the little ones
An interesting piece of liturgical trivia happens on Thursday of the 7th week in Ordinary Time Year II. The 1st reading, from the Letter of James (5:1-6: Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten…), which is on its own cycle, is paired with this reading from the Gospel of Mark (9:41-50), which is also on its own cycle (meaning they are not intentionally chosen to go together):
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna.”
What’s interesting to me about that is that those same two readings collide in Year B on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, when they are also not on the same cycle. If this was not intentionally calculated by the compilers of the Lectionary, which would have taken some manipulation and planning indeed, it still calls to mind the adage that “There are no coincidences with God.” I thought of a story that I am not sure comes from Greek philosophers or from the monastic tradition that sort of ties to the two together. A man was seen throwing a bag of gold into a well. When he was asked why he would do such a thing he replied, “Better for me to drown it that for it to drown me.”
One of the teachings of our late liturgist scholar Cipriano Vagaggini that I liked very much was his application of the four senses of scripture to the Sacraments. So, just as every scripture reading can be understood for its literal meaning and symbolic meaning, in its moral sense and its mystical sense, every Sacrament too has a literal meaning, a symbolic meaning, and also a moral meaning. The moral meaning is the obligation that it implies. And I think this teaching especially applies to the Eucharist: there is a moral imperative in preparation to participate in the Eucharist. In order to approach this altar worthily I need to make peace with my neighbor, but even more than that I need to wash his or her feet, the great choreography that we celebrate on Holy Thursday. Then comes this the amazing moment––I think as a presider in a parish it was always my favorite moment at the Mass––when in the presence of our Eucharistic Lord we raise our arms or join our hands and sing Jesus’ own prayer, the Our Father. Just for a moment, I like to think, this is realized eschatology; this is what the world was meant to be; this is the way God created us to be here, like this right now. But then we don’t get to stay there. We get sent out. I sometimes think the most important word in the Mass is right at the end––“Go!” And that is the second part of the moral imperative of the Eucharist that follows from the reception, what Nathan Mitchell calls an “economy of the Eucharist” that we are not free to ignore.
What both of these readings call to mind to me is how all of us are tied together, and how everything is bound together in some way. And that is part of the mystical meaning of the Eucharist. What I look out and see in that moment of realized eschatology is one body, the Body of Christ. And then I need to expand my vision, not only all of us gathered here, but all the baptized. But not only all the baptized: all of humanity which is in some way one body, as Saint Augustine said. But even farther, all creation which Paul tells us Christ holds together in himself is one body too––‘til God be all in all.
Lucien Deiss has a good commentary on this reading from James. He says that, “The Christian religion cannot live solely in the bosom of beautiful liturgical celebrations, sheltered from social problems. Each one, for his or her part, must face and combat [the] ‘structures of sin’ which oppress the poor.” In the Letter of James, the problem is not necessarily the riches themselves; it’s the injustice that the rich are committing to gain, shore up or protect their wealth. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts, James scolds. That’s part of the moral meaning of the Eucharist. Even if we are not necessarily confronted with abject poverty in our backyards, even if it is not our vocation to do active apostolate with the poor, or to involve ourselves with the political sphere, we are still part of a body that is suffering mightily––certainly Pope Francis is the loudest but not the only of the last five popes who have spoken about this strongly––because we live in a world where countless people are suffering from injustice, from exploitation, from the greed of developed nations, from our culpable ignorance. What globalization in this sense (not in the commercial sense!) could provide us with is a sense of the human race as one tribe, one body. Even someone who is considered a stalwart of conservatism and classic “old world values” as Pope Benedict XVI wrote as much in his World Peace Day message in 2007, that the human family, “which today is increasingly unified as a result of globalization, also needs, in addition to a foundation of shared values, an economy capable of responding effectively to the requirements of a common good, which is now planetary in scope.” That too is part of the moral obligation of our participation at the Eucharistic table.
Our “preferential option for the poor” comes right from here, right from scripture, right from the example of Jesus’ life who had a special love for “the little ones.” To harm or ignore them is to take a stab at or ignore the very heart of the gospel. So, we should not come away from the Eucharist satisfied. We now have a moral obligation. When Saint Basil, in his critique of the eremitic tradition, asks his famous rhetorical question, “Hermit, whose feet will you wash?” I don’t think we monks have to take that as a challenge to leave the mountain and go out into the world. We have the poor in our midst by serving each other in our poverty. But also, as our Saint Peter Damian reminds us, the Church of Christ is united by such a bond of love that in each member the whole church is present, the church suffering, the church poor, the church persecuted. That’s what I see in the elevated host. After I receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, I am still aching with the rest of the Body, I’m still longing for that full unity, I’m still groaning with the oppressed maybe even more than before, and still itching to do something to gather the body that is still scattered and broken. And I am called to be especially aligned, as Jesus always was, as his cousin James was, with the least, with the poor, with the little ones. At the very least I carry that ache, that itch and that groan to my prayer.
Or, maybe it’s better to say, that ache, that itch and that groan becomes my prayer, my prayer for the little ones who have no voice.
 God’s Word Is Our Joy, vol. IV, 296.