Pastoral Letter on the Sacramentality of Life
The Catholic Diocese of One Spirit
Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008
The Body and Blood of Jesus
and the Sacramental Nature of Life
as expressed in Christianity, in Catholicism
and in the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit
Sacramentality has been considered the key element of Catholicism since at least the Middle Ages. The Eucharist, as the real presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus, has been not only Catholicism’s most defining and uniquely visible element, but also the chief measuring rod by which others are considered “in” or “out” of the Catholic Church.
In actuality, as in most things religious and institutional, much of the beauty and spectacular truths within these hallmarks have been covered over so massively that their original intent is difficult for most people to recognize at all. We who have concluded that the message of Jesus, the way he encouraged us to lead our lives, the roadmap he left for us – that all this is of incalculable value – want to make absolutely certain that we come as close as possible to following what he actually said and did. So we must take a new and closer look at Sacraments and the Eucharist.
The Sacramentality of Life
Anyone who gives many speeches comes up with a Stump Speech – the essentials that he or she wants to get across every time, a careful presentation in which none of the main ingredients of his or her ideas be left out. From a reading of the Gospels, it seems evident that Jesus’ stump speech was The Beatitudes.
“Blessed are the poor … blessed are the meek … blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice …” All of this has come to be recognized as beautiful and profound to us Christians, and also as a good way to live even by those who are not Christians. And, yet, how many of us really want to be “poor?” How many of us consider that way of life to be more a “religious” value than a deeply human one? Not many college courses are offered on how to become the best poor person.
Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago, in the context of a completely different mindset. In the Aramaic language he spoke, so massively different from the Greek in which the Gospels were written, a “poor” person was not someone who had nothing. A “poor” person in the Aramaic frame of mind was someone who – no matter whether he or she had a little or a lot – put integrity, honor, love, compassion, justice, etc. first. A “poor” person was someone who had his priorities in order, or who worked to get them there. This, then, is not a solely “religious” value, but rather one that all people of good will can identify with.
A “meek” person was not someone who liked to be slapped around. A meek person was someone who could empathize with others. Someone who could say, “This is truth as I see it, but – given your history, culture, experiences – if you see your truth as something else, then I can accept that for you.” In other words, a “meek” person was someone who could put themselves in someone else’s shoes and accept them for who they are. Again, this is a human, not purely religious, trait which all people of good will can find enriching.
And so it goes through the Beatitudes. The conclusion an Aramaic language listener would come to, who had heard Jesus’ giving his Beatitudes stump speech, was the very Aramaic concept that we “breathe in and out the universe.” Jesus was telling us that every moment of every day is where we put into action the way of life that constantly tries to keep our priorities in order, that identifies and empathizes with other people, that looks out for the person who has less.
Real spirituality for Jesus wasn’t about just knocking off some rituals, filling your playbook.
In order to make this very mystical lesson more practical and easier to understand, Jesus told very earthy stories – we call them parables – to get the ideas across to his listeners. Throughout the many parables, the singular and overwhelming theme was the “Kingdom of God,” the “Reign of God,” and the “Kingdom of Heaven.” He spoke of this 140 times, so often that nothing else even came close. And, once again, the Aramaic meaning was much, much different from what we 21st Century people conjure up. To the Aramaic language listening audience, all this meant the “all-pervasive and life-giving presence of God in everything NOW.” Jesus said it was “at hand” (in everything we touch) and “within” (each and every one of us).
This blends harmoniously with an Aramaic word in heavy usage in that day, “ruha.” Ruha meant 1) my breath, your breath, the breath of every human being; 2) the breath of every animal, bird, fish, living thing; 3) the “wind,” which they called the “breath of the earth;” 4) by extrapolation, any physical movement, such as the tides, waves coming off a fire at night or a rock in the sun; 5) we must add that if the people of Jesus’ time knew about electrons and protons orbiting around the nucleus of the atom, this most certainly would have also been “ruha;” and then, most importantly for our understanding, 6) ruha also meant “spirit.”
It was this “spirit” that Jesus elevated to call the “Holy” Spirit. The expression of God that is the Holy Spirit does not consist of a ghost or a wisp that appears in a poof from time to time. The Holy Spirit is the Stuff within which and out of which everything exists. It is the movement that constitutes life and existence. It is the sine qua non of all that is physical. It is the organizing intelligence within the otherwise chaotic soup of matter. It is the energy that likes beneath the atom and has pushed physical matter first into existence in the Big Bang, and which continues to push it into existence at every moment in time and in every spot in the universe.
So, then, Jesus’ message was that Everything IS a manifestation of God.
