Friday, February 9, 2018

living into the eucharist continued...

As my reflection on living a Eucharistic life ripened - inviting Jesus to come into my home as Jean Vanier puts it - two additional insights are worth considering. I came across both in the writings of the late Henri Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest, who found his deepest calling within L'Arche Toronto. They strike me as gentle correctives to the Reformed tradition's tendency to intellectualize the presence of Jesus in our lives.

First, Nouwen reclaims the charism of sacramental theology for all people of faith. That is, he emphasizes that the Word becomes Flesh. That the holy embraces the human. That there is no real distinction between the sacred and the secular because all of creation is saturated with God. As the United Church of Canada puts it:  in life, in death, in life beyond death we are not alone. Specifically, Nouwen writes:

Sacraments are very specific events in which God touches us through creation and transforms us into living Christs. The two main sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist. In baptism water is the way to transformation. In the Eucharist it is bread and wine. The most ordinary things in life - water, bread, and wine - become the sacred way by which God comes to us. These sacraments are actual events. Water, bread, and wine are not simple reminders of God's love; they bring God to us. In baptism we are set free from the slavery of sin and dressed with Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ himself becomes our food and drink.


Since the 1970s, North American Christians have been searching for ways to integrate the call of Christ's Spirit into our ordinary lives. We know that the words of the Sermon on the Mount are crucial and foundational for embodied faith. We also know that they are profoundly counter cultural. Without a sacramental world-view, however, the challenges of Jesus can remain abstract. Or compartmentalized. Small wonder that thousands have sought correction in Roman Catholic monasteries and retreat houses. Fr. Richard Rohr puts it like this:

Jesus says that the people who live the happiness of the Beatitudes will be “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). For ancient people, salt was an important preservative, seasoning, and symbol of healing. What does Jesus mean by such an image? First, he’s not saying that those who live this way are going to heaven. He is saying that they will be gift for the earth. We think of Jesus’ teaching as prescriptions for getting to heaven (even though we haven’t followed them). Instead, the Sermon on the Mount is a set of descriptions of a free life.

Rohr's point is that Jesus gives us a gift - in this case salt - asking us to hold and embody it with our lives. "As light or leaven it will do all the work and God’s purposes will be achieved. (We must simply hold it in our flesh, heart and mind.) What a relaxed and patient trust Jesus has in God! Jesus is quite content, it seems, with such a humble position. He enters the imperial city from a place of powerlessness. His Sermon on the Mount has to do with an alternative understanding and strategy of power. Jesus is leading us to participate in God’s power which to us feels like powerlessness." (Rohr)

To my understanding, this is one of the blessings of sacramental theology: it assures us that even in our brokenness - even in our humble being - God has placed a gift. It isn't up to us to transform the world. That is God's job. Our calling is to trust that a gift has been given to us. To believe that God is at work bringing healing and life to the world even when we cannot see the evidence. Learning centering prayer, sitting in adoration of Christ's body, renewing an ordered life through the Benedictine liturgy of the hours is one of the ways that sacramental living has returned to the Reformed tradition.

The second sacramental insight of Nouwen is that there are four inter-related practices believers can utilize to nourish faithful trust. Not surprisingly, these practices not only shape the life of Jesus but form the heart of the Eucharist. "Christ was called, blessed, broken and given. By responding to God as he did, he made these four words, these four events, treasures for us, and, if we respond to them as he did, they need no longer be hidden treasures.” (Nouwen)  One of the formation blessings of the Eucharist, beyond the mystical presence of Jesus in the bread, is the opportunity to practice responding to God as Jesus did himself.

Jesus was chosen - you are my beloved the Spirit proclaimed at his baptism - he
was claimed by God as are we.  As Jesus lived into his calling - as he practiced and matured in faith - he was blessed: filled with God's assurance and grace. This, too, is the consolation that comes to each of us. Throughout his life, and clearly on the Cross, Jesus was broken, too. Not only did he give away his ego but his very flesh was pierced as part of his commitment to living into God's love.  All of which means Jesus was given to the world: by his love, by his teaching, by his sacrifice. At Eucharist, this is what we rehearse in the liturgy, a Greek word meaning "the work of the people." We choose the bread and wine from the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. We offer prayers of blessing upon them - and one another, too. Then the bread is broken and the wine is poured for the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the world. And the ordinary gifts of bread and wine are taken, shared and become for us the very source of God's grace.

Like the Lord's first disciples on the Emmaus Road, our eyes and hearts can be opened at Eucharist, too. Nouwen teaches that Jesus makes the love of God so clear and ordinary that it becomes our food. It nourishes us from the inside out. And is as close to us as the air we breathe.

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