Twenty-ninth Sunday: A Eucharistic People
One Sunday morning a number of years ago, I was saying the 9:00 am Mass and, as we do here at St. Ignatius, I was telling a story to the children. Usually I sit on the top of the steps in the middle with the children around me and in front of me. I thought I was at a somewhat serious part of the story, and the children all appeared to be listening as best they could, but then I heard the adults start to laugh. I saw where they were looking, so I turned around, and there was a little three year old girl who climbed up on the presider’s chair and was sitting comfortably like the little princess she was. Her mother was quite uncomfortable, though, and ran up to get her out of that chair. She apologized to me afterwards, saying “I’m sorry she sat in your chair.”
Well, it is not really my chair. It is just a symbol of my position as leader of the people in prayer during the Mass. There is a similar chair in every cathedral. In fact the word, cathedral, takes its meaning from the Latin word cathedra. It is the seat of the Bishop who has authority over the Diocese. Once, when I was a new priest, I officiated at a wedding in St. Jude’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. I was about to sit down when I realized that the seat behind the altar was the cathedra, the bishop’s, so I sat with the altar servers. I didn’t want to be like the intern who is sitting in the CEO’s office with his feet on the desk when the boss walks in. Not good for future employment.
Anyway, the chair is a symbol, but it is not the source of authority, real authority. The source of real authority is Jesus Christ. And like all things with the Lord, this authority is counter cultural. His authority does not lie in physical power. His authority lies in service.
Today’s first reading is taken from the second Section of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. It speaks about a suffering servant whose greatness will be seen for all time. He will take upon himself the guilt of us all, and will bring many to union with the Father. St. Jerome, the great scripture scholar, used to refer to Isaiah as the fifth evangelist because his prophecies of Jesus were so clear that you would have thought Isaiah was present at the time of Jesus. No, this section of Isaiah was written over five hundred years before the Lord. But he certainly understood the coming Suffering Servant of God. In fact Isaiah even tells us that the Servant will die and yet be preserved from death.
Our lives are a pilgrimage to seek out and meet our Lord. We often meet him here in Church. We meet him in the Word of God and in the Eucharist. We meet the Lord in those who reach out to us for help. We meet the Lord within ourselves as He reaches out to others through us.
Do we ever think about what we receive when we reach out to help others? Yes, there is that warm, fuzzy feeling. We feel good about ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is a lot more that we receive. We receive God’s Grace. We are given a dose of humility. We are not concerned with completing an assignment or service hours. We want to do it again and again because we are experiencing God.
I have to tell you once more that story I heard Fr. John Fullenbach, SVD relate regarding his time working with Blessed Mother Theresa in Calcutta. Long before Mother Theresa became an international celebrity, her work among the poorest
of the poor in Calcutta was known throughout the Church. Fr. John Fullenbach is a professor of ecclesiology in Rome. One year he had a lot of time between the semesters he was teaching, so he decided to go to India and work alongside Mother Theresa and her sisters. He relates that he felt very good about himself on the plane on the way to India. That feeling did not last one full day. The first day he went to volunteer, one of the sisters asked him to join her walking through a very difficult section of Calcutta. It was the place where the poorest were dropped off to die. When they got there, a frail woman begged the sister and Fr. Fullenbach to follow her. She led them to an elderly man, probably her husband, spending his last few days laying in filth. Fr. Fullenbach bent over the man to reassure him and tell him they would take him indoors to a comfortable place to rest. As he bent down, the man spit in Father’s face. True story. Fr. Fullenbach was furious. He came all the way from Rome for this? He was a famous theologian and author. But he swallowed hard, picked up the man and brought him to the empty warehouse the sisters had made into a hospice. It was nothing more than a huge room with cots. There Fr. Fullenbach cleaned the man and fed him. But the entire time he was angry that this man should behave so badly towards him. Fr. Fullenbach was being taught humility. It was more important for him to help the man than for the man to be grateful.
