Sunday 26 June 2011
The Body of Christ can be found on State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, California. It’s not what it at first seems, especially for those who find that today’s feast is mostly about medieval hylomorphic theories about how bread and wine become the Sacramental Presence of Christ. The Body of Christ – the Corpus Christi – means more than just the Eucharistic species, while that is certainly a major focal point of this solemnity. St. Paul reminds us in his First Letter to the Corinthians, however, that what we celebrate today should be the communion that results from the Body of Christ, that is the Church, participating in the Eucharistic celebration and sharing the True Body of Blood of Christ.
Brothers and sisters: The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf (1 Cor 10:16-17).
What we partake in the communion of the Eucharist is a recognition of the Spirit’s uniting all the Baptized (Lumen Gentium no. 13), and indeed the whole human family, in Christ. That is not always an easy thing to celebrate.
Sometimes that comes in the form of those with whom we don’t want to be in communion. Such people might take the form of estranged family and friends, those close to us who have hurt us. Such people might take the form of political or social rivals, with whom dialogue and compromise comes with great difficulty. Sometimes that comes in the form of a homeless woman with whom you find yourself talking and having an unexpected realization that the Body of Christ is so often found in the encounters with those with whom we would otherwise ignore, walk past or forget.
Jonnie, from Minnesota, sat on the street corner in a wheelchair in Santa Barbara – a city that has a quiet, if rather visible homeless population – begging for money from those who would hear her, from those that could hear her. I almost didn’t.
Her voice was faint and my mind and body tired from a day wandering around the town lost in my thoughts. “Do you have thirteen pennies?” I heard as I was snapped back to the reality within which I had found myself removed. “What?” I asked the dirty woman in a leather jacket on a hot California day, sitting in wheelchair. “Thirteen pennies?” She replied. Why thirteen, I didn’t ask.
I didn’t have thirteen pennies, I didn’t have any change, but I did have a few dollars in bills in my pocket – a practice I’ve started not that long ago, carrying a few dollars in a handy location in case someone should ask me for money. I’ve found myself too often in situations where I’ve been asked by someone for money and, in addition to the general ambivalence about how to respond (years in urban pastoral ministry where experienced ministers and other friars discourage giving money to beggars on the street, instead encouraging them to seek assistance through one of the many resources such ministries offer), I have felt uncomfortable about digging around in the middle of a public place for a donation. So, believing, as a friend of mine articulated well once to me, that I have no reason to withhold money, particularly the little I often have with me, from someone who directly asks for it, I started to keep some with me.
“No,” I told her, “I don’t have thirteen pennies, but I do have a few dollars.” I told her as I then offered the bills. What happened next surprised me. Her eyes welled up as if I were Oprah having just told her that she’s won a car. Having taken the few bucks, she asked, “What’s your name?” Dan, I say. “Daniel, that’s in the bible.” Yes, the prophet, I respond. “Where are you from, Daniel?” I tell her New York and she said she loved the East Coast. What’s her name? “Jonnie,” and I ask where she’s from, “Minnesota.”
She asked me for a hug. There in the middle of the street I found myself hugging someone who was a second ago a stranger and now is someone with a name. And I came to realize, while feeling the incredibly intense grip of her embrace, that the reason her eyes welled with tears had nothing to do with the few dollars I was willing to give (which were not mine to keep to begin with, sine proprio), but had everything to do with being seen. Having someone else recognize her.
Jonnie said that I should never forget where I’ve come from, never forget my family. It was clear at this point that her story was a painful one, as if that couldn’t already be seen in her current situation. She told me that several times as we held hands and I, not used to this sort of pastoral experience, much less in the setting I found myself, simply listened as I could.
She pulled me down and kissed my forehead and my hand and I hugged her again, stunned as I was to consider exactly how St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians played out in some small way in my life. I also couldn’t help, Franciscan that I am, thinking of Francis’s own experience. Realizing that “never forget where we’ve come from” also includes those who do not bear the same last name, but those with whom we share our very existence.
I’m afraid that most times I will continue to fail to see my sisters and brothers like Jonnie. I don’t always know how to see the Body of Christ, especially in the more challenging situations of life. It is easier to avoid encountering the other, to give charity by tossing some change at a nameless, storyless person. But Caritas is much more than American charity.
What the Spirit showed me today is that Corpus Christi can only be celebrated when we participate fully in the Body of Christ, of which we are its members. I realized that if I had dismissed Jonnie, something that is a very tempting possibility in a giving situation, then my participation in the Eucharist earlier that morning would have meant absolutely nothing.