One in Christ

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10th in a series of short homilies on the Mass

The Second Vatican Council observed that the world longs for unity—and yet we always find different forces and divisions that drive people apart. How can this unity ever be achieved? The Council wrote:

God… does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness. (Lumen gentium, 9)

And the Church that Christ calls and forms becomes “a lasting and sure seed of unity, hope and salvation for the whole human race.” A seed: small, but containing within itself that unity; and, as it draws persons into it, bringing them that unity that they long for.

The Eucharist is called the sacrament of unity. Thus the Mass depicts unity, making it manifest in signs that can be perceived; and also brings it about. How does it do that?

Or, to take a different angle on it: in this series of homilies, we have spoken about many persons. But what about the persons that you see around you? How do you relate to them during the Mass, the sacrament of unity?

From the beginning, the appearance of bread has spoken clearly of the unity of Christ’s Church. St. Paul wrote: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor 10:17) And the Didache, a document from the first or second century, recalls that “this broken bread was scattered over the hills and was brought together becoming one.”

From the many comes one. And we know that bread is different from just a pile of separate grains. To become bread, those grains need to be ground and united. So too the unity that Christ accomplishes among us is not a superficial mixing, but a deep and unbreakable bond. This unity goes far beyond the conviviality of a social event, or the camaraderie between co-workers. From the beginning, it has broken down walls between Jew and Gentile; reaching across barriers of race and class, of language and age and sex.

Christ accomplishes this. And he does it significantly in the Mass. But how?

Let me tell a story that illustrates how this can work. One summer during my years of seminary, I was sent to Omaha for a summer program, along with 125 other seminarians from all around the country. After a few days preparing for it, we began an 8-day silent retreat following the Ignatian exercises. Each day we were together at Mass and at talks in the evening; we ate silently together in the same dining hall; we passed each other in hallways and sidewalks and chapels, as we went about our individual hours of prayer. But we didn’t speak—or even make eye contact, if we could avoid it.

Sounds like a very isolating experience, right? Wrong! And this was shown when, right near the end of the retreat, they had us get together in discussion groups of about 20 each, with questions led by a group leader. And after my group had talked a while, the leader said: “Do you guys see what you are doing? You are talking and sharing things at a very intimate level. When you got here just a week and a half ago, you never could have done this. But during these eight days, although you have not been speaking, you have grown very close to each other. You have all experienced profound things; you have all grown deeply in Christ; and so you have grown in true unity with each other.”

I believe that is a model of the unity that should be fostered between us in the Mass. Not a mere social gathering, but something much deeper: shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart, we each encounter Christ truly present, and we each unite ourselves with his sacrifice, offering ourselves completely to the Father, whom we love above all else. As we each unite ourselves to Christ as branches connected to the vine (John 15:1-16), we unite ourselves to each other. As we draw closer to Christ, we also draw closer to each other, in this sacrament of unity.


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