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.

Photo: Stock


  1. I read somewhere recently something that, along the lines of your reflection day is a challenge for us who are worried about how bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ …. “What happens to the bread and wine is irrelevant … if we ourselves are not changed.”

    So, often we miss the vital connection that Paul makes between the sharing of the Bread of Life at Eucharist and the Living Body of Christ we become with others because of that sharing.

    1. Br Dan – What a gorgeous post. I have been thinking and writing about just this. As in most other things in the Catholic Church, this is not an either/or. It is an both/and.

      My hope is that we – myself included – will begin to do a better job of living that precious truth of our faith. Some of us will find our way to the comprehensive reality of the Body of Christ through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Some of us will find our way to that comprehensive reality through moments of encounter with people like Jonnie.

      I have a friend who tries never to miss an opportunity to meet Jesus in the Eucharist. I try never to never miss an opportunity to meet Jesus on the street corner.

      He and I have worked diligently over six years to celebrate each other’s way of meeting the risen Christ, inviting each other into a broader sacramental life without ever criticizing or passing judgment on the other for finding Christ most consistently where we do. Our emphasis is always on celebration of the other’s encounter with Christ.

      My favorite meditation is the an Edward Schillebeeckx’s title.
      Christ: The Sacrament of Encounter with God. Whenever I am tempted to get in a debate about sacramental life (to criticize another who is more orthodox/traditional than I or to internalize criticism of my less traditional sacramental life), I find my copy of that book, prop it where I can see the title and pray with it.

      In six years of careful and respectful listening in our spiritual friendship, we have learned how deep, how transforming, how holy is the other’s favored encounter. The fruit of that loving patience is that each of us has a broadened sacramental life, one lived in fits and starts, two steps forward and one step back. The beauty is that we both have learned that when we show up, Christ does, too. So we can both trust that when we get there – when we get to the place where we would never miss a chance to encounter Christ in the other’s favored way – Christ will be waiting for us there, too.

      I am going to share your beautiful post, Brother Dan, with my friend and many others.

      You are a gift in my life.

  2. Great post, Dan. But I don’t know if it can compete with what one of our 2nd graders said at Mass yesterday when I asked during the homily “Besides Christ, what do we see when we look at the piece of bread?” She said, “Our enemies.” If I’d been smarter, I would have ended the homily right there.

  3. Seriously, several years ago in the Philadelphia Inquirer, former Bishop Smith of Trenton NJ, patiently explained how and why God was everywhere, except in Consecrated Rice Wafers. So much for the Teaching Bishops! Fortunately, God does not spend much time listening to bishops. And it’s much the same for thinking people, who do not think of Bishops hardly at all if they place much value on their time!

  4. Thanks for this reflection, Brother. I work in a welfare office where it seems too often people have had bad experiences. Some of the bad experiences are had by the staff but most of them by the “clients”. As a social worker, I used to take people into an interview room and, after hearing their tales of mistreatment by my co-workers and after seeing their tears, would tell them, “You know, they call this place the department of social and health services but they really ought to call it the department of get your butt in here and we will give you a swift kick in the ass.” That usually got a laugh and allowed us to continue with the business at hand. Now I am essentially a greeter, sitting at a bank of computer screens in the lobby of our office to direct people to the right place and person to interview them for food benefits, or replace their benefit card, or report a change, or turn in some documents. I sit next to a woman who has been practicing and studying Buddhism for some 37 years, since she was 18. She receives every person with the greatest of patience, respect, and openness. I, too, from my own Catholic-influenced, liberation theology and socialist perspective try to receive each person as if they were the most important person on the planet in that moment, as if their problem were the most urgent, as if their need were the most immediate, and as if my only purpose at that instant were to be fully present and fully servant to them at that moment. Of course this is not easy and of course I fail repeatedly. But I am constantly surprised by the numbers of people who thank me and my co-worker, want to hug us, shake our hands, and compliment us. It is about being human. I am supposed to want to do something “more important”, to return to direct “social worker”. But I don’t feel very motivated to do that. Despite the relentless numbers of people and the unpredictable nature of human response, it is rewarding. It feels like “communion”. I don’t go to church unless I can do it where I feel comfortable, certain churches with mass in Spanish or a home mass at the end of a novenario. And I deny being spiritual except as I find it in AA meetings (again in Spanish) or in peace and justice solidarity work, but mostly in daily contact with others trying to find their way through another day of difficulty and harshness and pain and hunger.

    Thanks again, Brother. (And to my sister Jean who sent this to me).

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