Friday, July 11, 2014

wrestling with angels' bread

This past Christmas Eve, I sobbed inconsolably from the moment the choir started singing O Magnum Mysterium until 10am Christmas morning. I, like Rachel weeping for her children, was not to be comforted.
The reason: I was not able to receive that particular nativity known as Communion, and my heart ached as I tried to celebrate the Incarnation, while denying myself a taste of it.
The choir sang the jubilantly melancholic chords of Lauridsen's choral anthem, images of Godhead being ushered into the world by coarse shepherds, itchy straw and the smell of sheep dung floated in the dark, mysterious music, woven through with strands of light that sounded like Mary's heartbeat, the tenderness of Joseph's gaze, and the chorus of angel's singing the first eternal Gloria.

If anyone ever asked me the question: What's your favorite cliché? (and it's not as improbable a scenario as that sounds, all things are possible in the terrifying world of group icebreakers) I would have to respond: Absence makes the heart grow fonder
Like the general collection of clichés, this one is only true a very little bit of the time. Often, absence does not make the heart grow fonder; often, absence means that someone is out of sight and out of mind and your heart forgets them. Additionally, absence can mean a rift between the both of you has developed and is continuing to expand. Absence can simply mean that: absence, devoid of feelings commenting on the absence. Just an emptiness.
But, sometimes, absence is revelatory.
If there is a someone in your life you take for granted--your mother, your husband, your sister, your niece--someone whose presence in your life is a constant, not a variable, their absence can be revealing. Because, as you notice their absence, the absence reveals to you how significant their presence was to you. You understand how deeply you depended upon them to keep your world intact, to keep it spinning round its axis. Now, their absence sounds like a wailing baby beluga calling out for its mother, echoing through the vast watery expanses of the hole it has left in your life. You miss them. And by missing them, you learned how much you truly love them.
The Eucharist is one of those beautiful mysteries whose presence that I too often take for granted.
Until that Christmas Eve, when I realized, with the dramatic swiftness of the climaxing chord in O Magnum Mysterium, the pain that accompanies the absence of a gift that I had previously taken for granted. But, quoth the Raven, nevermore.  
Furthermore, the Eucharist is a mystery far beyond our merit to receive, which is a strange bind for human beings to find themselves in. We are used to gauging whether or not to participate in an activity, based on our merit, we are very talented at summing up our own self-worth and then judging whether or not we are worthy enough for a community, friendships, relationships presented to us.
But the Eucharist sort of destroys all that, it blows to smithereens our ideas of worthiness.
It says to us: Come to me, not so that you may feel holy or good about yourself, or so that all the mothers in Church won't go murmuring to themselves about why so-and-so's daughter didn't receive communion today, but come to be healed, come to me and fall in love with me.
But, also, I was never taught this directly, but you sort of slowly realize over time that communion isn't one of those things we ought to take lightly (and that's why there's that really random part of mass--right at the beginning, before your feet are tired of standing, where we either strike our breast three times and talk about our grievous faults or we sing a bunch of words in Greek, the lone survivors in a rite of pure Latin. We do either one or the other, and the choice seemingly hinging solely on what the priest feels like in the heat of the moment. The rite of reconciliation, they call it). So the rite is there, because we ought to wrestle with ourselves before we approach the altar of the Lord. (I mean, I don't always do this. Sometimes, I manage to be a halfway decent human being for two weeks, and in that glorious two weeks, I approach the altar of the Lord with much Joy over the unworthiness, but wearing the unworthiness like a light autumn peacoat, not a deep-dead-of-winter-down-parka.) 
Goodness, our shame over our unworthiness to be present at the altar of the Lord should be deeper than the Mariana trench. And yet, as Mary Magdalene could tell us, the answer to that shame, that unworthiness, that ugliness of sin clinging to our souls is not to flee from Golgotha, to slink away cowardly, ashamed and discouraged, but to fling ourselves at the prodigal mercy of the Cross. As Odysseus lashed himself to the mast, we ought to bind ourselves to a God who loves us with a foolishness beyond wisdom. As the siren song of sins echo in an overwhelming din in our ears, we ought to cling tighter and tighter to the bread of angels. 
And yet, each time I have approached the altar of the Lord, wondering if I ought to do so, I find that in the wrestling for the blessing, I have already received a blessing.
For in that struggle, I have pitted two forces against each other: one is that quiet voice inside of us that thrives on our ignorance to its presence and on keeping under the radar. This is the voice that says: my dear, what will people say?! The voice that craves the need for a perfect image, that craves the veneer of goodness, that needs to be seen as a Good Man in the sight of others. That wants people to look at us and say: She is a Good Person. You can tell. Look at her face shine as she receives Holy Communion. But there is another voice, a deeper, stronger voice inside of us. 
This voice barely murmurs a word. It sounds more like a hunger than like language. This voice begs for communion, union. It begs for an answer to the gap inside of us. It is the tiny spark of love inside of us that struggles to stay lit and begs us to add fuel to our fire.
It is this voice that must drown out the voice of our self. 
Too often, we substitute our goodness for His, but as we approach the altar of the Lord, we prepare for our own holiness to be swallowed up by Holiness Himself, the goodness that we wish to claim for ourselves, we lay down at the altar, in exchange for Goodness Himself.
Our selves are preoccupied far too much with our own holiness; but the hunger inside us clamors for His. 
No other substitute will do.

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