic radio and there was a priest being interviewed who was discussing a Catholic Conference he had helped organize and present. I think it was something on apologetics and evangelization. In the middle of his discussion of the Conference topics and speakers, he made an incidental remark about the hotel venue for the event, and said they were well organized and professional.

The strangest thing happened as I listened to this passing side comment. I was totally overwhelmed with an invasive and stunning awareness of the unsung greatness of the vast number of secular laborers that made this religious event possible. In my mind’s eye flashed corporate employees planning, architects designing, lawyers negotiating, construction workers sweating, truck drivers struggling to stay awake — well a procession of electricians, concierges, porters, event planners, managers, maids, servers, chefs, security guards, and too many more to list. I mean, it was like I could see all of these people as (unwitting?) celebrants of an unseen liturgy, builders of human civilization motivated by wildly diverse intentions and life circumstances.  All of these, no matter how far they may have been from God (for so many reasons!), found a hallowed place as co-laborers with God’s providential plan.

That last part was really striking. Don’t know how to express it well.

In fact, it seemed to me that the people there for this Catholic Conference should have given these countless hidden people the greatest honors. Not simply as functionaries who provide a useful secular venue for the real work of doing religion, but honored as the secular heart and soul, front lines of the Church’s earth-tilling mission: consecrating a homeless world to become a fitting hostel, a “place of hospitality” where God and humanity are welcomed.

What if, I imagined, the Church was successful at convincing all of those secular people of their crazy dignity, that every insignificant detail of their labor potentially signified the whole (cat-holic!) work of God’s recreation of His fallen creation into a new creation. Theirs was a real-time liturgy, Christ the secular Worker and Builder preparing, seven days a week, all of the material needed for His eighth day sacred Eucharistic Sacrifice.

And it seemed to me that the Church everywhere should be incessantly lifting up these secular liturgists, men and women who fashion churches, altars, vessels, vestments, bread, wine, oil, candles, art, books, alms (there’s no end to the list!) — and ensure these *laity* know their greatness, the *preeminent* dignity of their mundane roles in her divine mission. Without these secular missionaries, there’s nothing to consecrate, nothing to offer Up, and nowhere to gather for the offering …

… well, so that radio show interview ended. I sat in my car quietly for about ten minutes taking in this super-luminous vision. I wish I could give language to the feeling I had! And all that kept going through my head was, “fruit of the earth/fruit of the vine and work of human hands…” Human culture. Thank God for those countless tired, cut, calloused, laboring cultured hands, all-sacraments of the Potter’s very dirty Hands.

Beautiful Feet

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy,
and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said,
“Greetings!”
And they came to him, took hold of his feet,
and worshiped him.  — Matt. 28:8-9

Fear and great joy. Ran. Greetings! Took hold of his feet, and worshiped.

What a scene! Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary,” after seeing the angels and hearing their proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, sped off only to be stopped “suddenly” by Jesus greeting them. Imagine how disorienting this all must have been for them. And their reaction? To seize hold of his feet!

How tender, how human, how intimate.

The verb “to seize” used here was used in only one other place in the Gospel of Matthew: in the Garden of Gethsemane when, after Judas’ betrayal, the Temple guards seized Jesus to take him off for trial and execution (26:50).

How lovely that now Jesus’ feet, forever bearing wounds opened by betrayal, are seized by joyful love from these faithful women who never fled during the Passion (cf Matt 27:55-56). It is most fitting that they, who had come to the tomb to honor Jesus’ dead body, are the first to worship him as Risen.

Isaiah 52:7 rings through these messengers of the Messenger:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Those feet are worthy of worship, for

he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his wounds we are healed. — Isaiah 53:5

The feet of a God who came to wash his creatures’ feet, symbols of God’s extreme humility and tender love. Let us become like this Most Low God whom we worship.

¡Triumph!

Arabic: Al-Masih qam minbain’il-amwat,
wa wati al mowt bil mowt,
wa wahab’l hayah lil ladhina fi’l qubur

Greek: Christos anesti ek nekron,
thanato thanaton patisas,
ke tis en tis mnimasin,
zoin charisamenos!

English: Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

A Lent of Eloquent Silence

Praise no one before he speaks,
for it is then that people are tested. — Sirach 27:7

Every Lent calls for a fasting from words. Not simply to make them fewer, but to make them worthier of our dignity and His Majesty.

This Lent, more silence for the mouth, the ears, the phone, the keyboard. Fewer words, spoken with more consideration and care, more thought and deliberation, more reflection and repentance. Words that emerge from a place of depth, and not from the swampy shallows of superficiality. Words that tremble in the presence of their Creator, the Word through whom all things were made, He who once said to us, “on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Matt. 12:36).

