“As a body is one … and all the parts of the body … are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit. Now the body is not a single part, but many.” Cor. 12: 12-13
In the middle of the first century, St. Paul wrote graphically about how the followers of Jesus become the very Body of Christ. We heard this celebrated description read to us in some detail today.
Recently, some 2000 years later, I was reading about a young woman, a white Canadian Catholic, who grew up attending daily Mass. And then something stunning happened. She made a decision to convert to Islam and is now a professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
The story she tells about herself is that she “no longer believed in the God they talked about in the Catholic Church.” So, according to her published comments, she abandoned religion altogether until she met some kindly Muslims who led her to a mosque where she felt close to God, as if for the first time in her life. She says she discovered that God was no longer in the church she grew up in, but was “everywhere: in nature, in art, and in the welcoming faces of other Muslims.”
What I found remarkable is that, for whatever faults Catholicism has been guilty of through the years, it has always been famous for its emphasis on sacramentality. This is to say, it has always been a church community that employed every possible physical sign to remind us of God’s presence in the world around us. Unlike other forms of Christianity which abandoned sensual expressions of God’s presence in favor of it singular focus on the Word of God found only in the Bible, Catholicism has traditionally been characterized as extremely sensuous: art, statues, stained-glass windows, candles, incense, music, wine, bread – and the whole world around us, especially the sacredness of each person.
The whole notion of sacramentality is based on the conviction that the world – and everything in it – is bursting with hidden signs of a gracious God.
As the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, so gloriously put it:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Francis of Assisi is renowned for singing of Brother Son and Sister Moon, for his embrace of animals and flowers, and even lepers. Everything spoke to him of the presence of God.
The official Church has always held that God is not confined to church buildings. All space is seen as sacred. As Fr. William Bausch reminds us: “In the churches eyes, our life, our holiness, our sanctity, our witness are to be found outside church walls, in the arena of our lives. Our sense of God’s presence is to be found in our prayer, relationships, work well done, virtue in hostile places, and in the beauties of nature and art.”
But, if all this is so, what’s the point in going to church? If God is everywhere, why not embrace the conviction of so many these days that goes something like this: “I am spiritual, but not religious. I have no need of organized religion.”
The reason we go to church is because it is an assembly where we can experience what the Apostle Paul is explaining so beautifully in today’s second reading. It’s in this kind of gathering that we become connected to the many “parts of the body” that is Christ. It’s in the community that we learn from each other, are challenged by each other, are called to suffer with each other, and are able to share in each other’s joy.
It’s in the coming together as a people dedicated to finding God in our lives that we get refocused, empowered, renewed, nourished, and fed so that we can more fully become the Body of Christ out there in the world we live in.
It’s in the assembly that we are critically reminded who we are, and what we are: a People of God; not just an individual, but a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
It’s in the diversity of the congregation seeking the presence of God in their lives that we are released from our delusions about our own grandiosity, and are reminded of the reality that we are not the center of the universe, but part – a very important part! – of a body: the Body of Christ.
We go to church, then, to be challenged – challenged by the presence of others who are different from us and whom we are forced to rub shoulders with, whether we like it or not.
In short, going to church helps keep us humble, makes us realize we are united with those in every corner of the world, from basilicas to barrios, from palaces to prisons.
We go to church to reaffirm one basic truth: No one travels to God alone.
T.S. Eliot once wrote:
“Why should men love the church?
Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of life and death
And all they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard
And hard where they would be soft.
She tells them of evil and sin
And other unpleasant facts.”
We are the Body of Christ. We are part of something much bigger than our selves.
We come together, then, as a Body. We come to hear the Gospel message together, to lift us out of ourselves together, to celebrate Eucharist together, to take courage from one another’s presence together, and then to be sent out together with these words: “Go, the Mass is ended” – go and be refreshed, revitalized, reinvigorated so that you can see with new eyes what that former Catholic saw in those Muslims: that God is not confined to a church building, but is vitally present in nature, in art, in music, in poetry, in all the beauties that surround us, and most especially in our kindness and our mercy towards one another.
“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.