Last year, the parish administrator and I coined a new term: Holy Week-ing. This describes, as little else does, the phenomenon well known to church staff and clergy–that during times of high liturgical stress, everything and everyone chooses this particular moment to have a crisis. People get ill, people die, copiers break, organs implode, weird occurances become commonplace, and everything basically goes bananas for a period of a few weeks.
For people new to church work, this is often upsetting, and they wonder if they have done something to provoke this, or if they could have prevented it. Would better planning have prevented the $250 copier malfunction? Would more meetings ahead of time? Would more pastoral attention have averted the 3 parishioners who chose this week to enter hospice?
The answer, dear ones, is no. No, not a single thing you do (in most cases) can prevent the holy week-ing of those around you. There are just certain times when the world goes nuts and it is no one’s fault. Best to see it coming and roll with it.
To that point: this week has been another case of epic holy week-ing. A sudden, tragic death in the school community, and the (somewhat expected) death of a parish patriarch hit on Monday. Then came the news that the new “rushing wind” sound of the organ was not a fun new effect, but a symptom of a cracked windbox. Then, yesterday, the lovely lady cleaning up after the midday Eucharist dashed into my office to inform me that smoke was rapidly filling up the sacristy, and would I like to evacuate?! I went to check; apparently plumbers were running a smoke test, in which they pump smoke into the pipes to see where it comes out, to diagnose leaks. They just forgot to warn us.
And then there’s whatever is currently happening in our whirlwind news cycle.
The good news, is that whether or not we actually get our act together, Christ still rises from the dead on Sunday. Regardless of whether I get the smoke cleared, or whether we can duct tape the organ back together, Christ still defeats death, and all we have to do is show up. And there’s nothing like holy week-ing to reinforce that lesson.
Anyway, here’s what I said Thursday night.
Rev. Megan L. Castellan
April 13, 2017
Every year, at the Jr High Retreat, we have a workshop where youth can ask anonymous questions of a clergy panel—any question they’ve pondered, or long been troubled by. Usually, we get the same sorts of things: do all religions go to heaven, is it acceptable to disagree with my priest, who created God, etc. Some easy to respond to, some requiring lots of hand gestures and diagrams.
The one question we almost always get is something about the Eucharist: what happens to the bread and wine?
I always get a kick out of this one, and not just because I get to read the part in the 39 Articles that says that “transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of the Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.”
Now, clearly, that’s a thought from centuries ago, and not necessarily something we actually hold to. (The same article also says we aren’t supposed to reserve the sacrament either….which we do. Whoops.)
But clearly, this idea has always inspired some passion, shall we say. What is the Eucharist, this thing we do each week? This ritual that was established on this night, so long ago?
It’s the organizing ritual of who we are as Episcopalians, this thing we do, and yet, we don’t talk about it all that much. We just do it, over and over. We take bread which tastes like nothing, and some really strong wine, and bless them and give them out, week after week. To the point where it becomes both routine and absolutely necessary. What even is church, we start to wonder, without this organizing principle, of bread and wine, blessed and shared?
This meal is the foundation of who we are.
And it is on this night, that we remember how we got here. That on the night before he died, Jesus did an ordinary thing–ate an ordinary meal with his friends. Surely, they had done this countless times before, over the years they had been together, shared meals before. And surely they had even eaten Passover seders together. Over the three years they had travelled around, preaching and teaching, they had shared a lot together and become a community.
But on this particular night, Jesus did something different. He took this ordinary meal, and changed it. He took the ordinary bread, and blessed and broke it, and proclaimed it to be his Body. He took the ordinary wine–more common then than even water, blessed and shared it, and announced that it was his blood. “Do this,” he told them, “each time you gather, to remember me.”
Suddenly, the ordinary was no longer ordinary. Common bread became, not just food, but a reminder of Jesus–normal wine became not just a way to quench thirst but a memory as well. Ordinary things made extraordinary.
Perhaps that’s the power of the Eucharist–Christ takes the most common elements of our lives, and makes them into the holiest things imaginable, so that everywhere we looked, we would find God, even in the most mundane and common things. In the Eucharist, Jesus shows us what his life had been about the whole time–God made tangible for us to hold. God was no longer far off and inscrutable, up a mountain or behind a flashing cloud–God was here, in this piece of bread. God was in this sip of wine. God was in this ordinary guy from your hometown.
God is right here. God is real, and accessible, and present, in ordinary, common things.
So the glory of the Eucharist is both how holy it is, because it is that–it is how common it is. Because each time we say these prayers and take this bread, it changes us. Not in a flashy, immediate sort of way, but it does transform us. Each time we take this bread and drink this cup, we embrace the God who wants so badly to be with us, and allowed himself to be broken and given away. Each time we share this bread and wine, we grab hold of the God who shared himself with us.
Now, I don’t know if the bread and wine magically change into literal Jesus particles. Honestly, I don’t know if that even matters. The miracle of the Eucharist is less about what happens to the bread and wine, and more what happens to us. Because as we participate in this sacrament over and over, as we remember how God came among us in ordinary things, as we remember how Christ was willing to be broken for his loved ones…..slowly, we become those holy ordinary things too. Gradually, we too become the vessels of the divine in the world–what carries God out into all the broken places into the world around us. We become the consecrated Bread and Wine–common things transformed into the presence of God, so that it may be broken and given out for the life of others. The more we partake in the Eucharist, the more we become it. The more we become the Body of Christ.
In the midst of some of the darkest times in our history, Christ gave us a way to cling to the presence of God in the world. And more than that, to become, ourselves, that material of God in the world. So on this night, when we remember this immense gift, we remember also the betrayal, violence, and darkness. Because these are why it was given. So that no matter what comes, no matter what we face, God would never be farther away from us than the commonest of things.