Be silent, or say something better than silence.

This Lent, choose to “let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29). This Lent, turn your words upward more often than outward. It’s so easy to hurl from the tongue — like stones — criticisms at those who have failed, who have fallen short. But it’s much harder to rouse the courage to address the One whose permission allowed them to fall, only so you might manifest His mercy and run to their aid, pleading to Him their cause.

For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. — Luke 6:38

When God formed us in His image, He consecrated our tongue for speech to bless the world with life-giving truth, beauty, goodness, mercy. But by our words, we chose to desecrate the earth with the curse of merciless death. In His mercy, God has now entrusted each of us with a noble calling to bless those who curse and quench the fiery darts of the Enemy. Indeed,

the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell … With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, this ought not to be so. — James 3:5-10

This Lent, give heaven your tongue to re-consecrate the world.

Time in the Aftermath

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Almighty ever-living God,
who when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you. — Opening Collect for today’s Mass

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with this day we are ushered into the unhappily named liturgical season of Ordinary Time. The English word “ordinary” comes from the Latin ordinalis, a word meaning “an order of succession.” Ordinary, therefore, does not here mean “plain,” but days of counting after the Feast of Epiphany and then again after the Feast of Pentecost. It’s an extended opportunity to contemplate and realize the impact of the Incarnation and Pentecost on the world. In other words, Ordinary time is life in the aftermath of God’s definitive entry into history.

During Ordinary liturgical days, the major focus of the Scripture readings is on the three year public preaching-teaching-healing ministry of Jesus, as He inaugurates the coming of the Kingdom of God into history. If I could give a name to this season that better translates this idea, I’d call it Time in the Aftermath.

Which is why I am not on the liturgical committee that names seasons.

The Sacrament of Baptism is our own personal immersion into that Time in the Aftermath, our insertion into the volatile intersections of time-eternity, finite-infinite, heaven-earth, Creator-creation. In other words, into Jesus Christ. Baptism made me into a new creation, planting me as an immortal seed, freshly fallen from the Tree of the Cross, into the barren wasteland of a fallen world. Or said otherwise, Baptism established me as a fresh outpost of God’s Kingdom behind enemy lines, with a mission to knead into the culture of death the leaven of Life.

How? By a life of obedience to God’s mind and will, above all by imitating Christ who is God’s Mind-made-flesh. No, it’s even more intense than that: by allowing Christ’s mind into my own, allowing Him to take my “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). In Baptism, my thoughts and words are consecrated and so are no longer my own.

Allowing Christ’s mind to penetrate, shape, transform and inhabit my own mind is the end-game of prayer. Especially prayer with Sacred Scripture. Praying God’s Word is granting Christ permission to think in me, with me and through me in real-time, living color.

I wrote in my journal January 1, “My goal in the new year is to better allow Christ to think out His plan for me with me, not simply acting like a hollow cipher that has nothing to add to that plan, but creatively contributing. O Lord, I know your plan includes my contribution, that you want me to surprise you with something you cannot do without me. Something beautiful. May my Morning Offering be filled with the giddy joy of a child who wants to surprise his parent with the simple gifts he has made!”

As I was praying on this idea, another related thought occurred to me. This “unity of mind” not simply a bilateral deal, i.e. me and Jesus. It’s multilateral, i.e. us and Jesus. Jesus wants to harmonize His mind and my mind with my wife’s mind, my children’s minds, my co-workers’ minds, my adversaries’ minds. You see, He doesn’t just want an aggregate of duet harmonies, He wants a universal symphony unified in the love intoned from the cross.

Which means my vocation to “take on the mind of Christ” is to embrace the absolutely brutal struggle of becoming “of one mind and one heart” (Acts 4:32) with all those unruly people around me every day. The implications of this are vast. As a priest said in a homily once, “Most of us, if we’re honest, want Jesus but not the unpleasant people He brings along with Him. So when we receive the Eucharist, we too often receive Christ the Head, but spit out His members…”

Bishop John Smith, who celebrated our nuptial Mass, said to us at a lunch we had at Patti’s apartment one month before our wedding, “Tom, once you marry, you can’t ever fully know Christ without knowing Patti; and you can’t fully know Patti without knowing Christ. Patti, the same goes for you. In this Sacrament, Christ means business.”

And in this Sacrament of Baptism, Christ means the same business.

At the end of my new year’s journal reflection, I read Philippians 2:1-5 with all this in mind. And wow:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

Being-taken

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wp.com

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”