Sunday, April 13, 2008

Imperfect Participation in a Perfect Sacrifice

I was at mass this morning with my family, and I was suddenly struck by the importance of one of God's great gifts to us: we are able to partake in the perfect sacrifice of Christ in spite of our our profound imperfection. The thought first came to me as we and dozens of other parents of small children were wangling them like cowboys and their cattle, and as a result, we were not able to keep a fixed gaze on the sacrifice at the altar. And yet, despite the distractions, we are still able to receive the body and blood of Christ, because it is not our worthiness but God's that makes this possible, which we say aloud right before going up for communion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed."

I have long loved listening to others sing at mass. My wife, Katie, has a beautiful voice, and it is a joy to hear her sing hymns at mass. But most of all, I have relished hearing those in the congregation who do not sing very well but who nonetheless belt out a hymn with unrestrained joy. I appreciate those voices because my own singing can be a bit painful to the ears at times. Most of all, though, I appreciate those voices because they are a good model for me that the important thing is not the beauty of the voice that sings but the majesty and love of who the voice praises and thanks. As the great Quaker hymn says: "Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?" The imperfect voices can sometimes give us the greatest witness to the perfection of God.

The priest who stands in the person of Christ ("persona Christi"), fortunately, does not need to be perfect like Christ to transform the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood. Through God's grace and mercy, an imperfect man--even a seriously flawed and sinful man--may consecrate the gifts and bring us Christ. There is a beautiful story about St. Francis being asked by the citizens of a particular town to confront their priest who was living with a woman. St. Francis went to the priest, but rather than scold the priest, St. Francis took the priest's hands in his own, kissed them, and said, "All I need to know is that these hands bring me Jesus." After that, Francis left and the priest reformed his life. There are many lessons to take from this story, but one of them is that the people of the town were still able to partake of the Eucharist before Francis' visit because, despite their priest's immorality, the priest's unworthy hands still brought the people Jesus.

In a similar way, the Church, which we say in the Nicene Creed is the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" can be holy as an institution created by Jesus but be sinful in its individual members.

So this day let us thank the Lord for not letting our imperfection impede his perfection.

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