The Awesome Extent of God's Embrace
It seems to come over me near the beginning of Lent each year: a sense of the awesome extent of God’s embrace of our human condition: its suffering, its joy, everything. There will be lots of people at the altar rail, hands extended to receive the Body of Christ. Some kneel easily and look up with eager smile. Others hold children, guiding them to cross their arms if they don’t receive the sacrament. Some can’t kneel easily, and sort of jerk down, or wince, or just bow as they stand. Some hold a cane; some hold the upper arm to support another who uses a cane.
The hands vary. Smooth hands with painted nails are lifted; hands with a ring and hands with many rings; leathered hands, calloused; gnarled hands; sometimes a hand with missing digits. Wounded by work or accident, soiled by work or youthful play, and the occasional visible tattoo: these hands are lifted up, like flowers straining to catch life-giving sunlight.
A side note: This old priest notes the traditional Episcopalians, who have the right hand on top (and will lift the host on that hand directly to their mouth), and those trained to receive communion as Roman Catholics, who put their left hand on top, then take the host in their right hand to put it in their mouth.
Then the mind starts wondering: Was that a sign of Alzheimer’s? He seemed not to know exactly what was going on; the young woman beside him made a motion for him to lift the host to his mouth.
And what was that child thinking? She smiled happily. This other child was looking from side to side. When the blessing words were pronounced—that Christ the light of the world bless thee always—how long in earthly years was that “always” going to be for this child? Might this child persist in faith for eighty years, even more?
Some linger, some get up quickly, as more and more fill their places. “The Body of Christ.” They bring their family problems (and joys), their work, their hardships, their searchings, their hopes. Everything you can imagine a human being living through or wanting or dreading, it all comes.
I felt this first back in New York City. I was at a church that, on Ash Wednesday, gave out ashes all day long. We were a prominent church in a well-traveled area, and hundreds upon hundreds of people walked in through the day. They would approach the priest in an otherwise silent church; he would mark them with ashes and say, “Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” They were everyone, anyone. Many of them said “Thank you,” which struck me as a wry truth. I had just told them they would die, and they were grateful for the news.
How awesome is the reach of God’s embrace! Every human being, in whatever condition, is welcome to receive his touch. It is indeed true: Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself . . . a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”
Out & About. I am to preach at All Souls’ Church in Oklahoma City on Saturday, February 11, at 5:30 p.m., and on Sunday, February 12, at 8 and 10 a.m.
The next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be Sunday, February 19, on A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I urge that you don’t see the film—read the book. The conversation will run from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
On the Web. On the Human Life Review website there is a new post of mine, “The Foolishness of the Cross”: https://humanlifereview.com/the-foolishness-of-the-cross/
Just a Note. February 8, 1986, was a Saturday after a day and a night of much snow in Wappingers Falls, New York. Nonetheless, Bishop Stuart Wetmore got there and at Zion Church ordained yours truly a priest. February 8 was the last Saturday before Lent that year; my rector was glad to have priestly assistance during the penitential season. Although I have been a priest longer than I haven’t, I still fall short by a couple of decades, and sometimes more, the tenure of many admirable senior clerics still alive. So don’t let me go on too long about this old guy stuff.