That was Fr. Fullenbach’s first lesson in encountering the Lord. His second would be more powerful. After the man went to sleep, Fr. Fullenbach went to a table where there were rags that had been cleaned and cut into strips to be used as bandages. He was asked to use his free time to roll them up. He was doing this for about a half hour when he heard a child start screaming. There in the opposite corner of the large room a young sister was trying to wash a ten year old girl. The poor little girl was covered with sores. She was standing in a tub and both hurting and angry. She kept hitting the sister, splashing the water at her and screaming and screaming. It all seemed rather useless to try to clean the child. Just then, Mother Theresa entered. She had heard the commotion. “Now we’ll see how holy the boss really is,” Fr. Fullenbach says he thought.
Mother Theresa walked over to where the child was and dismissed the young sister. The child looked at her and screamed and then soaked Mother Theresa with the bath water. Mother Theresa just stopped and looked at the child. She waited a little bit and then slowly walked closer and closer to the child. Then she reached out her arms and hugged the little girl. The child cried and cried. Mother Theresa kept holding her. After a long time, the child stopped crying. Mother Theresa then began to wash the little girl, cleaning her sores the whole time singing to her.
Mother Theresa had authority, and humility, and the power of Jesus Christ. She continually encountered Christ within others and within herself. The Life of Christ within us is a power that can transform the world. It is a power that can transform each of us. Mother Theresa and you and I experience this power when we act for the sole purpose of serving the Lord’s people.
We do what we do as Christians because that is who we are. We are given the power to make Christ present to others. We are given the gift of experiencing Christ in ourselves.
I want to throw two terms at you: Eucharist and Stewardship.
We are a Eucharistic people. But what does that really mean? First, we celebrate Jesus’s Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We receive communion. We adore his Presence in our tabernacles and during Eucharistic adoration services. But that is just one part of the Eucharistic dimension of our lives. To be a Eucharistic people, our celebration of the Eucharist must encompass washing the feet of the Lord’s people. Remember that was what Jesus did before He gave His Body and Blood at the Last Supper. He washed the feet of his disciples and then issued the Mandatum, the Mandate for them and for us: “What you have seem me do, you also must do.” This was followed by the sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood. We celebrate the Eucharist through service to others and continually experience the Presence of Christ.
Secondly, we are a people that embrace stewardship. Stewardship means the best use of the talents the Lord has give us for his people. Not all of us can care for the hurting like Mother Theresa. Fr. Fullenbach saw his limitations that first day. But he has many other great gifts, the greatest of which is the way he incorporates spirituality with theology. It is Fr. Fullenbach who gave me and so many others the three prayers to living daily in union with Christ, prayers I have shared with you many times: God loves me. God forgives me. God is with me.
All of us have different gifts. We have a responsibility to develop our gifts in service to the Lord. What can I do best? What do you do best? Some people are capable of caring for the incarcerated with mercy, compassion and justice. Others can do that for the sick. Still others for the poor. Some are capable of teaching. Others of being parents to those orphaned by the circumstances of their lives. We all have many talents. They are given to us to serve others. We are called to develop these talents. That is how we give back to the Lord a little of what he has given to us. That is stewardship.
The Lord understands our failures, our limitations, our fears, the times that we lack confidence in ourselves to do His work. He sees this, but He also sees so much more. He sees our talent. He sees our love. He sees our determination to
seek Him out in others and serve His Presence. None of us has the right to feel that we are not good enough to bring Christ to others.
We are good enough to be Christians. We are good enough to be a Eucharistic People, serving his Presence in others. We are good enough to be stewards of His Grace. He makes us good enough.
It is not the Presider’s chair, the Bishop’s cathedra, the judge’s bench or the big chair in the Oval Office that confers true authority. True authority, true power comes from God. And that power, that authority has been given to us by the great high priest, Jesus Christ, who has called us to be a Eucharistic people.