The Stormlight Archive

[Week 9 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: the Eucharist]

The Stormlight Archive is a series of books within Brandon Sanderson’s “Cosmere” universe, an epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, Wheel of Time, or The Kingkiller Chronicle. It is a genre of writing I have really enjoyed since junior high/high school, and I find Sanderson’s work to be some of the best developed that I have read. I highly recommend it if this type of writing is of interest to you! I’ll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible, since part of what I like in the series is the gradual revelation of the backstory and powers.

What I want to highlight is a moment in which one of the characters is able to unite the three “realms” of the Cosmere (physical, mental, and spiritual). A “perpendicularity” is created in which the real world of thought as well as the divine power in the spiritual realm are made present to people of flesh and blood. This unleashes a great source of strength and transformation.

Looking at this from the perspective of a priest, it reminds me of the classic description of the celebration of the Mass/Eucharist as uniting the three elements of the Church: those on earth, souls in purgatory, and those in heaven (God, angels, and saints). Likewise, it reminds me of the way that in the Upper Room we have the connection of the Last Supper (with its reference to the Cross), the Resurrection appearance of Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Understanding the way that these aspects are connected is essential to realizing what is really happening when we celebrate Mass.

From the beginning we see the Apostles continue the celebration of the Last Supper, often referred to as celebrating the “breaking of the bread” in the Acts of the Apostles. At times the Scriptures speak of fellowship meals, but here is another type of celebration that is more than this. A study of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John, the appearance on the road to Emmaus, or the writings of early Christians like St Justin Martyr show the difference. It is a sacrament – an outward sign instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church to give grace. It makes present the power of the Cross, the Resurrection, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We become partakers with the celebration of the “wedding feast of the Lamb” going on in heaven (as described in the book of Revelation). Likewise, it unites us with the celebration of the Mass throughout the world. In a sense there is just “one” Mass that we all enter into when present at an individual celebration – a collection of timeless moments condensed into time.

While in the Stormlight Archive the uniting of realms is something spectacular that no one can miss, this is not necessarily the case for us! Sometimes Mass is a transcendent moment, but other times we find ourselves tired, bored, or distracted. Perhaps the preaching is not great or something goes wrong with the music. A child is misbehaving or the heating is not right and we are shivering/sweating and can’t focus. For this reason I think it is important to continue to return to a remembrance of what lies under the surface. Underneath all of the human elements is what Christ entrusted to us – His perfect act of love for God and humanity; the offer of divine grace in our need; communion with God and the threefold Church. As imperfect as our participation may seem, we unite it with Christ’s prayer so that it transcends our limitations. It is a great thing to compose our own personal prayer or song in praise of the Lord, but nothing can rival offering the very celebration He asked for in the Last Supper (“do this in memory of me”). A perfect gift is based on the desire of the one receiving the gift rather than the one giving the gift. Therefore there is nothing better to offer to God on the Lord’s day than this!

The transcendent nature of this celebration is both a consolation and a challenge in this time of pandemic. It is a consolation because it means it is more than a local human celebration, and so we can join in spiritually even when unable to participate in person. A “spiritual Communion” is the practice of uniting our heart and soul to a celebration of the Mass when something impedes us from the opportunity to attend (or if we are able to attend but have a reason we are not able to receive Communion at that time). Watching a celebration on tv or online can help us to enter in more fully. If that doesn’t work, we can come up with other ways to do the best we can. This is one part of the challenge the pandemic presents – creativity in how to stay connected spiritually when separated physically. The other aspect of the challenge is discovering ways for as many to celebrate safely in person as possible. Keeping in mind the centrality of this sacrament invites us to put our imagination into action and seek anew the grace God desires to give!

Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

The Road to Emmaus and the Mass

On the afternoon of Easter Sunday Jesus appeared to two disciples walking to the city of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). They did not recognize Him, but spoke of their discouragement about His death. Jesus explained the preparation for this in the Scriptures, and then was invited to dinner as they reached the town. At dinner He performed the blessing and then disappeared. This has been one of my favorite Resurrection appearances since hearing it explained at one of our Diocesan Emmaus Days retreats (the retreat name comes from this passage). It helped me to understand the structure of the Mass, and how to find God in it.

