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Message in a Bottle #10

If you are keeping track, you know that we have not gathered for Sunday Eucharist since March 15th, the third Sunday of Lent. I half-jokingly suggested we were celebrating our “Last Supper” not realizing then that my words would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are all waiting, including Bishop Vienneau, for the health authorities to open churches for limited gatherings like we see in some sectors of society. Throwing the doors of the church wide open, though, will probably not happen until a universal vaccine is available. Until then we live in the interim with patience and hope.

These couple of months of isolation have changed us in one form or another; none of us is the same person we were prior to March 15th. Even if we acknowledge that the change may be only minor, it’s still a change. If as Jesus says, “we have eyes to see and ears hear,” we inevitably see ourselves and our world differently since the pandemic took root.

One lasting image that stays with me is the one that has been repeated all over the world. It is the image of family members outside looking at, waving to, and blowing kisses in the direction of a senior member of their family on the other side of a window. For some, the heartbreak was even more intense when that same older person died without the comfort of their families by their bedsides. Add to this, funerals that have to be delayed or funerals with a limit of 10 mourners, and you have compounded the heartbreak.

Apparently, my parents didn’t raise any dummies, so I know a thing or two about a thing or two. One of the things I know for sure is that we will all come through this pandemic as changed people—hopefully better and not bitter. Another thing I know for certain is our too-deep-for-words desire to connect with our fellow human being and with God. The latter, even in atheists I believe, expresses itself “in groans that cannot be put into words,” as St. Paul tells us (Romans 8:26). We need to know, especially in times of crisis, that God is real, that God is near us, and that God is for us. In short, this is the desire for an incarnate God, not a distant reality off in the clouds somewhere.

There is a marvelous story told about a four-year-old child who awoke one night frightened, convinced that in the darkness around her there were all kinds of spooks and monsters. Alone, she ran to her parents’ bedroom. Her mother calmed her down and, taking her by the hand, led her back to her own room, where she put on a light and reassured the child with these words: “You need not be afraid, you are not alone here. God is in the room with you.” The child replied: “I know that God is here, but I need someone in this room who has some skin!”

I love that story. In her brain the child did not know the theological word “incarnation,” but in her guts she intuited the need for a comforting reality in her life that had skin. She needed incarnation—skin–and not Dr. Scott Peck’s latest book on child rearing.

Sometimes children do say the darnedest things. I wish those handful of men, who composed the Eucharistic prayers (those prayed by the priest at the altar from the Sacramentary) would have consulted children or anyone for that matter, just once, before they started. If they had, we would not be stuck with the disastrous prayers we torture our parishioners with week after week. You know the prayer and the words I’m talking about: …graciously accept the oblation of our service (let’s start passing out dictionaries during mass) …this pure victim, this holy victim, this spotless victim (Jesus was never a victim. Unlike victims who have their lives taken from them, Jesus freely gave his life to us) … He took bread in his holy and venerable hands (really? Give me a break).

Apparently, Jesus did not have hands like your hands and mine; he had holy and venerable hands. If he did not have hands like ours, in what other dimensions was he also not like us? According to these theologians, Jesus could not have been human; he only had the appearance of being human, which is a heresy. Somehow, according to this logic, the Word did not become flesh, at least not fully. Its descent into flesh got truncated, arrested halfway through the process, never to be complete. It never became “skin.” It was too scandalized to have ordinary human hands.

I doubt these armchair theologians, professional functionaries of the Church, ever put a scared four-year-old to bed, ever changed a diaper, ever pumped gas, ever mopped a floor, or ever got their hands dirty working a minimum wage job. If they had, just once, they never would have written such lofty and meaningless language as they left us with in the Sacramentary. In short, they do not believe in the central truth of our faith—the incarnation of the divine into human flesh. They are theist; they believe God is out there somewhere in the clouds, anywhere, but just not here. Incarnation is just too scandalous for many leaders to accept. Perhaps that is why anything to do with the body and sexuality has, traditionally, been pushed into the dark corners. For many of us, it’s only with great reluctance we accept our own flesh, our own bodies, our own sexual desires, our own body odour, our humanity, but to assign any of these traits to Jesus is just too much. Maybe that’s why artists always have to put a loin cloth on Jesus, even though all four gospels tell us he was crucified naked. And because it’s too much to handle, we prefer to push Jesus back into the heavens and promote incarnational-denying theology in our Eucharistic prayers like as if they were the Gospels themselves.

The Word did not become flesh and dwell among us—it became flesh and continues to dwell among us. As God acted through Jesus 2000 years ago, so God still acts through every one of us, the Body of Christ, here and now. Remember that the next time you receive Communion. It is not just Jesus you are receiving, it’s also the Body of Christ, here and now, that you are receiving. So, if we cannot “stomach” our brother or sister, it might be best we leave our offering before the altar and go do something else.

You want to understand incarnation? Read the gospels. There you will find that Jesus did not talk in highbrow theological terms. He spoke the language of the people. He spoke about grains of wheat, of sheep, of water, of oil, of breath, of bread, of wine, of money, of coats, of thirsts and hungers, of lost sheep, and of siblings who no longer talk to each other. He never mentioned sanctuaries, sacraments, tabernacles or the sacred, whatsoever. Everything, for Jesus, was shot through with the divine. He had no need to separate the holy from the unholy. Everything, and everyone, was sacred, including the lepers, the tax collectors, the murderers, the thieves, the adulterers, the prostitutes, and the greedy. Everyone was redeemable because everyone contained, at least, a spark of the divine that could never be eradicated. Our mundane bodies both concealed and revealed the divine. How brilliant! When Jesus healed the blind man, he did not send positive energy toward him, he used spit and dirt, instead. And when he stood next to Lazarus, who smelled of the stink of death, very real tears of salt ran down his face.

If you want to know what incarnation is, I’ll save you some time. Do not look to the Eucharistic prayers we have been given, look instead to Matthew 25. It recalls how I was hungry, and you either gave me something to eat or you didn’t. I was naked, and you either clothed me or you didn’t. The great Christian truth is that you are no nearer to God than you are to your neighbour. Why is that true? Because God is your neighbour. The moment you stop believing God is your neighbour, is the moment you stop believing in the incarnation. You, inadvertently, push God back into the heavens. And with God far away, it just becomes a whole lot easier to walk past the poor wretch who is only going to blow your charity on drugs anyways. Matthew 25, the Last Judgement scene, begins with lofty, heavenly language: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on the throne.” Wow! How celestial! How regal! Then, all of a sudden, it all comes crashing down to earth in the form of hunger, thirst, nakedness, sickness and imprisonment. “When you did this, you did it to me.” I was incarnate in all those people, in all those circumstances. Didn’t you know that?

Fr. Ron Rolheiser writes: “…if my mother is sick and I pray she gets better but do not drive her to see the doctor, I have prayed as a theist, not as a Christian. I have not given any incarnational flesh, skin, to my prayer…If I pray for world peace, but do not inside of myself, forgive those who have hurt me, how can God bring about peace on this planet? Our prayer needs our flesh to back it up (The Holy Longing, p. 84).

So, we do what we can do during these times of physical distancing to remind ourselves, and the greater world, that incarnation is real. How do I know? The gospels, whose truths cut like knives, tell me so. Older people in seniors’ residences looking out windows and four-year old girls, apparently, are on to this as well.

Fr. Phil Mulligan

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