God is the most “secular” element in the universe, because every last speck of dust on every planet IS a unique expression of God, who consciously gives it its existence. Within this context, Jesus told us that every moment of our unique existence is important, as we “breathe in and out the universe.” (It is certainly not just about going to church and reading the Bible … these are just tools toward the life he invites us to.) And he told us that we achieve our life’s purpose if we live it in a manor that struggles to keep our priorities in order, to empathize with others, to look out for those who have less.
Every moment of our life is, then, by definition, sacred. “Sacraments” or “sacred moments” are every moment.
We recognize many moments as especially sacred, especially “sacramental,” and we celebrate those moments. The number of “sacraments” has varied throughout the centuries. Who could ever state emphatically that there are an eternal specified number? Most people do not ever experience the sacrament of Ordination. But many experience another sacred moment, the sacrament, of the birth of a child. Most of us have gone through the difficult but sacred time of the sickness or death of a loved one – they way we are profoundly moved and recognize a deep oneness with the other through such an experience. Many have loved their pets and found there a celebration of life, joy and God. Some of us had lived the hell of divorce, and then blossomed from its death to its resurrection, as we have used it to strengthen our souls and more radically chosen our best selves. All of these but begin to touch the myriad expressions of the Holy Spirit’s bursting forth in sacred events in the unique lives of all God’s children.
Every moment is life is sacred and sacramental. Occasional powerful moments in each of our lives occur, which are exceptionally sacred and meaningful, Sacramental. Many entail rituals which celebrate the existence of such a sacred happenings, and which often strengthen them and call them to the fore to be lived more forcefully.
This is what is at the essence of Christianity’s celebration of sacraments. Sacramentality is not merely an essential Catholic characteristic, but it is also an essential Christian characteristic and it is an essentially human characteristic.
The message of Jesus works for everyone. He did not come to say, “Here are a bunch of bizarre things for you to believe, and some exotic practices for you to take up, an organization which you must join – which you would never otherwise choose to do on your own. And if you believe and do all these strange things, God will surely know you love Him, because why otherwise would any sane person ever believe and do all this?” No, Jesus rather came to say, “here is how the universe works; here is how God set things up to be; if you align yourself with the meaning in it all, you will achieve happiness and joy faster.”
The Catholic Church (in all its manifestations) and the other Christian Churches (in all their manifestations) do not hold the pathway to eternal life, we teach the pathway to eternal life, which has already been implanted in all human beings by God from the beginning. We are to enlighten … not to confine, not to bring non-Christians or Christians who do not believe all that we do into our spiritual coral, certainly not to “save souls for Jesus Christ.”
In this process, many wish to get closer to our institutions so that they might become more a part of the practices and come to greater understandings more quickly, but belonging to the institution is never a requirement.
God has been at work in this universe for 13.8 billion years. Religions have been around approximately 5,000 years, and Christianity 2,000 years. Clearly God does not need our institutions to make the work of God go on. We religious types merely ring bells around the edges. God doesn’t need us; the good luck is ours to be able to think about these blessings on a more constant basis. We can hopefully articulate the Sacredness in All for others, and help them to move more quickly toward their inevitable, eternal conclusion: recognition of their own Oneness within God.
Within the Catholic Diocese of One Spirit, we choose to live sacramentality in this way – not confined, not strangled in its officialdom or encrusted in liturgical concrete, but rather keeping an eye toward the movement of the Spirit of God wherever it makes itself most evident. While maintaining the sacredness of the historic seven sacraments, we wish to constantly bring life to the expression of these realities, and to make them radically meaningful to the participants and observers. We also recognize and celebrate other sacred moments and create liturgies or celebrations of many of them as well – meaningful, profound, reverberating. And we honor the sacredness of every moment of existence.
The Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Jesus
The more one reads the Bible, the more one comes to realize the brilliance of Jesus’ teaching – the methods as well as the substance. It is simple, yet cuts to the core of the very meaning of our world and of the pervasiveness of the Loving Begetter.
Given the importance of the Eucharist – the celebration of the Body and Blood of Jesus – in Christianity, and especially in Catholicism, it is difficult to believe that Jesus would have forgotten about it until the Last Supper. (Why don’t we hear about it until the last day of his three year ministry?) Did Jesus quietly thank God over and over again for reminding him of it at the last moment?
Or, perhaps, was Jesus saving this – his most powerful, ordered practice – as a “going-away gift?” Was he saving it, mentally gift-wrapped, as a surprise at the end of his ministry?
Probably not, on either count.
