A Reflection for Peace and Justice Advocates
Given at a gathering with the Bishops of Los Angeles, May 15, 2003
I want to begin by making a somewhat artificial, but, I think, useful distinction -- a distinction, if you will, between "the Church" and "the Church." First, and most basically, there is "the Church" in the primary sense of the body of Christians that is a "new nation", "a new people". It is most visibly itself in the worshipping assembly, when it gathers to make Eucharist, and from which it is sent to the world.
And there is "the Church" as a human juridical institution, with its conventions and parishes, committees, vestries, budgets, and programs. This latter is necessary, but secondary; it exists to support and provide for the former.
Sometimes I worry that we get that backwards. So I want today to reflect a bit on the primary Church, the worshipping assembly. And if, as Aidan Kavanagh has said, "Liturgy is doing the world as God would have it done," perhaps we shall find some hints and suggestions for our own doing.
From the earliest times, the Eucharistic Assembly has been characterized by equality. "As soon as the singing begins." John Chrysostom tells us, "There are no longer slaves, free, rich, poor, master, nor servant. The inequality which exists in the world has been pushed aside, forming a single choir with equal voices, earth imitating heaven."
Fifteen hundred years later, Charles Kingsley echoed those words in a remarkable sermon. Today, of course, we would want to use somewhat different language from his and we would want to make mention of equality of race, gender, and orientation. But Kingsley's point is well taken:
"What, my friends, is the message of the Lord's Supper?" he asks. "What more distinct sign and pledge that all men are equal? Wherever in the world there may be inequality, it ceases there. . .That Sacrament proclaims that all alike are brothers of each other, because they are all alike brothers of One -- and He, the son of a village maiden; that Sacrament proclaims that all are equally His debtors -- all equally in need of the pardon which He has bought for them -- and that pardon is equally ready and free to all of them. That Sacrament proclaims that they all equally draw from Him their life, their health, their every strength and faculty of body, mind, and heart. All, therefore, equally bound to live for Him, and therefore for those whom He loved, for whom He laboured, and for whom He died -- for whom He lives and reigns forever . . . in a word, for the people. That Sacrament has told me, Men are thy brothers still. God has made them so; and thou canst not unmake it."
And so the Eucharistic Assembly is a sharing community. "We being many are one bread, one body, for we all share in the one bread." And the Didache tells us, "If you are sharers in the imperishable things, how much more must you be sharers in those things that are perishable.. . therefore thou shalt not turn away from him that hath need, but share all things, and shalt not say that anything is thine own." This is not easy for us who live in a culture with a radically different perspective. We, like the preacher to Queen Anne's court, prefer to give "out of the superfluity of our plenty" and Father Huntington of the Order of Holy Cross used to thunder against our predilection for what he called
"Organized charity, scrimped and iced
In the name of a cautious, statistical Christ."
Eucharistic sharing takes us far beyond mere charity as a complacent gesture or a professional specialty, divorced from justice. "It is good to give to the poor," St. Augustine admonishes, "but it would be better if there were no poor, and we had no one to give to."
The Eucharistic assembly is a community of reconciliation and peace. Howard Galley notes that in ancient liturgies "The sign of reconciliation with God and one's brothers and sisters was not a general absolution, but the exchange of the peace . . . an unwillingness to exchange with any of the faithful assembled was considered to disqualify one from participation in the eucharistic sacrifice and from receiving communion. . . All of this was understood as a part of the people's priestly ministry of reconciliation, focused in the liturgy and lived out day by day."
I wonder if we've really grasped the fact that the exchange of the peace is very serious business indeed. I'm afraid it too often comes across as a kind of intermission, a time to shake hands and hug each other without a great deal of concern about how we treat one another in the class, racial, gender, and other relationships of which we are a part outside the liturgy. Jeremiah had some words for this kind of superficial reconciliation: "You have dressed the wounds of my people as though they were not serious, crying peace, peace, when there is no peace."
