Saturday, December 6, 2008

II Advent

December 7, 2008

Psalm 85. 1-2, 8-13

The writer on one of my favorite blogs—Joe Versus the Volcano—shares the following insight this past week:

“I remember,” he writes, “an Anglo-Catholic priest (who was more Catholic in his theology than most Catholic priests I’ve come across), saying that the Second Coming happens every time the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar and we receive Him in holy communion.”

I touched on this thinking a bit last week, but it’s always good to think about it again. No matter where your Eucharistic theology might lie—whether you believe wholeheartedly in the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist or that what we do is merely symbolic of his Body and Blood—the fact does remain that something very important happens here, at this altar every Sunday as we gather. We experience, in a very unique and wonderful way, the Presence of Christ when we gather together at this altar and share these common and very simple and vital gifts of bread and wine. No matter what you believe about how Jesus is present to us at this moment, he is present. He does come to us here and we do feel him present—in the bread, in the wine, in the presence of those who gather with us and who kneel beside us at the rail.

Now, I make no secret of my belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. I truly believe that Jesus is present in a unique and beautiful way in the bread and the wine we share with each other. I also believe that Jesus is uniquely present even in the reserved sacrament we place here in the aumbry.

There is a reason we keep the sanctuary light lit before the aumbry. It reminds us that Jesus is present here in a special way. I love driving past St. Stephen’s at night and seeing the deep red glow of the sanctuary light shining through the windows. It is a very visible and meaningful reminder to me that Jesus is present here in a very real way. During Good Friday and Holy Saturday, when the Eucharist is removed from the aumbry and that sanctuary light is extinguished, it too reminds us of Jesus’ presence among us and the absence of that presence when we commemorate that time he spent in the tomb.

At the same time, having professed my belief in the Real Presence, I just as quick to say that I am not a stickler as to the particulars of how Jesus comes among us in the Eucharist. I just read a wonderful new book by the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, called Encountering the Mystery. In this book, Patriarch Bartholomew talks about how important mystery is to the Orthodox understanding of God. He writes:

“The sacraments are the Church’s way of restoring the intimacy between God and the world…They are gifts from God, given in order to appropriate wholeness through transformation. Orthodox Christians in fact prefer to speak ‘mystery’ rather than ‘sacrament’… In this respect, every aspect of divine life is sacramental. Mystery is that sacred space or moment when humanity and creation encounter the transcendent God.”
(Encountering the Mystery p. 86-87)

And that is how we should approach the Eucharist as well. Each Sunday, we gather here and witness a mystery. We, together, participate in something that we might not understand and we might not fully appreciate. But it is, as we all realize, important and wonderful and beautiful.
In what we do here at the altar, we experience Jesus. We see Jesus, we feel Jesus, we taste Jesus. As the contemporary Italian saint, St. Gaetano Catanoso (1897-1963) said, "If we wish to adore the real Face of Jesus, we can find it in the divine Eucharist, where with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, the Face of Our Lord is hidden under the white veil of the Host".
So, in a very real way, the anxious waiting we are doing during this season of Advent is like the anxious waiting we should do when coming to this altar. It all about anticipation. It is all about our deepest hopes and desires being realized. And they are realized—in Christ. Because they are realized in Christ, we find them realized whenever we encounter Christ.

As I said last week, the Advent of Christ’s coming happens again and again in our lives. Whenever we meet Christ—in the hedges and the highways, as Bishop Frank Weston once proclaimed to us, in the naked and sweated—we find Jesus coming among us yet again. Or, as Patriarch Bartholomew writes in Encountering the Mystery:

“[The Eucharist] challenges individuals and communities to work for a just society, where basic food and water are plentiful for all and where everyone has enough.”

Whenever we meet Christ in the Eucharist, we emerge transformed. We are not the same people were before Communion. We are a people challenged to then go out and share this Communion with others in whatever way we can.

What we are longing for in this season is not something vague and distant. It is not something so mysterious that we can’t fathom it. Rather, what we long for is, truly, fulfillment. It is the fulfillment of all that seems to be missing in us. It is the fulfillment of our anxieties and our frustrations and our depressions and our hopelessness.

In a very real way, the words of our psalm today give voice to what we are unable to say in our hope. When we hear those words,

Truly, [your] salvation is very near to those who fear [you], *
that [your] glory may dwell in our land.

To fear God doesn’t mean to live in fear. It simply means an awesome respect and wonder for God. And for those of us who have such a respect for God we will find God’s glory in our midst. In the Eucharist, in this bread and wine, in this tabernacle, in this unique and real Presence we experience here, we find truly that God’s glory is not out there somewhere—in some distant heaven. Rather, God in Jesus, has come to us and remains among us in a very real and tangible way. In this Eucharist, God’s glory truly does dwell in our land and we are fortunate to be able to partake in it. In God’s Presence among us, we realize, if we truly open ourselves to this experience, that our frustrations, our depressions, all of our spiritual and psychological pains have been healed and our longings have been realized. We don’t need to look anywhere else than right here. And, in that moment of realization, only poetry can truly express what we feel.

In this psalm, we find that lovely verse:

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Righteousness and peace have kissed each other. In that phrase we are able to find joy bubbling up from one’s lips and it being captured in words. In that meeting of righteousness—of what we know is true and right—and peace—that sense of quietness and confidence within us—we know God is present.

Truth shall spring up from the earth, *
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.

Before we celebrate the Eucharist together, during the offertory, after the gifts of bread and wine have been brought to the altar, you will see me praying quietly to myself as I touch the bread and the wine. The prayers I pray here are not secret or private. They are just prayers of offering. When I hold the bread, I pray,

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life.

And when I hold the wine, I pray,

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, the fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.

In the Eucharist, in these gifts of the earth—this bread which the earth has given and this fruit of the vine—in them, Truth—Jesus himself being the Way, the Truth and the Life—springs forth. The very world in which inhabit—and not just this physical earth, but the our spiritual world, the world of our very essence and existence—will proclaim the truth of God’s Presence among us.

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, *
and our land will yield its increase.

The truth we have realized is that our fulfillment is only in God. Only in God will we find our anxieties quieted, our hopes realized. At the altar, when we share this bread and wine with one another, we know what true spiritual increase means.

Righteousness shall go before [the LORD], *
and peace shall be a pathway for [God’s] feet.

It’s all right here—in this beautiful poem. What we do here at the altar is important. It is vital to our understanding of ourselves as Christians. It is a wonderful and glorious mystery that we shouldn’t try to pin down and analyze too deeply. We should rather accept it and delight in it and let us fill us and fulfill us.

In these days of Advent, as we prepare to remember Jesus’ first coming among us, our time at the altar should take on special meaning and precedence for us. We should give true and deep thanks for the opportunity to have Jesus come to us in such a unique and wonderful way. And as we come to the altar, with our joy bubbling up from within us, with our anxieties and fears and depressions allayed by the healing balm of this bread and wine, of the healing Presence of our God, we too are able to proclaim with honesty and truth,

You have been gracious to your land, O LORD, *
you have restored the good fortune of Jacob.

You have forgiven the iniquity of your people *
and blotted out all their sins.

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