Activism and the Eucharist
The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

I think one of the most significant points in this gospel is that the miracle was worked only after the Apostles realized that what Jesus was asking them to do was simply beyond their capacity. How do we feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish? The point is that only Jesus can accomplish what he asks us to do, and so if he asks us to do anything, he's really not asking us, per se, to do it; he alone does what he asks us to do, but he wants to accomplish his work through us. That's how he makes us a part of his work. But the only way this can happen is by getting to that place where we realize just how powerless we are to do what needs to be done, to do what God is calling us to do. It is very important, however, to get to that place; if we don't come face to face with our own helplessness and profound limitations, then we are going to take the initiative and begin "doing the Lord's work" - and that's when we are going to do tremendous harm. Instead of being the Lord's instruments, we decide to become his agents; an agent is one who acts. We become activists, instead of instruments. We begin to trust in the way we see and interpret things, believing that our way of seeing things is God's way. And then we make judgments on what needs to be done, and we act on those judgments, convinced that this is the Lord's work. But it's not the Lord's work; it's our work, and our work bears no fruit. As the psalm says: "Unless the Lord builds the house, in vain do the builders labor." It's amazing how human arrogance can be so subtly disguised as holiness and virtue.

Only Jesus fed the five thousand; the Apostles did not. They were only his instruments; for they saw that this was impossible, and so they handed everything over to him. The saints always had a profound sense that everything they'd accomplished was nothing more than a mere drop of water in the ocean. Mother Theresa often spoke like that; Don Bosco saw himself as an ant that cries out and dies. We have no power. This is a huge world we're living in, and our sphere of influence is very tiny, and that influence rises up like a small flame from a match and then dies. It cannot endure, unless it is Christ who is influencing others through us, and that can't happen until we are fully convinced of our utter limitations. Then we call out to him, and he takes over.

When I teach the basics of the Catholic faith to high school students, I always wonder how all this must sound to the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh students in the room. Our faith must sound very strange to their ears: One God, three Persons, not three beings, but three distinct and eternal Persons; the Second Person joins a human nature and dwells among us, dies on a cross in order to save us from damnation, and rises from the dead, and he remains present with us for the rest of history, really and truly present in the Eucharist, under the appearance of ordinary bread; it looks like bread, tastes like bread, looks like wine, tastes like wine, etc., but it is in fact the body and blood of Christ in the very act of sacrificing himself to the Father on our behalf, so that we consume Christ, literally, in his sacrificial act that took place on Good Friday.

What a weird religion! What are the odds that something like this is true? In terms of probability, it is inconceivably improbable. And yet this is what we believe, namely, in what is inconceivably improbable. And when the improbable occurs, like rolling a 6 ten times in a row, we are surprised. We may accept it, or we think something is amiss. Well, God is a surprise. He has revealed Himself as such, always beyond what we can expect, always larger than our limited intelligence. Some people love surprises, some people don't; those who don't usually like to have things under their control all the time; those who love surprises have no problem with the idea that there is so much that is outside of their control. Well, the Eucharist is the ultimate surprise. God Himself, creator of all things, the absolutely First and the Last, Omnipotent, all-knowing, Goodness Itself, Beauty Itself, Truth Itself, hides Himself under the appearance of ordinary bread.

And why would He do that? Why would He make Himself so vulnerable to insult like that? I remember the day when this idea of Christ making himself vulnerable in the Eucharist was driven home to me. I was in Kingston, Ontario with some students; we were at a Chess tournament at Queens University. On Sunday morning, I walked up to a Church not far from the Penitentiary. It was a nice Church. But after communion, I proceeded outside just to get some fresh air and sun, because the Church was very dark inside. Then a young boy, about seven years of age, storms out of the Church and down the cement steps, his older sister running after him. She says:

"Don't spit it out! Swallow it!"
He runs to the side of the Church and bends over as if to vomit. He spits out his communion on the path leading to the cars at the back.
"I can't swallow it," he says. "It's yucky."
"But that's Jesus," I said.
The sister turns to me: "I know. I told him that,"
I turned to the boy and said: "You have to swallow it,"
"We tell him that," said the sister.
"Did you tell your mother," I asked.
"She knows."
"Tell the priest," I said, while I was staring at the scene in shock. His communion was spat out onto the path. They go back into the Church. Ten minutes later all the people proceed out of the Church, unknowingly trampling upon what they have just received and what they have just become, the body of Christ, which is also there on the sidewalk.

That's the Eucharist. Christ has made himself vulnerable to being trampled upon. That's the risk that love is willing to take. Love always works like that. If you offer yourself completely to another, there's the risk of rejection; if you receive the love offered to you, that too is a risk, because you have to trust that this person's offer is genuine, and very often it is a lie. Love is risky.

We have a chapel in our school with a tabernacle containing the Blessed Sacrament. It's the least visited place in the school. By making Himself present in a chapel, Christ risks insult, that is, he makes himself vulnerable to insult, to being neglected, ignored, or forgotten. Imagine if a national hero were to visit a school and only one or two people showed up to greet him and thank him. That would be rather insulting; but that's how much Christ loves us. He's willing to risk that. He wants to live in us, to enter into us, to transform us into himself, so he makes himself available to us in the Eucharist. This is so improbable in fact that only a supernatural virtue can move us to believe it, namely the virtue of faith, which is a gift.

When Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan of Vietnam was placed in solitary confinement for 9 years, someone was able to smuggle in a few communion wafers at the bottom of a flash light, and some wine (in a small medicine bottle). He said Mass on the palm of his hand, using a drop of water, a few drops of wine, and a small piece of communion. He said that's what strengthened him in those 9 years in solitary. And it was this whole experience that made him realize what was wrong with activism. Cardinal Nguyen speaks of the frustration he felt being detained, unable to minister to anyone, unable to teach and help save souls. He prayed about this during his imprisonment, saying to God: "What is this? I cannot do anything for my people." He says it was as if a voice was speaking to him, very clearly saying: "Stop being so foolish. You must distinguish between God and the work of God. I was on the cross, and at that time, it looked like I could do nothing for anybody, and yet it was at the moment that I saved the world."

It is only Christ who accomplishes anything in us. He alone saves the world, he alone redeems the world. But he calls us to join him, and we join him in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist annihilates us and then raises us up to a new existence, because it is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ. Only then do we become his instruments, thereby accomplishing what, from our point of view, is simply impossible. The problem with so many Christians is that they do not enter more and more fully into this Eucharistic annihilation, and so they become activists - whether that's left wing activism or right wing religious zealotry - , and they end up doing a lot of harm and not achieving very much, because what they are doing is their own work. We have to allow Christ to take over, and we do that by recognizing that we can do nothing, he alone does everything, and so we surrender our lives to him and allow Jesus to use us, to teach us, to continue to teach us, to purify us - it's a constant dying and rising, because we never really arrive. The love we have for ourselves is too great and so well disguised that it takes Jesus a lifetime for him to break it down. But we have to continually offer ourselves to him to break us down and annihilate us, and we do that by joining ourselves to his Eucharistic sacrifice.