Now don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with saying "good morning," setting aside our personal animosities, and wishing each other well. But if our reconciliation is to be genuine it must be concrete. It will require our utmost efforts at transforming our relationships with one another in the world, including those not always obvious relationships we have with one another through our participation in its often unjust political and economic arrangements.
And the work of justice shall be peace. "We will not raise arms against any other nation, " wrote Origen in the 3d Century, "we will not practice the art of war, because through Jesus Christ we have become the children of peace." About the same time Tertullian, I think it was, observed that a Christian cannot bear to see anyone put to death, even justly. I wonder why later Christians seem to have found it so tolerable, we who celebrate Christ's life-giving Sacrifice of Peace?
And if we speak, as we must, about violence in our communities, we need also to ask with Newman and the Tractarians: "Are we to speak when individuals sin, and not when a nation? . . .Must we speak to the poor, but not to the rich and powerful?" We will need to be a community of courage.
Above all, the Eucharistic Assembly is an Incarnational people, a transforming and being-transformed community, engaged in a work in which heaven and earth, human and divine, are inextricably joined. The first-begotten Word, Irenaeus says, entered creation so that creation, for its part, should ascend to him, being made over into the image and likeness of God. It is from the material world, out of its relations of production and exchange, that we bring our bread and wine to the table, fruits of the earth and the work of human hands. As a Russian maxim has it, "When the priest lifts up the Bread at the Eucharist, he holds the whole world in his hands, like an apple." To pray that the Holy Spirit may transform these gifts, making them "holy things for holy people" is to pray that all creation may undergo a similar transformation.
And to partake of the Eucharist is to make a promise -- a "sacramentum" -- to live Eucharistic lives in the world, to give ourselves to the task of transforming all its relationships into something more closely resembling that kingdom (or as some prefer, Commonwealth) of God of which the Eucharist is foretaste and pledge. One liturgy sings of "an eternal and universal kingdom: a kingdom of truth and life: a kingdom of sanctity and grace: a kingdom of justice, love and peace."
You see, God's future is for everyone and forever, and justice, love, and peace are all mixed up with truth, life, sanctity and grace. And what God has joined together, let no one put asunder
Finally, the Eucharistic assembly is a community of solidarity and hope. Not too long ago we celebrated the Great Vigil of Easter and the Paschal fires of Christians raced around the world like a rolling circle of light. We sang of a God who counts as nothing all the wealth and military power of a mighty empire, but chooses as God's own people a rag-tag brick makers' union, out on strike against it. It is not for nothing that our Paschal liturgies return again and again to this Exodus story and that Christians have always seen the death and resurrection of Christ in the light of it -- as, being, somehow, very much the same kind of thing. "Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed."
But there is also the Cross. Behind the high altar at Trinity Church in Los Angeles is a large wooden crucifix. At the end of the beams are icons of Christ's head, hands, and feet, and in the center an icon of a human heart. It always brings to my mind the words of St. Catherine of Sienna, "Mere nails could not have held God and Human on the Cross. It was love that kept him there." And if, as is often said, Christians are "the hands and feet of Christ" in the world, I can't help noticing when I look at that Cross that those hands and feet are on the under side of the nails. If we are truly "the hands and feet of Christ" we cannot expect to be anywhere else. Our love, if it is strong enough, will keep us there, casting in our lot, as Jesus did, not with those who wield the hammers, but with every human being on the face of this earth whose hands are there, on the under side of this world's nails.
But when you get close enough to Trinity's cross, perhaps as you come forward to share the Eucharist, you can see that what, from a distance, look like nails, are actually bright golden crosses, emanating rays of light. "We glory in your cross, O Lord, and praise and glorify your holy resurrection, for by virtue of your cross, joy has come to the whole world."
And that is our hope and our promise.
So where are we now?
What help does the primary church -- the Eucharistic Assembly -- need from what I have called the institutional Church to live out its life as an Incarnational community of equals, transforming and being transformed, a community of sharing, a people of reconciliation and peace, a courageous community of solidarity and hope, bringing joy to the whole world?
Where could we be next year, when, even in the darkness of a world gone mad, we light our little fires and let the Alleluias roll?