Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost), 2018.
Although a number of people know this quite well, I have found that it is not universally known that one of the mandatory steps within the process of being ordained to the Priesthood is to spent a significant amount of time in an internship as a hospital chaplain. In my case, I spent twenty weeks in four hospitals in suburban Chicago, near Hinsdale, La Grange, and other towns. Although you hear clerics often bemoan the experience, and I heard some priests share horror stories as to why their experiences in their estimation were unhelpful towards parish ministry, priests I trusted, including our Bishop, assured me that hospital chaplaincy was for them revelatory and deeply, and permanently, meaningful.
And I must say, it was for me as well. It was never easy, and often unpredictable. My very first overnight duty on-call saw me assist an experienced chaplain whom I was shadowing as we ministered to a large family of over 25 relatives who that night suffered the loss of one of their family members to a kind of brain hemorrhage that, tragically, was inoperable. Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool and having to learn how to swim. Over the twenty weeks, in not only hospital patients and their families, but in the hospital staff, nurses, doctors, and my fellow chaplains, I witnessed so many instances of loss, of tragedy, of suffering and confusion, but also I witnessed joy, love, faith, and remarkable examples of God active in people’s lives, holding them up by His grace. Examples abounded of true sacrifice, and examples abounded of hopeful life.
The highest example of both sacrifice and life are what Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gives us. His example to us, being a human example that stretches into the divine, is so profound that it is well past our ability to grasp it completely and finally. This is why we are drawn to continually revisit the accounts of His life given to us by the Evangelists—that by hearing them, by which we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them through their many senses of interpretation, we are drawn deeper into the mystery of Him, which along the way reveals the mystery of ourselves.
“Truly, truly,” Jesus says to us, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” This was a teaching, a hard saying, that really weeded out the true disciples from the larger group of Jesus followers. We are told that upon hearing this, many drew back and no longer went about with him. Some of us, even today, might flinch at the image, at both its physicality and its bluntness. Jesus, often winsome and generous in His public ministry, was none the less never above teaching in a direct and even aggressive way. Being poked awake from a cozy, care-free, bourgeois discipleship is a lesson disciples then, and now, constantly need.
And yet the Church, in remembering the words of Jesus, and taking them to heart in prayer in the years and decades after the Ascension of Christ, began to discern within the hard sayings of Jesus—including the teaching about the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood—wisdom that echoed profoundly in the Scriptures. We hear an example in our passage from the Book of Proverbs. Wisdom, who we learn in the Scriptures was God’s first creation, and who from the beginning of her creation rejoiced daily in God’s activities, invites the simple, meaning those people, like Nathaniel, who are without guile but also yet to some extent naive about life, to into her house: “Come,” she says, “eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave simpleness, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” The term “bread” here is a general reference and would include the meat of the beast spoken of as recently slaughtered. And so to connect this to Jesus, the Church saw in His teaching a connection to the long biblical tradition of hospitality—to eat His flesh and drink His blood at least involved an invitation to intimacy with Him.
We see this in the Eucharist, when we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, an event that itself rings on several levels of meaning and signification. Our nourishment is towards eternal life, and so to eat the consecrated bread is to receive into our souls He that is our life—to receive His sacrifice on the Cross, just as the beast was sacrificed in the house of Wisdom, although Christ’s sacrifice was self-offered once but for all time. And to drink the consecrated wine is to receive Christ’s life, because blood in ancient days was always considered the source of life in animals. And so to drink His blood is to receive that life which is triumphant over death and united to God in heaven. Indeed James and John were correct: they could and did drink from the cup from which Jesus Himself drank, and even pleaded on the night before He died that His Father might take away. If this is all a hard teaching for us, we can trust it was a harder teaching for Jesus Himself to accept, and yet fully accept He did.
Our Collect captures all this when we pray to Almighty God, Who has given His only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life. Let us know that as we celebrate and receive the Sacrament of the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life, we are opening ourselves to receive Wisdom, and be received by her. When allow ourselves to participate fully and completely in the Eucharist, we become part of God’s redemptive stream, a river of wisdom, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. Kneeling before the heavenly throne, let us be still, and know in the Eucharist is God.