communion

This week, by some mysterious movement of God’s grace, I participated in a holy hour at my church. As a community, we celebrated our strong faith, prayed together, and voiced our pain, concern, and love for one another. The church was packed in this visible sign of our communion with one another. No angry outbursts were made, no demands for justice nor cries of outrage. This was a profound, beautiful, act of unity and faith.

For those of you that don’t know, my parish has been a focus of media attention during the recent grand jury reports in Philadelphia. Our pastor is the “first member of church hierarchy” to be named.

It struck me, as I knelt in the pew reflecting on the joyful mysteries during our communal rosary, that this beautiful bond of community was made stronger simply in the ways in which all of our senses were made holy and tangible.

The visible sign of grief, mourning, and penance in the black robes of our priests. The breathtakingly beautiful monstrance on the altar.

The smell of the incense as the altar was blessed.

The hopeful, lovely sounds of the cantor who led us in song. The voices reading scripture, leading a reflection, offering intentions. The believers joined in the words, “Lord, hear our prayer.” The sound of the men’s voices as they led the rosary for us all.

The touch of the rosary beads as we joined our voices saying the Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s, and Glory Be’s.

These are difficult times for our parish, and really, the entire church. As in any crisis, I think it is easy, sometimes, to forget the things that ground us in our faith. In her wisdom, our church has hundreds of years of tradition, and thousands of pages of explanation, and dozens of experts to describe the “proper” way to celebrate, mourn, pray, recite, listen, participate, gather.

Having been a participant in this holy hour, I can confidently say that all of these years, pages, and experts were not necessary. Two or more were gathered. And Jesus was with us. And it was very, very good.

behold!

I took a lunch hour this week to rest in silence in an Adoration chapel close to work. On this December 23, I found myself having great difficulty finding focus. Lists of things ran through my head, from last-minute shopping, to incomplete tasks left behind at the office, to memories of Christmases past and how I would miss being in Michigan with family this year.

The altar at St Isaac’s has a wonderful stained glass behind it that depicts Jesus on the cross, with Mary and John at his feet. I have spent countless hours in that chapel, my eyes noticing every detail in the glass. But this day, I noticed that the cross seems to float within a wonderful depiction of the tree of life. The dark wood of the cross has beautiful shades of green leaves swirling around it. This is a beautiful image that I’ve read before in a book about St Benedict, and today it reminds me of a wonderful manger image in The Reed of God by Caryl Houselander:

“The description of his birth in the gospel does not say that [Mary] held him up in her arms but that she ‘wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’ As if her first act was to lay him on the cross.”

In the midst of the season’s hustle and bustle, as I sat and prayed with this new, found image of the tree of life, I began to realize that a woman had walked into the chapel. She had a tiny baby in her arms, and she walked right up in front of the monstrance and held the infant’s face up where he could see. This mother, her baby in her arms, then knelt before the monstrance for a few moments, her head bowed, all the while making sure her child was facing Jesus. It was if she was saying, “Behold! Do not be afraid!”

In this moment of grace, it was as if God was telling me, “Behold… Notice the infant… Look at the way the mother helps her child see Jesus… This is all you need to know this Christmas.”