Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Eucharist and Charity: Holy Thursday

What would you give to see the face of Jesus? Wouldn’t it be worth everything you own—your car, your house, your RRSP?

I don’t actually have a house—or an RRSP, for that matter—but I know there’s nothing I wouldn’t give to look into the eyes of the Lord for just one moment.

It’s only natural to want to see with our eyes what we know with our hearts. Even though the Apostle Philip walked and talked with Jesus, still at the Last Supper he says to him, “Lord, show us the Father. That will be enough for us.”

Jesus answers “Don’t you know me, Philip? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” That’s fair enough for Philip, who was sitting at the table with our Lord—not physically separated from him by centuries as we are.

But who could blame us for saying “Show yourself to us, Lord—and that will be enough”. Who could blame us for wanting something more visible than what appears to be bread and wine, real and wonderful though the Eucharistic presence is?

St. Augustine has something startling to say about this natural longing to see God: “If you see charity, you see the Trinity.” In other words, if God is love—as St. John tells us—then the experience of true love is an experience of God. If you see charity—if you see love in action—then you see the Trinity.

St. Augustine’s bold statement had me scratching my head for a moment; I’d never come across it before Pope Benedict quoted it in his encyclical on love. Then it hit me that I have been singing this truth every Holy Thursday for years, in the ancient hymn Ubi caritas. Its first line is “Where charity and love are, there God is.”

And all of a sudden I had a fresh understanding of why Jesus chose to wash the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper. If washing their feet was only about service, Jesus had many earlier opportunities to teach the lesson.

No, he got down on his hands and knees with a basin so that we’d never forget the connection between charity and the Eucharist. Jesus knew we’d see only the appearance of bread before us at Mass, so he chose to help us see him in another sacramental way—he wanted us to recognize him not only in the breaking of the bread but also in the service of our sisters and brothers.

Are you having trouble looking beyond the appearance of bread and wine at Mass? Then look to the love all around you and see another divine Presence, different but no less real.

So far this homily may strike you as theoretical. If you see charity, you see God. Well, where do we see charity?

We see it, of course, all over the place. For all its wounds, Western civilization remains a charitable culture, with good works carried on widely by both secular and religious organizations and by believers and non-believers alike.

But if you really want to see charity—to see the Trinity—look to your left and right. Look to the pew ahead of you; look across the aisle; you see charity right here. Because I can tell you better than anyone that the community that gathers around this altar every week is a community of love. The charity that shows God’s face is right here in this parish church and in its homes and schools.

I see the face of God in our parish community day after day, week after week. By care and concern and charity, Christ the Redeemer Parish lives the command that Jesus gave the apostles at the Last Supper.

Let me be more specific. Ours is a welcoming community. No sooner do I meet a family new to the parish than I hear they’ve been invited to dinner by other parishioners. Someone mentions they’re looking for work, and in the same breath that another parishioner’s been giving help and encouragement.

This is not just casual kindness, but a way of living for some dedicated members of the parish. They’re literally watching out for the needs of others.

We welcome the young, as Christ commanded when he said “Let the little children come to me.” Volunteers meet with new parents to help them prepare for the baptism of infants. Our elementary and high schools themselves are works of Christian charity, built by parishioners, including those whose own children had long finished school. The work of our catechists, both professional teachers and generous volunteers, is a gift of love to the youngsters who attend St. Anthony’s, PREP classes, the children’s Liturgy of the Word, and to the youth attending St. Thomas Aquinas or I2T, our high school religious education program.

We welcome those new to the faith, or returning to the faith. Week after week our RCIA team members and our bible study organizers sacrifice their time to share the Good News.

Our greeters welcome people at the door each Sunday, along with the parking patrol, who have the hardest job in the parish but one of the most charitable, since they do their work rain or shine—and there’s usually more rain than shine.

The liturgies we celebrate are themselves labours of love, made possible by the generosity and hard work of sacristans, choirs, lectors, extraordinary ministers, and altar servers.

The parish is a caring community. When parishioners hear someone is ill, they want to know “how can I help?” Meals appear, rides are provided, and prayers are offered. Devoted men and women visit the two nursing homes in the parish each and every week.
I enjoy watching CWL members serving food after funerals. They make it so obvious that they’re not there just to pour tea, but to be a visible sign of the care and concern we feel for the bereaved and sometimes bewildered families of the deceased.

The community that gathers for Morning Prayer and daily Mass shows its care for the entire parish through prayer, interceding regularly for the sick, the dying, families, and other intentions.

This is a charitable community, responding with astonishing generosity to any need, local or global. In the two and half years I’ve been here, the parishioners have donated more than $100,000 for international relief, development, or evangelization. We have also supported the great work of North Vancouver’s Harvest Project which offers struggling folks “a hand up, not a hand-out.”

I can’t even begin to talk about the work of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which in its first year at Christ the Redeemer has already become one of the most vibrant organizations in the parish, showing Christ’s own compassion to people on both sides of the bridge in all kinds of generous service.

Charity begins at home, they say, and much of the Christian charity of the parish takes place in families. The stories I could tell about what parents do and suffer for their children—and, increasingly, what children do for aging parents—would have you weeping if they didn’t get me started first. The sacrifice and dedication shown by more than a few families makes washing twelve dirty feet seem like easy work indeed.

And the parish itself —like any family—needs charity just to keep ahead of the tensions and conflicts that are part of everyday life. While we do have two or three perfect parishioners (I keep a list of them to look at when I need encouragement), I’m not perfect and most of us aren’t perfect, but when we rub each other the wrong way, forgiveness is asked for and given quickly and easily.

I could go on and on—maybe I already have! The point of all this is not to congratulate you. It’s to see the connection between the love around us and the altar in front of us.

Again, we can turn to St. Augustine for a key insight. He says to us “Become what you eat; receive what you are.” We are becoming the Eucharist we receive! We receive at Mass the very love that we are living.

At Mass, we “come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.” What could be more wonderful! What could be more profound!
On a lighter note, I like the story of the youngster who confessed that he’d tripped and hurt his brother.

“Well, surely that was an accident,” the priest said kindly. “No, Father,” the lad replied, “I tripped on purpose.”

I’m sure Jesus did nothing by accident, and everything for a purpose; and the Gospels record only his most significant sayings and gestures. The washing of the feet is packed with meaning: When inspired by love, every service we give to our neighbour takes on an extraordinary dimension; it foreshadows the total sacrifice which we should be ready to make, in imitation of Jesus.

When we open our eyes fully to the needs of our brothers and sisters, we will be moved to become more and more like Jesus, and others will see him in us more and more.

“I have set you an example,” Jesus tells us tonight in word and sign, that you also should do as I have done.” As we celebrate his Eucharist and follow his example in charity and love, we see God now in our midst, and live in the hope of seeing him forever in glory.

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