The Mass has two principal parts—the Liturgy of the Word (Scripture readings, preaching) and the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the consecration and distribution of the Body and Blood). We see both of them echoed in the appearance.

Jesus first spends time speaking with the two disciples about the full meaning of the Scriptures. He shows the way that the Old Testament prepares the way for His work, and how to see God’s plan through it all. The disciples say, “Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?” This is what we seek today when we celebrate the Liturgy of the Word: that the Lord may open the Scriptures to us and set our hearts afire!

However, at this point the disciples had still not recognized Jesus. It was getting late, and so they invited Him to dinner. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.” These are not random actions they describe—taking the bread, blessing, breaking, giving. These are the actions Jesus had done at the Last Supper, when He said, “this is my Body… this is my Blood.” They hearken back as well to the feeding of the multitude, after which He explained “my flesh is true food and my blood true drink… unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life within you” (see John chapter 6). In fact, it appears that Jesus chose to celebrate His “first supper” after the Resurrection in the same way as the Last Supper! It is in this moment that they finally recognize Him, but then He disappears from their sight. Why? I think the Catholic answer is very profound: because He remains present now under the appearance of the bread and wine. His True Presence does not leave, merely manifests in the new way that He will remain with us until the end of days.

So, when we celebrate Mass, we commemorate not just the Last Supper but also this “first” Supper. Jesus is not dead in the Mass, but alive. When we receive Communion we don’t encounter an inactive body but a living Person. Normal food is broken down and transformed into part of our body when it is consumed. This is different in the case of the Eucharist. Because Jesus is alive, what happens is that bit by bit our old self is broken down and transformed into Who we receive: Christ. Alleluia!

The Eucharist and the Parish

One of the very special events in the life of a priest is his “first Mass.” This is usually celebrated at his home parish the day after his ordination. When I was preparing for mine, the line that kept coming to my mind was what Jesus tells his apostles at the Last Supper, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you” (Luke 22:15). It was the fulfillment of many years of preparation, and I was so happy to celebrate it with the community where I had grown up (even though it was probably the most nervous I have ever been celebrating a Mass!).

Indeed, the last thing Jesus chose to do before going to his arrest and death was to institute the Eucharist. Jesus emphasized the desire he had for this celebration because it was to be the foundation for the new community he was founding. This communion with his Body and Blood was to be the lifeblood of his “mystical” Body: the Church. St Paul uses this image in a powerful way in Chapter 12 of the first letter to the Corinthians. He says that the Church is the Body of Christ. Each of us is a member of this Body with our own mission and gifts. The body is not a single part, but there is a unity within the distinct parts. Pope Francis speaks of this as “harmony,” which avoids the opposite errors of stale uniformity and destructive disunity (see his first homily for Pentecost as Pope, 19 May 2013).

I think it also teaches us something very important about what a parish is supposed to be. To use another phrase from Pope Francis, he speaks of the parish as a “community of communities” (The Joy of the Gospel, paragraph 28). This is similar to St Paul’s description of the Church as a unified Body with many parts. In our parish we have a variety of communities. Our goal is not to lose what is essential or unique about each of these communities, but similarly not to break down into isolated units. It is our unity in the celebration of the Eucharist that stands as an essential part of what we do together as a parish. We might think of this as the heart that pumps blood through the body. If a hand tries to separate itself from the heart it will wither. If we lose our connection here, we will not bear fruit. There will be events that fall mainly within one of the communities here, and we want to keep all of the distinctive life and gifts manifest in them. Our parish will be at its best, though, when we keep these parts connected in the unity of the parish through union with Christ in his celebration of the Eucharist.

What is reconciliation?

