Why Traditions?

via Flickr user Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

via Flickr user Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P.

Rituals form around actions, symbols, and stories that are so sacred and so important people want to repeat them and take strength and meaning from them. However, many Christians may grow up taking part in rituals whose full meaning they don’t understand. They may participate with their families in rituals without knowing the stories that give rituals meaning.

The tradition of La Posada comes out of Hispanic culture, which understands God walking with them and strengthening them in their struggles. La Posada takes place before Christmas. Two people dress up as Mary and Joseph. Then many people walk with Mary and Joseph from house to house, looking for a place to stay. They get turned away from several houses until at a preplanned house, a family takes them in and serves refreshments to all the people who come with them.

La Posada celebrates God’s presence in a poor young pregnant girl. Among people who try to immigrate over U.S. borders to find a better life, who want to migrate out of poverty, this tradition celebrates God coming to dwell among those for whom the world doesn’t want to make room.

The Eucharist is a tradition that begins with Jesus at his last supper with his friends. He tells them to bless, break, and share bread to remember his love for them. Jesus tells his friends to bless and share a cup of wine to remember his love poured out for them.

Through the centuries Christians have gathered to do as Jesus asked. In every Eucharist Christians become what they celebrate. They receive the Body of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The sacramental traditions of the Catholic Church continue to remember and celebrate Jesus’ healing, forgiving actions among us.

New traditions arise. The pope usually kisses the ground when he arrives in a new country. Families join walks for breast cancer on Mother’s Day or other walks for good causes. It’s the stories behind the traditions that give them meaning.

What special Christmas traditions does your family have? What Advent or Christmas traditions do you experience that you don’t understand? Research their origins by talking with a grandparent or reading in a Catholic encyclopedia or searching online. What customs or traditions have you experienced among people of other religions? What is a tradition you would like to start in your family, such as alternative gifts or an Advent wreath and prayer time?

Why Don’t You Give Them Something to Eat Yourselves?

This Sunday we celebrate the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, at which we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist by Jesus at the Last Supper. In the gospel for this feast we hear the familiar story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, an event which seems to foreshadow the feeding that Jesus will do at the Last Supper.

Jesus has been teaching the crowds and healing the sick, and time gets away from him. As sunset approaches, Jesus’ disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that all these people can make their way to the surrounding villages to get something to eat and find a place to sleep for the night. Jesus responds, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourself?” At this the disciples seem confused; they only have five loaves of bread and two fish among them. Does Jesus expect them to feed everyone on this paltry collection or to go buy food to feed the multitude?

Without directly answering them, Jesus tells the disciples to arrange the people into groups and to get them seated. Then Jesus takes the fives loaves and two fishes, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. As it turns out, there is enough food for everyone to eat their fill and then some, as the leftovers fill twelve baskets.

The tendency is to focus on the miraculous in this story: how Jesus’ praying over the loaves and fishes leads to their multiplication. Yet to really understand this miracle, we have to go back to the beginning of the story. We have to start with Jesus’ simple question to the disciples, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves?” The beginning of their reply is, “We have nothing…”

*****

Erin went to high school with me for four years and I said hi to her in the halls every day. However, if I saw her sitting with her mom at a football game, I did not wave her over to the student section. When I organized a group of girls to go out for dinner on the night of a dance to which none of us had dates, I did not think to call her on the phone. Erin had a developmental disability of some sort, and it made me uncomfortable to be around her. A few years later, I overheard her mom saying to someone else, “It sure would have been nice if just once, Erin had been invited to something socially by her classmates during high school.” Her mom was not angry, just sad that not one person in our graduating class of 297 people had thought to treat Erin as a friend. I felt ashamed and slunk away before Erin’s mom saw me. In my relationship with Erin, my first response was that I had nothing to give.

*****

As it turns out, the disciples do not have nothing. They have five loaves and two fishes—certainly not enough to feed the multitude, but definitely something to offer. And Jesus takes this small offering and works wonders with it. Jesus does not create food from nothing; he works with the gifts that his followers have to offer. And in doing so, not is there enough food for everyone to eat their fill, there are leftovers! From the little the disciples have to give, Jesus makes an abundance that is even more than the people can receive.

