In an old movie titled Joe Versus the Volcano, Tom Hanks plays a young man who’s been shipwrecked. He survives by floating on his luggage, which he’s tied together to form a raft. At one point, delirious from thirst, he sees the moon slowly rising over the horizon, incredibly huge and brilliant. Astonished, he cries out, “God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big. Thank you, thank you for my life.” It is a moment of awakening for him—a moment of recognizing great truth and mystery.
This image sticks in my mind when I think of the eucharist. It brings back memories of my time at Notre Dame when a liturgy professor would try to get us nose-in-the-text students to break out of our confined ideas about symbols, to see how big and broad they really are.
The professor would ask, “What do you see in the bread? What do you see in the wine?” We would offer something obvious like “wheat” or “grapes” and then he would push us further. “What else?” he’d say, over and over again. And the simple answer of wheat would expand to seed and soil and clouds and rain and sun and mist and atmosphere and cosmos, not to mention all that it took to bring the bread to our table: planters, harvesters, truck drivers, wheat grinders, bakers, grocery store workers. From that we learned that our participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in the eucharist is just as big and deep and mysterious.
Despite these epiphanies, many of us plod through life with narrow vision. We get up on Sunday mornings, have breakfast, hustle everybody to get their act together for church, and pile into the car. We go through the motions. How do we wake up enough to fully participate in the eucharist?
I find that once I am at church, my world begins to crack open. I watch people. I notice the teenager who has been bringing jars of baby food for the food pantry for the last fifteen years; I see the man who insists on wearing his Green Bay Packers shirt during football season; I notice the sick person who is struggling to overcome her illness; I see the foster mom with her kids—kids who have known so much grief and loss in their short lives that I can’t begin to imagine what they think and feel; and I make sure I’m sitting some distance away from the two-year-old who protests being confined in small spaces and proceeds to visit everyone in her vicinity during the service. I become aware of community. This is part of my gathering rite. I’m beginning to wake up!
Then I join in singing, “Come to the feast of heaven and earth! Come to the table of plenty!” Now I’m ready to listen to the Word.
Sometimes I am so familiar with the Scripture passages that I am tempted to shut down. But then the preacher opens the Scripture in a way that astonishes. He or she bridges that gap between what is ancient and what is new, and I am filled with hope that God is at work in the world and in my life.
All of these steps prepare me to celebrate the eucharist. I join the motley crew of parishioners who rise and walk in procession. We walk or limp or are wheeled to the table.
I find that I’m hungry for the eucharist. Maybe that’s because the bread itself feeds me: it’s simple whole wheat—real bread baked by a member of my community. It feeds my body, my senses, and my spirit. On days when I’ve been roused from sleep I truly participate by receiving the bread and wine and offering the gift of my life in one gesture—a hand extended, open. Because we use the words “The body of Christ” when we receive the bread, the mystery remains intact; the symbol is enlarged. I also am the body of Christ.
I’m growing into the reality that in eucharist I offer my life in participation in the kingdom, just as Jesus offered his life in establishing it. Early twentieth-century theologian Walter Rauschenbusch said, “Here was a concept so big that absolutely nothing that interested me was excluded from it. . . . Wherever I went, whatever I touched, there was the kingdom of God. It carries God into everything that you do.”
Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we recognize Christ in the breaking of the bread. And just as we are, partially asleep or wide awake, we are nourished and invited to participate in the divine life that brings healing to the world.