Reconciliation is a name given to one of the seven Sacraments (also called Confession or Penance), but this post is actually about the concept that underlies the name. The concept of reconciliation is about putting things back in right relationship. The fruit of this is peace—St Augustine calls peace “the tranquility of order.” In other words, when our relationships are ordered correctly it brings a joy into our life. This is a key part of the “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27), and goes much deeper than mere comfort or pleasure. Likewise, it isn’t the illusion of peace that comes from ignoring problems. The joy of reconciliation comes from truly encountering and resolving the source of division. We can speak of this in three different levels: reconciliation with God, with others, and with self.

Reconciliation with God is both the first step in our relationship with God, as well as a continuous part of the process. Union with God is a true relationship, and therefore has a necessary connection with the truth. It involves seeking to encounter the real God with our real self. This is part of why the Sacrament of Confession/Reconciliation is such an integral part of our relationship with God in the Catholic faith. It is so easy to let our own preferences or rationalizations to dominate when left to ourselves (both in regards to the truth about God and our own self!). Setting aside other arguments for the Sacrament, one of the basic reasons it can bear such a powerful experience of peace is this objective character. Do we want a completely honest reconciliation with God? If so, then don’t stay away from this Sacrament.

Second, Jesus constantly connects reconciliation with God with the need for reconciliation with others (e.g. in the Our Father, we pray “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). Again, it is very important to bring in the aspect of truth. The first steps of resolving a conflict with another person are often establishing good will and exploring both sides of the issue. Truth requires humility in regards to our own part and patience on behalf of the other. What is really driving the source of the conflict, both from our perspective and theirs?

Finally, reconciliation with our own self is in fact an essential part of both of these processes. By this phrase I mean healing of spiritual, psychological, or emotional wounds that we may have personally. If we can’t confront the truth about ourselves then our reconciliation with God or others will be superficial. Counseling or spiritual direction can help this healing to happen more easily/profoundly, or in some cases even make it possible at all. Unfortunately many people still think of them as only reserved for extreme cases or “crazy people.” Instead, it is a good and healthy thing to talk to others! Self-knowledge helps to flow back into deeper union with God and others.

Where do you most need reconciliation? What will you do to find it?

God bless!

What does the word “Eucharist” mean?

One of the perhaps strangest words that we often use as Catholics is “Eucharist.” It might not even be obvious how to pronounce it if you haven’t heard it before (YOO-ka-rist). Once you master that you can try the Spanish version: Eucaristía (a hint, it has six syllables!).

In itself, it is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” It was used in the early Church, though, to give name to the celebration surrounding the sacrament of the Last Supper (for example, in the excellent accounts given by St Justin Martyr). From there it developed a number of related uses. So, “the Eucharist” may refer to the bread and wine that has become the Body and Blood of Christ. In this case it would be similar to the words “Holy Communion,” “the Most Holy Sacrament,” or the Host/Chalice. Additionally, “celebrating the Eucharist” may be used as an equivalent of Mass, referring to the whole ceremony that is carried out in church. It might seem odd to refer to the consecrated Host as “the Eucharist” (ie “the Thanksgiving”), but it flows from remembering the spirit of thanks that should surround this sacramental gift.  Our prayer is often filled with expressions of “please” and “I’m sorry.” Let this word be a reminder to also fill them with the words “thank you!”

Baptism and the Parable of the Wedding Feast

Jesus tells a parable in Matthew 22:1-14 describing a king that is hosting a wedding banquet for his son. The initial guests do not respond positively and so servants are sent out to the all the edges of the kingdom to invite everyone they find. The feast is filled with people, but there is one more step in the parable. The king encounters one guest without a wedding garment. The guest cannot explain why he is lacking one, and so is removed from the party. This parable can actually give us some powerful insights into our baptism! (This is a longer post, so if you just want the summary, jump to the bottom…)

Baptism is the first sacrament one receives in the Catholic Church, and is the gateway to all of the others. It restores the wound of original sin, forgives personal sin, and elevates us to supernatural life. We speak of ourselves as a child of God the Father, a brother or sister of Christ, and a temple of the Holy Spirit. However, over the years some have raised objections to our practice of baptism, so let’s look at how we might use this parable to clear up confusion.