*****

I had stayed up later than I should have reading a few extra chapters in a nail-biting mystery. The phone rang, and luckily I got it on the first ring before my parents woke up. My friend Luke was on the other end, frantic. Luke struggled with depression, and he had had a bad fight with his parents that night. He told me he felt like he was losing it; he told me he felt like punching the walls. I felt in over my head; it was scary hearing him talk this way. But I stayed on the line and listened to him. We even prayed together because that was my kneejerk reaction to overwhelming situations. Just before we finally hung up at 4 a.m., Luke said simply, “Thanks.” It did not feel like I had done enough, but I think that God was able to use my small gift of being present to Luke to give Luke what he needed that evening.

*****

If we are what we eat, then in the Eucharist, we become Jesus’ real presence in the world. Just as the Eucharist sustains us, we are called to be a nourishing presence in the world. This means both literally, by helping to feed those who are physically hungry, but also metaphorically, by being Christ’s hands, feet, arms, ears, eyes—really, Christ’s love—in the world. And if this seems too scary, if it feels like we have nothing to give, we must remember that Jesus can work with whatever we have to give, turning it into an abundance that we can scarcely imagine.

Jesus asks us, “Why don’t you give them something to eat yourselves?”

  • When in your life has your answer to this question been, “I have nothing to offer”?
  • When in your life have your answer to this question been, “I don’t have much, but I do have this”?
  • In what ways can you help to meet the physical hunger in the world?
  • In what ways can you help to nourish people’s metaphorical hunger (for love, for acceptance, for joy, for hope, etc.)?

First Communion

It was rainy this past Saturday, so I decided to “get Mass out of the way” on Saturday afternoon. That way, if it was nice out on Sunday morning, I could take a walk, go for a bike ride, or just admire the sunshine from the comfort of my bed before going back to sleep. By the time I got to church, the parking lot and surrounding streets were packed. Walking three blocks in the rain gave me time to wonder, “What exactly is going on at church today?”

Photo courtesy of  tamdotcom via Creative Commons License

Photo courtesy of tamdotcom via Creative Commons License

Entering the building, I became aware of my damp socks at the same time as I realized the answer to my question. The little girls in white dresses and the little boys in suits and ties were a dead giveaway: First Communion. My first reaction was annoyance; church would now likely take longer than the sixty- minutes-start-to-finish style our priest normally employed. And did I mention my feet were wet? I trudged to my seat, my feet making squishing sounds as I went. I certainly begrudged these little squirts all of their excitement.

At some point during the second reading, my mind began to wander, back to my own first communion, images from which still stand out with vivid color in my memory. Of course, I had been excited to wear what seemed to my second grade mind to be the fanciest dress ever made, with its lace smock and ribbon belt, and an even fancier headband, complete with fresh flowers that I had helped my mom pick out at Bachmann’s flower store. But I also remember the absolute seriousness with which I approached that first chance to take the body and blood of Christ. In my impossibly fancy dress, I felt impossibly grown-up as I chewed the crisp wafer and then ever so carefully lifted the gold chalice to my mouth. After church, I smiled my gap-toothed smile as the real grownups in our community came up to pat me on the back and say congratulations.

I came out of this daydream, aware of the smile on my lips, as the first communicants and their families (and the rest of us) stood to hear the gospel reading. Then, during his sermon, our priest said something that set me to daydreaming again. He talked about how important it was that we were all here together to celebrate Eucharist and to demonstrate for the young people among us that Jesus is not just an abstract idea. Jesus is in the bread and wine and also in us as a community. Jesus is a real presence.

From first grade until I moved to Atlanta in my early twenties, Sunday after Sunday I took the body and blood of Christ with the same faith community, and we, in turn, became the body of Christ for and with each other. It was that community in which I celebrated my confirmation and also my wedding. It was in that community that I spent an entire Christmas mass in tears, because the combination of the beauty of the service and my sorrow over some personal challenges was too much for me to contain. This was a community in which I could be vulnerable, could be fully myself, and could trust that people would celebrate and mourn with me. As we took the body and blood of Christ each week, I could see the face of Christ in the people in that community and also learned to see Christ more fully in myself. In that community, I felt Christ’s real presence.

