Third Sunday of the Year–January 23, 1977–CNR
At the time of the Second Vatican Council it became common for theologians to say that the Church is never more the Church than when it gathers for the Eucharist. The meaning of that statement is one of the many themes that are suggested by the lovely scriptural readings today.
Two of them speak of what we call “the Liturgy of the Word,” and the other of the Body of Christ which is realized in what we call “the Liturgy of the Eucharist.” Ezra the priest calls the Israelites together and reads to them the newly discovered Law, which the people receive with their “Amen, amen!” Jesus of Nazareth enters his home synagogue, reads from the prophet, and pronounces to his countrymen, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And Paul, writing a letter to be read in a church-gathering, reminds his people that they have become the very Body of Christ, baptized into that Body, given to drink of the same Spirit in their Eucharists.
Here is where the Church becomes the Church. For what is the Church? In the classical definition, it is the “assembly of believers”–the group of human beings which have become a community because each of them and all of them have been called out by the Word of God and have been given the Spirit to respond with the Amen of faith. This community is a distinct community because of what it believes, because of what this belief gives them to hope for, because of the love that embodies their faith and hope. And each time this community gathers for worship, it hears again and again the Word of revelation, the Word of the truth as it is in Jesus, and again and again it is invited to respond to the Good News that “today this scripture fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Scripture fulfilled in our hearing is always essentially the Gospel of God’s reconciliation of mankind to himself. And if faith is the response sought to that Gospel, then it begins as thanksgiving. And so it is natural that we move into a great prayer of Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) not expressing our faith only in a creed but also in a confession of praise to God–It is truly right and just that we give thanks to you”–in a prayer which itself “fulfills this Scripture” before us in mystery, when the central gift of God is again given to us in the Body that
was broken and the Blood that was poured out. When we then eat that Body and drink that blood, we are brought out of our separate selves and gathered into Christ in whom and by whose
Spirit we return to the Father. Our life as individuals is no longer our own, but Christ’s; and because all of us are given to drink of his Spirit, we are no longer mere individuals, we are the very Body we have been given to share.
That at least is what can and should happen at our liturgies. If you think about it, you can see that in one sense at least the most important part of this move ment of worship is the first part, the Liturgy of the Word. “Faith,” St. Paul said, “comes from hearing.” We have nothing to embrace in faith, if the Word is not brought to us; and if we have no faith, we have nothing to celebrate and give thanks for. From the preacher’s standpoint, that places an almost unbearable burden on him, who must, as Ezra, “interpret the book of the law of God” to his people. But for all, minister and community alike, it requires an attentive listening, an open heart and mind, the quiet expectation that every day some scripture will be fulfilled in our hearing, and where these are present, we may be sure that the Spirit will not fail to fulfill what the Lord promises.
Some people may he surprised to see the emphasis laid here and not on the communion, and, of course, it is a mistake to think that one must choose between Word and Eucharist. But the Eucharist does not work by magic and it accomplishes nothing for those who do not believe. It is, in the traditional phrase, “the sacrament of faith:” an embodiment at once of what we believe and of the response of faith and love that is the great sacrifice of our hearts for which Jesus sacrificed his heart. Christ’s sacrifice is fulfilled again this day in our presence when it is fulfilled again in our faith and love.
And that, finally, is the point of Paul’s lengthy paragraph about the Body of Christ which the Church is. The Eucharist can create a people which knows itself to be one in Christ, in which every member is valuable, where “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” That is a new community indeed, where each of us draws his life from the same Spirit, where each of us has his own service to perform for others, where the distinctive gifts of each serve the beauty and good of all, as in a body whose health and grace are the beautiful harmony of many and diverse members and organs.
That is something of what can and should go on each time we gather at Liturgy. I hope I have not complicated things too much, for essentially it is a very simple matter. God has spoken a Word to us, and that Word can be fulfilled here among us today. God’s Word is his own Son given for us, and that gift is given here among us today. God’s Son has given us to drink of his own Spirit, and the cup of that love is offered to us here again today. All God asks of us is the Amen of our faith, and when we will surrender that, then all the rest will follow, thanksgiving and hope and love and communion and service, the continued presence and power on earth of the Spirit who anointed the Lord Jesus to preach such good news to the poor.