It is much more likely that the injunction to “do this” was a summation of all his teachings and a way for us to call those essential teachings to mind. He said do this “in remembrance of me.” Recognizing the heightened seriousness of his ministry rapidly coming to a conclusion, and at the time of his gathering with those he loved most one last time, it is highly probable that Jesus wanted to emphasize that which he had tried over and over to get his followers to realize: that everything already is the body and blood of God. If God’s Holy Spirit is the energy which moves/breathes life and existence into all that is, then everything is an individualized manifestation of God.
Jesus probably looked at the table, saw bread and wine, which was eaten at virtually every meal (and, surprisingly, is still a staple of meals worldwide), and said, “Look at this; this really is me.” Because God is the One out of which all manifestations of the Spirit flow, then everything already is the body and blood of God.
We now know that the mucus lining of our mouths replenishes itself every three hours. Skin replaces itself every 24 hours. 98% of our current body was not here last year. Our life force, our soul, takes food and drink and air, and makes “me” out of the physical elements of the earth. If I inhale a deep breath, I have inhaled billions upon billions of molecules, and it is highly likely that one of them was exhaled by a Chinaman yesterday, caught the jet stream, and I used that molecule to make me today. Thus, our spirits/souls use matter to put forth the body that we use to breathe in and out the universe, and to experience the wonder of the God Within.
Jesus said “the Father and I are one” and that “you are my brothers and sisters.” He asked, “Have you not read that you are Gods?” And he told us that “greater things than I do, you will do.” His whole ministry was a way of teaching: if you can’t believe that God dwells in you and is the Stuff of which you are made, then look at me. The dead rise; the lame walk; the blind see. And I am telling you that the same Life of God that has come to full fruition in me is also in you. You are to be like me.
The eating of the bread and wine and the recognition of the real presence of Jesus in them is the way Jesus left us to help us see the greater reality: that God’s real presence is in everything and in everyone. It is how we renew, in our lives, the teachings of Jesus’ ministry.
Jesus, it seems, meant this everyday occurrence to be a constant reminder of the most life-changing and life-giving insight we can possess: that God manifests God’s Self in everything and in everyone.
If each of us could only keep this in mind on a more constant basis, then we would hold all the earth and the universe in the reverence that it deserves. We would not pollute it. We would not try to amass it for ourselves. We would not keep it from others. We would not view it as our possession, to do with it as we pleased. Not only would we not harm God’s expression in physical creation, but we would rather embrace it as what it is: a 13.8 billion year long process bringing us to the experience of God in the plethora of God’s expressions. We would know the earth to be holy, to be sacred, to be a pathway for us to experience who we are through these gifts strewn on our path.
Moreover, if we could keep Jesus’ teaching in mind about God being expressed in each human manifestation of God, then we would not only refrain from using other people to our own selfish plans, but we would honor them, hold them in awe. We would accept their limitations as time capsules in which their eternal and perfect spirits come to this earth life to experience that perfection we originally only know theoretically. Through choices of good (the experience of beauty, joy and love) and evil (the misguided attempts to find ourselves, which turn out to distance us from our true selves, but turn us back to who we really are through the experience of pain and disappointment) we discover God Within.
If only we had a way to keep these truths in the forefront of our consciousness.
And we do. Given to us by Jesus is the cleverest of ways, what we call the Eucharist. For this practice, meant to be integral to our everyday life is as good a way as we will ever find.
It is interesting to note that Jesus’ sharing of his body and blood were informal, everyday affairs. The Last Supper was a raucous as a large family dinner, such as our Thanksgiving, could be. There were men, women and children all around. Everyone was talking, and, in all probability, time for announcements and common prayer and singular focus was limited in duration. The sharing of his body and blood was a part of the meal, not separate.
After the resurrection, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus who brought Jesus to their place of rest that evening “recognized him in the breaking of the bread.” This does not sound too formalized, too ritualized, too set apart, too “sanctified” and “hallowed.” This sounds like an integration into everyday life.
How much of a disservice to Jesus’ intention do we not give this great gift, when we make its reception a distant, ritualized, solemnified for only certain consecrated hands, taken out of daily life experiences? Should we really store that which is to direct us to a higher understanding in a gold tabernacle, reverence it in a monstrance, or adore it all night long – or should we honor it in its more profound presence in the other reflections of God we meet daily? Do we defeat its purpose by only participating in this ritual away from our homes, away from our daily lives, once a week or once a month? Have we sapped most of the meaning out of what Jesus left us as the most practical way to connect with his primary teaching?
This is important. Jesus gave us a way to help us to remember the most substantive of his teachings, the part which makes everything else make sense, which brings it all together. Should this not be a part of our everyday lives? Should we not find a way to do it often?
In the early church, celebration of the body and blood of Jesus was not necessarily solemnized by a priest. It was done by the head of the family or friends gathered. We can do it that way again today. And we should.