[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!