First, some have objected to the idea of baptism as emphasizing human action in salvation—in other words, that *we* save them by baptism rather than God. Instead, they would argue we are saved by faith alone. Giving this much importance to baptism was a later corruption from the Gospel teaching. It would be like inviting ourselves to the king’s banquet.

In contrast, we believe that God’s action is actually primary in baptism. God freely sends forth the invitation, and baptism is our response. What’s more, baptism isn’t a response that we created. It is the covenant sign that God has instituted to give this grace. Christ clearly teaches it before the Ascension (Matthew 28:19), and it is the instruction that Peter gives on Pentecost when the people ask what they should do: “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:37-38). Likewise, after hearing Philip explain the Gospel, the Ethiopian’s first response is to ask if he can be baptized (Acts 8:35-36). Baptism was included as part of the essential preaching in this first generation of the Church. Additionally, they speak of baptism as more than just a sign. It contains power to save: “This prefigured baptism, which saves you now. It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Again, the importance we give to baptism flows from the Gospel, not just human custom. It is by baptism that God gives us the “wedding garment” (to use the image of the parable). It isn’t based on superstition (saying certain actions will force God to do something), but based on God’s covenantal promise (in which he has said he will be faithful to this sacrament). The grace of the sacrament comes from God, not the human minister.

Another question that often comes up is about infant baptism. Why do we baptize those who cannot understand the meaning or assent? Here is another place that we can see the Catholic emphasis on the divine initiative. The grace God sends is his free gift, and Scripture gives us evidence of his willingness to even bless little children. Jesus rebukes his disciples from preventing little children from coming to him for a blessing (Mark 10:13). Scripture witnesses to entire families being baptized (e.g., Acts 16:33, Acts 18:8). Paul also draws a parallel with circumcision (cf. Colossians 2:11-12), which was celebrated on the eighth day after birth. Last, we can also look at the witness of the early Church, where infant baptism was clearly practiced without raising the objection that this was contrary to the teaching of the apostles.

A final objection may flow from this: what about the freedom of the child? Or, similarly, the freedom of an adult that has been baptized? If it is a gift that God freely gives, is it possible for us to lose it? This claim is often described as holding “once saved, always saved.”

Here the final section of our wedding banquet parable comes into play—in which the king removes a guest for lacking a wedding garment. The king approaches the guest and gives him an honest chance to explain himself, but the guest is reduced to silence. It is not that he has been unable to purchase a garment because of need (the king gave it to him), or that it was stolen by another against his will (true sin requires freedom). The guest is reduced to silence because the truth is that he has consented to its loss. He did not value it highly enough among his other concerns. Likewise, the grace of baptism is a relationship that is entrusted to us. It is represented in the baptism ceremony by the white garment the person wears—a direct connection with the “wedding garment.” We do not baptize those without a hope that they will be brought up in an environment to foster this relationship. A child is free to consent to this grace or reject it later in life. An analogy would be that we do not fault parents for seeking to start an infant on a healthy diet, even if that child might later reject it and choose junk food. A parent can’t choose to raise a child in an empty context, and so baptism provides a context of grace and blessing that can later be embraced or not by the individual.

We also do not re-baptize someone that has “lost” this garment. Rather, we believe that it is restored through repentance—especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation/Confession, which was sometimes called the “baptism of tears.” This emphasis on a single baptism was even included in the Creed written by the early Church. Like marriage, baptism begins a relationship that must be continued. A couple is going to have trouble if they think the relationship won’t require more work after the wedding! They renew their promises day after day, but don’t need to re-marry each other after a fight. Baptism establishes a permanent relationship, but one that still respects our freedom and calls for a response.

To summarize, the parable of the wedding banquet gives a great analogy for our understanding of baptism. God has freely invited us to partake of his life (invited us to the feast). He has instituted this sacred sign (sacrament) to give us this life (the wedding garment). This is not a gift to neglect or forget, but a relationship to be lived and nourished (a garment to be worn, not to be lost). May God renew us in this grace daily!

