A summer ago, I spent three months as a hospital chaplain in Northeast D.C in a trauma 1 hospital. Amongst numerous spiritual encounters I stepped into that summer, today I recall a particular moment in the trauma ward. It was business as usual one Saturday afternoon when my prehistoric hospital pager rang. Any time an individual was rushed into the trauma bay of the hospital, the chaplain was sent an obligatory request of presence.
This one instance, I came to the unit, awaiting the ambulance from the neighboring county (I was told I had 2 minutes before the ambulance would arrive) – but before I knew it, out rushed a team of paramedics with a young man on a stretcher. I learned from one of the EMTs that in the past hour the patient had been in a horrific car accident. Before I could even think what my next move would be, this unconscious man was swarmed by a team of over a dozen men and women. The lead physician somehow like a symphony conductor, each assisting physician and nurse, like the lead chair in their section. A group that just moments ago perhaps knew very little about one another. Perhaps they even disliked each other. Perhaps they were the kind of coworkers who took food from each other in the break room fridge. Perhaps they were the kind of people who get into complicated relationships and have such partisan divisions. A group of such different people. But in that moment… it didn’t matter. A life was balancing on the table, and what was on that table united them in something much larger than themselves.
As I stood back, feet seemingly growing roots beneath me, knuckles white on my Book of Common Prayer, praying silently over the team and the table it was clear that there was something transcendent going on over that table. I don’t know if it was my prayer or the shock of it all, but I felt God present there. Ultimately, the road to recovery would be long but that man but he would go on to make it to the ICU and a place of stability thanks to those doctors and thanks to the God that united them in that moment. Their unity somehow “re-membered” this man, and their touch helped pass the man over from death back to life. It was nothing short of a miracle.
And as I participated in that encounter from a distance, and as left the trauma unit, I couldn’t help think about the miracle that happened there and I couldn’t help but think about how a miracle of unity, of re-membering, of life-giving encounter happens at the table I know so well. I thought about the miracle that happens whenever we gather together at this table. Because it’s true, miracles happen here. I’ve even heard that what happens up at this table is like magic. I’ve heard people say, “Once you finish seminary you’ll get your magic hands.” Just like the magic hands of those physicians, priests have long thought to have “magic hands” for a thousand years. The medieval Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation gathered ridicule from many who thought of these clergy as magicians. How could they say the words of Jesus (institution) over bread and wine, and suddenly Body and Blood? “This is my body, given for you…” or in Latin, – “hoc est corpus meum”– Hocus Pocus! Magic!
No matter what your views are of what goes on at this table (real presence, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, symbol, remembrance) the World Council of Churches (WCC) tells us that over 500 million Christians in over 100 countries across countless church denominations celebrate this mystery of the Eucharist at the table on a regular basis. When we come together as an assembly, somehow this table of encounter, somehow this meal of bread and wine becomes for us living bread and true drink, somehow this living bread and wine become for us the body and blood of the crucified and risen one. At this table Jesus is present in you, in me, in our priests, and in the Words Christ commanded us to pray.
And Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples to eat of His flesh, He tells them to τρώγω, very specifically to crunch, munch or even gnaw upon his flesh. This isn’t just eating to consume, this is an intimate and voracious feasting. Jesus wants us to come and feast upon Him with great joy, with great hunger, and with regularity. When we come to this meal we can literally taste, touch, smell, and feel God, and when the priest lifts upon the bread we can even hear Christ’s body broken for us, again and again. Magic happens here. God calls us into this moment in His abundant love for us and when we show up, we get a glimpse of the world jam-packed with the heavens. We get a glimpse of a world in the subjunctive, or as it truly “could be.” A world united in God, blessed by His goodness, broken in Christ, and called to give freely in love with justice.
But how can we talk about the Eucharist when we see such scandal in the Church around us? Gustavo Gutíerrez, the beloved Peruvian priest, often named the father of liberation theology, ministered in Central America amidst exploitation, abuse, and poverty. And even amidst the scourge of his people, he held fast to the belief that the Eucharist must be both the destination and departure point for all of life and yet he says: “Without a real commitment against exploitation and alienation and for a society of solidarity and justice, the Eucharistic celebration is an empty action, lacking any genuine endorsement by those who participate in it.”
Just like the bread and wine transforming into body and blood, the Eucharistic table can and must transform and change us. God can really meet us and heal us in the Eucharist. We must go forth from this feast as a Eucharist people to the world – a gathered people, blessed by God, broken in Christ, and given to the world. We must become Christ to a broken world.
Meditate today upon this great mystery at the table. Rejoice in how gathered you become one people. How in receiving you are called to give. In being loved, you are called to love with justice. You all are those skilled physicians. You come to this table today taught and vetted by the school of the world. You come here to unite and remember one life that has touched many. You come here to encounter the medicine of God that can indeed deliver us over from death unto life. So when you approach this table in a few moments remember what St. Augustine has long said: Behold what you are! And become what you receive!