This is what Holy Communion is all about: people coming together to share in the breaking of the bread and thus being empowered to be the holy body of Christ in the world. When I thought about it that way, it was hard to hold on to my annoyance that mass would take ten minutes longer than it normally did (even if my feet were still damp).

Do you remember your first communion? What stands out to you in your memory of this occasion?

How do you think of Holy Communion now? How would you explain to someone who was not Christian why is it important that we come together as a community to break bread together Sunday after Sunday?

You Are What You Eat

“You are what you eat.” (If this is true, than I am a little too much chocolate and too few vegetables for my own good.) This common expression helps explain what is at the heart of this Sunday’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. In a special way this Sunday, we remember that when we eat the body of Christ in the bread and drink the blood of Christ in the wine, we take Jesus into ourselves and become like Christ. When Christians gather together with each other as the body of Christ at the Eucharist, then we become what we eat.

To think of it slightly differently, the Eucharist is the food that gives us the fuel to become Jesus’ body—to act as Jesus’ head, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, arms, and feet in the world. As we are nurtured by the bread and wine week after week, we are transformed to more closely act for Christ over the course of our lifetime. In this post-resurrection time, we can embody Christ in the world. Our consistent participation in the Eucharist makes it possible for us to live as Jesus lived, pouring out our lives for others.

1 Corinthians 12, a familiar passage for many, describes how there is one body of Christ. Yet within this one body, there are many parts, all of which have an important function to play. For the body to work well, all parts are needed and all need to work together for the benefit of all. The hand cannot say to the head, “I do not need you,” because it could not operate on its own. Similarly, the body of Christ is one, but it is made up of many people, all of whom have a particular part to play. It is important that each of us fulfills our role in the body of Christ, because this makes the body of Christ more visible in the world. Put another way, people will not encounter Christ if we do not act as Christ.

As what part of the body of Christ do you think of yourself—head, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, arms, hands, legs, feet? How do you act as this part of the body of Christ in the world?

Next Sunday “Ordinary Time” resumes. Ordinary Time is the part of the church calendar that falls between distinctive church seasons, like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. I have written in previous posts about practices of faith that are important for the season of Lent and have suggested practices that might become part of the Easter season. I would like to suggest here, on the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, that we think about living in Ordinary Time as the body of Christ, focusing on being Christ’s head, eyes, ears, mouth, heart, arms, hands, legs, feet for others.

In high school, I took a psychology course where the teacher had us practice different types of listening. First, we had to listen to a classmate tell a story from her weekend without responding at all—no words, no bodily movements, no facial expressions. This was really hard! Second, we had to listen to a story about the classmate’s family, responding only with facial expressions and bodily movements, finding ways to use our bodies and faces to convey our attention and empathy. This felt a bit ridiculous, but I found I really could express a lot without using words. Third, we had to listen to a classmate tell a story about a hobby or pastime she enjoyed, and this time we could only ask questions designed to keep her talking about her story. This was hard, too, because I kept wanting to jump in to tell my conversation partner about the things I enjoy doing.

Going through this exercise really changed how I listened to people. It made me realize how much a person can convey just with their face and body. It also made me realize how hard it is to truly focus on the story of another person, without getting distracted by my own thoughts and feelings, ideas and solutions. Finally, I noticed my own habit of interrupting other people’s stories to tell my own, rather than listening to their story the whole way through.

Functioning as Christ’s ears in the world involves being truly present to people when they are sharing their stories with us. It means putting aside our own concerns long enough to hear deeply what another’s concerns are. It means putting aside our own solutions to another’s problem long enough to ask good questions that can help our friend find her own solution to her problem. It means giving other people time to finish what they are saying before we launch into our own stories. Being a good listener might seem like a simple way to be Christ’s body in the world, but in our fast-paced world, offering good listening to another can be a true gift.

This week make a commitment to being Christ’s listening ears in the world. Pay attention to the type of listener you are. See if you can improve your listening so that you are fully present to your friends and family when they are talking to you.