Why did I pick St Peter the Apostle as my Confirmation Saint? (and, how do I recommend celebrating feast days?)

Thursday (June 29th) was the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (by “feast day,” we mean a day specifically designated to honor and remember a saint or other event, eg Christmas or Easter). Peter and Paul are grouped together as they both ended their lives preaching in Rome, being killed a few years apart during the persecutions of Nero in the late 60’s.

Peter is especially important to me as he is my “Confirmation saint.” The custom is to pick a saint as a model/patron at the time of your Confirmation. I originally thought of going with Patrick (my middle name), but decided I wanted to pick one that wasn’t already a part of my name! I was Confirmed at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, and the line that struck me the most at the time is something that Jesus tells Peter in the Gospel of Luke: “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32). I’m the oldest of three brothers, and something about that line really resonated with me. If anything, I think it means even more to me now! I’ve come to appreciate in a deeper way the significance of St Peter. He was in need of the mercy of God so many times—resisting casting the nets (Lk 5:8), sinking when trying to walk on the water (Mt 14:30), trying to talk Jesus out of His suffering/death (Mt 16:22), and denying Jesus three times during His passion (Jn 18). In the end, however, by the grace of God he was able to be a faithful apostle and fulfill a mission that felt far too large for his own abilities. That sounds familiar… St Peter, keep praying for me!

Last, I want to make a brief comment on my recommendation for celebrating feast days! If you know me there is a good chance I’ve attempted to connect you to the saint of your birthday/Confirmation/etc. After you learn their feast day, I like to say that you should do something to make that day holy and something to celebrate it (my brothers have probably heard me say this a hundred times). It can be a day to go to a daily Mass, read some scripture, or pray another devotion. And, it makes a party all the more fitting when there is a good reason for it!

Find your patrons, get to know them, then imitate and celebrate them. God bless!

What were my struggles with the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist?

The Church teaches that during the celebration of Mass the bread and the wine truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. It is a distinctive teaching of the Catholic Church, and at the heart of our worship. This became a struggle for me when I entered college, because I couldn’t tell how the elements were any different, and didn’t know how to answer those who challenged this belief. I ended up asking one of the priests at the Newman Center, which was a blessing. Unfortunately these types of questions are sometimes just left to fester without remedy!

The priest suggested two things, which helped me immensely. The first was study. At a basic level, I didn’t really understand what the Church teaches. We do not claim that the sensible elements change (how it looks, tastes, etc). Instead, we believe that the substance changes (what stands beneath the appearance, classically called “accidents”). This answered my first question; it’s not a question of sensible change, but whether the change is merely symbolic.

In my study I examined the scriptural texts, and realized how strongly Jesus states the truth of the substantial change in the Scriptures (eg “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink,” from John 6:55). Paul likewise speaks of it in his letters. Elsewhere you can find a fuller explanation, but I just want to say here that the Catholic belief is certainly not unscriptural.

The other aspect of my study was the writings of the early Christians, shortly after the time of Christ. For example, St Justin Martyr writes this (around the year 150 AD):

“And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone.”

In short, I found that the belief in the true change of the elements is the ancient belief. Reducing it to merely a symbolic/figurative change is a development of the last centuries. Just appeals to the recent teaching of the apostles as the source of his belief–a distance of less than 100 years. Either the apostles completely failed to explain the symbolic nature of the Eucharist and the belief became corrupted within the first generation, or Justin is in fact correctly representing their teaching.

In addition to this objective study, the priest recommended a second approach: prayer. As I began to pray more seriously in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament (and to be more attentive in receiving Communion), I experienced the truth of these words personally. Jesus didn’t desire to leave only a symbolic or figurative presence with us. He is present, truly, under the appearance of the bread and wine.

From that point, instead of experiencing this teaching as a source of confusion, I found it to be a source of Communion—from the Mass I experience today, back through the ages and saints, to Christ Himself.