May 27, 2016

Known in Bread

a sermon delivered on Corpus Christi 2000 at Christ Church Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Believe it or not, in our gathering together here this evening we have been surrounded by miracles, and swept up into a mystery. For miracles need not be overtly supernatural so long as they produce faith. That is, the importance of miracles does not lie in whether they appear to defy the laws of science and reason, but in what they work upon the human spirit, leading us into all truth, revealing God’s presence to the eye of faith, parting the curtain of the mystery for a moment to let the mortal behold the immortal, and adore.

You may have heard of the miraculous tortillas that occasionally appear on the griddles of devout women in Mexico. Now the tortillas do not appear as manna from heaven, discovered in the morning with the risen dew, already baked and ready for gathering, with a double portion on the eve of the Sabbath. No, the miracle lies in the fact that cooked into the surface of these otherwise quite ordinary tortillas is the appearance of the likeness of Christ. Perhaps you’ve seen photographs of these miraculous tortillas, dried and preserved in cigar boxes lined with colorful wrapping paper, adorned with plastic flowers, and reverently placed on the shelves of the homes blessed with this miraculous visitation.

And of course one could say that all of this has a scientific explanation: that the human brain, with its need and ability to read pattern into chaos, can see the likeness of Christ in the random scorches on the surface of the baked tortilla, much as one can look at clouds and see them forming ships at sea, castles in Spain, or an entire zoo of fluffy animals.

Yet even though the miraculous tortilla may have a fairly simple explanation, that doesn’t mean it isn’t a miracle — for it brings faith and nourishes faith — and it is faith, not magic, that is truly miraculous. Faith is the reason miracles happen in the first place, whether the heart disposed towards God is open to accept the gift, or the soul turned away from God receives a gentle (or not so gentle) tap on the shoulder to recall the straying and jaded eye to the heart and source of reality.

For the real miracle isn’t that the face of Christ should appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is that anyone could believe in a God who would be interested in having his face appear on a tortilla; the real miracle is to believe that God might be interested in surprising and blessing a poor Mexican housewife while she labors over a hot griddle at the end of a long day; that God would be at all concerned with being in our midst this evening as we undertake a ritual with its branches in the high middle ages, and its roots in the depths of the human psyche where the mysterium tremendum et fascinans lurks to raise the hairs on the backs of our necks; that God would be interested in the wanderings of an insignificant tribe of desert nomads, to feed them for a generation on bread they had no better name for than “what is this?”; that the creator and governor of the universe could be concerned about the political affairs of a shepherd-boy turned king; that the God whose love moves the sun and the other stars would visit a young woman at her prayers and chose her to be the mother of his incarnate Son; and then chose to have her bear him in a barn; that God would, in that Son, live and die as one of us, and be raised from the dead, and then — the miracles continue — not immediately ascend to heaven, but continue those prosaic little field trips, having breakfast by the seaside, taking a walk with two disciples, and finally, breaking bread with them.

This is the heart of the miracle we celebrate this evening. That the bread of Emmaus and the manna of the wilderness are no more a revelation of the presence of God than the tortilla of Guadelajara, or the spotless host of Carroll Gardens, even carried in procession like a pillar of fire here to Cobble Hill.

For it is in the simple actuality of bread, an every-day kitchen table commonplace, that God Almighty has chosen and still chooses to be made known — and that is a miracle if ever there was one!

+ + +

And yet… and yet. How slow we are to realize the miracle as it happens! We look for the technicolor, hi-res special effects of the apocalypse, while God reveals himself in the simple white-bread world around us.

How slow of heart, like the children of Israel who looked at the manna with a shrug, and soon complained that it wasn’t adequate food; how like the disciples who walked that road with Jesus, how slow to believe we are when we miss the presence of God with us, feeding us, walking at our side and opening the Scripture to us, and breaking the bread with us, the risen Lord who deigns to be our guest, the God who calls us no longer servants, but friends.

Jesus says, "How dull you are! How slow to believe the prophets!” And with this simple exclamation he echoes God's never-failing amazement with Israel. “When will you get it?” God seems to say. “How many seas must be parted, how many pillars of fire, how much bread from heaven, how many crucifixions, how many risings from the dead until you understand how much I love you?”

God is ever-patient, but often speaks to his people in this way. Just as Jesus walked with the disciples on that rural roadway, so God accompanied the children of Israel in their wandering in the wilderness, and brooded in their midst in the Temple all those years. The prophets, from Moses to Mary Magdalene, had been discounted, ridiculed, and disbelieved by the very people who most needed to hear the news. The church still stands divided, suffering with self-inflicted wounds while a world it was meant to save looks on bemused.

Yet God does not abandon these stubborn children. God loves them — loves us — too much for that. And that is the greatest miracle, the greatest faith: God’s faith in his children, God[‘s faith in his friends. God’s faith in us. It is to that faith, to God’s faith in us, to which God bids us open our eyes! God does not and will not leave us comfortless. There is always time for another message, even a message from God's own Son, risen from the dead. There is always more bread to be handed round, even though we thought there were only five loaves.

God’s faith in us is such that even when we doubt and disbelieve he stoops to make his presence known to us, coming into our midst in a miracle that startles us by its simplicity, that shames us by its audacious condescension — that the gate of heaven opened by this saving victim might be no wider than “this” [the fingers’ breadth width of the host in the monstrance] and that the God who created the universe should be made known in bread.

O come, let us worship, alleluia. ✠

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


John Julian said...

What you are dealing so wonderfully with here is the paradoxical non-metaphorical metaphor of the Eucharist. One is remonded of Flannery O'Connor's comment in her 1955 etter to "A"

"...Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ;Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable."

Exactly! It really is the center of our life on earth—and, mystically, a hint at our own nature as well—you are not a "symbol" of God, but you are a bearer of a true divine shard. The God of the Universe is also made known in YOU as well as in bread.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thank you, Fr J-J. The O'Connor citation reminds me of the accusation against Jeanne d'Arc at her trial:

On many occasions you received the Body of our Lord dressed in this fashion [habited as a man], although you have been frequently admonished to leave it off, which you have refused to do, saying that you would rather die than leave it off, save by God’s command.

A powerful testimony!