Wednesday, April 29, 2015

What does the Eucharist have to do with Christian persecution? Everything.

Just over a week ago, the Jewish community throughout the world observed Yom HaShoah, the day that commemorates and remembers the terrible experience of the Holocaust. The full name is really Yom HaZikaron la Shoah ve-laG'vurah, which is "Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day". I realize that title, for most, is a factual statement of what happened during World War II to the Jewish people primarily, as well as to many others deemed "unfit" by the Nazi regime. When I see the Hebrew name, however, something calls out as more than just a date on the calendar to remember a horrific event. This word, zikaron, likely means nothing to most Christians, but it is at the center of our lives...especially now. As Divine Providence would have it, I wrote my master's thesis on the root word, zkr or zakar (once you add a couple of vowels) and its impact on community identity. Sounds boring, but hear me out. This word, zakar is more than just "memory"; it implies a lived experience of what is being remembered. For example, I sometimes need to remember my shopping list, and since I don't, I have to write it down. This is not the same as this idea of remembrance. Why? A shopping list is not an event, but rather, it's just some facts I need, so this would be more aptly described as recollection than remembering. It seems like splitting hairs, but if you look at the difference in the context of say, the Exodus, the difference is less splitting hairs than splitting the sun from the sky.

"You shall observe this rite as an eternal ordinance for you and for your sons forever."
Most of us know the Exodus story: the Israelites in Egypt had become slaves to Pharaoh, so God sends Moses to Pharaoh, "Let my people go," then the plagues, the Israelites leave, pass through the Red Sea, Pharaoh follows, and his armies are destroyed to show God's saving power and judgments against those who rebel against Him. Excellent. Now, there's that small issue between these last two of the Passover meal. This is actually no small matter. This meal is of incomparable importance to the Jewish people. Why? The answer lies in a simple phrase we've all heard, and some have even learned when the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) were studied, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." Note: I have not referenced the Scripture passage here, as I usually do, and with good reason. This phrasing appears not only in Exodus, but in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Those are all reasonable, you say, because they're during the time of Moses. Yes, but the same words are found again in 1 Kings 12:28, 2 Kings 17:36, Nehemiah 9:18, and Psalm 81:10. These were certainly later, yet, the phrasing is still the same, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt." You. Did these people physically come out of Egypt? No, but this "remembrance" is not recollection; it is a living out of the original event, as though those who celebrate it are experiencing it at the original event. Why were they, as God's chosen people, allowed to suffer under the yoke of slavery? So that the power of God may be known:
And [Joshua] said to the people of Israel, "When your children ask their fathers in time to come, 'What do these stones mean?' then you shall let your children know, 'Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.' For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the LORD your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty; that you may fear the LORD your God for ever" (Jos 4:21-24).

"Do this in remembrance of me"
So if I were to say to you, "This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19), do you now see what is meant here, when we say that the Eucharist we celebrate is a re-presentation of the Last Supper, as well as His Death and Resurrection? We are, in fact, present in the Upper Room and at the foot of the Cross. This sacrifice of Christ, which was at a particular moment in our linear time has eternal consequences for everyone because it was done "once for all", but this once was not only for all at that time, but also for we who are in the future, and for those who came before but had not seen the glory of the Messiah (Rom 6:10, Heb 7:27). Frankly, it seems like St. Paul is beating a dead horse, but it's that important. Christ's sacrifice is outside of linear time, available to all who cooperate with the Holy Spirit to accept the graces that flow from His side.

Unfortunately, many of today's Christians, and sadly, many Catholics among them, no longer believe in the Real Presence, no longer believe that Christ gives us His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity under the forms of bread and wine. A 2010 poll by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public life found that only 55% of Catholics believe that Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist, leaving 41% believing that the bread and wine are only symbols, and 3% are not even aware of the Church's teaching. That's right, just over half of Catholics believe that we are receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. It's a startling revelation and a telling statistic of the effect modernism and Enlightenment and Reformation thought have had on members of the Church. This is not to say that there haven't been some benefits from these movements, though primarily in purifying the Church by forcing her to look at herself as she truly is, not as she thinks she is. Now, we must again note the signs of the times and address what may be purified within us, as the Body of Christ.

If the Exodus event is remembered in the Passover feast, what is it that is no longer remembered in the Eucharist? What is no longer remembered is sacrifice, suffering, true mercy. All too often, our society tends to forget that the Resurrection presumes the Cross. We run from suffering, shrink from difficulty, and can't even handle gray hair without a mid-life crisis....which we then have to ignore with attempts to recapture our youth. We just don't do suffering well, but there are others who suffer well today.
Photo by Mosa'ab Elshami/AP Images
Just as last week commemorated the Holocaust, the same week also brought yet another video of Christians suffering martyrdom by ISIS militants because they refused to renounce their own faith. Real suffering. Not only are Christians being martyred, but they are choosing to stand up and witness (Greek: mar-tu-RE-o, where we get "martyr") to their belief in Jesus Christ, and this is the very reason that we suffer, witness. The original Apostles and disciples of Jesus died in many dramatic and terrifying ways, from St. Stephen's stoning to St. Peter's upside-down crucifixion, but they were encouraged by the message to which they witnessed, "...[I]t is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain...For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine (Phil 1:10-21, 1:29-30).

Suffering Well for the Sake of the Kingdom
Suffering is not allowed for suffering's own sake. When we are baptized, we are united to Jesus Christ in His death, and we then rise with him to new life. His mission, as the Incarnate God, was not to simply heal and work miracles. He came to show the depth of God's love and mercy by reserving nothing, but giving His whole life for our sins, so that we may be made free. In our unity with Him, we are called to participate in that suffering, showing the world that real love and mercy are not found simply in being kind to one another. We are called, as Mother Teresa said, to "love until it hurts" because in loving those are are hard to love, it requires going all the way to the Cross...our cross, not theirs, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 Jhn 3:16). St. John is clear that Christ's death for us is a mercy that we can never return, except to offer ourselves as witnesses, that others would ask why we would suffer and even die for the Gospel, for the Eucharist, for Christ. Bishop of Tripoli, Giovanni Martinelli has committed to this self-giving love in a heroic way, that he may give comfort to his people, but also to witness to militants the great love of Christ that wipes away fear and gives him the courage to remain, even though he faces death, "Being able to give testimony is a precious thing. I thank the Lord that he allows me to do so, even with martyrdom."

Many may have lost the sense of awe of the Real Presence, but many die for it and for us to know Christ, and many more Christians must suffer before the world asks, Why do you suffer and die for an ancient moral man, for a symbol? Our answer to the world must be, we suffer and die because He first died for us, and we will suffer and die that you too may know Him, not as He appears, but as He is truly the Eucharist. We must remember His sacrifice, not only with our minds and hearts, but also by our bodies and our strength, and by this and bearing witness, we love our neighbors as ourselves.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, 'For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.' No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 8:35-39). Suffer well for the conversion of the world, and we too will be more than conquerors.

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