Our One Great Fidelity

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

In one of his sermons on the Eucharist, Ronald Knox, made this observation: Throughout two thousand years of history, Christians, both whole churches and individual believers, have consistently been able to ignore many of Jesus’ key commandments and invitations. We have either been too weak to follow his counsels or we have rationalized them away in some way.

And so, to a large extent, we have exempted ourselves from the demand to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek when attacked, to forgive 70 times 7, to leave our gift at the altar and first go and seek reconciliation with our brother before we worship, to place justice on the same level as worship, to see mercy as more important than dogma, to not commit adultery, to not steal, to not call someone a fool, to not tell lies, to not give in to jealousy. We have, in virtually every one of these areas, individually and collectively, a history of infidelity and rationalization.

But we have, for the most part, been faithful and consistent throughout all the years to one of Jesus’ commands, to celebrate the Eucharist, to meet together in every circumstance and share his word and break bread and drink wine in his memory.

The older I get, the more this bald fact becomes more meaningful to me, both as it pertains to the church and as it pertains to me personally.

Whenever possible, I try to celebrate Eucharist every day, for many reasons. The Eucharist contains and carries many deep realities: It helps continue the incarnation of God in history, it is God’s physical embrace, it is an intensification of our community together as Christians, it is the new manna which God gives to nurture his people, it is our family meal together as believers, it is Christ’s sacrifice which we commemorate ritually, it is God’s gift of reconciliation and forgiveness, it is an invitation to a deeper discipleship, it is a banquet table opened up for the poor, it is a vigil service within which we wait for Christ to return, and it is Christ’s priestly prayer for the world.

But I go to Eucharist daily too for another reason, a more personal one: This is the one place where I can be faithful, where I can essentially measure up. I can’t always control how I feel or how I think and I can’t always measure up morally and spiritually, but, inside of my perpetual inadequacy and occasional doubt and confusion, I can be faithful in this one deep way. I can go to the Eucharist regularly.

The older I get, the more meaningful this becomes. With age, I am growing less confident or sure about my knowledge of God, religion, and life. As knowledge deepens, it also widens and begins to take on softer edges. Unlike the more-confident years of my youth, I now live with the sense that my understanding of God’s ways are a long ways from being adequate, let alone normative. The mystery we live in is huge and the more we grasp the magnitude of the cosmic and spiritual world, the more we grasp too how ineffable is God. God truly is beyond us, beyond language, beyond imagination, and even beyond feeling. We can know God, but can never understand God. And so we must be more humble, both in our theology and in our ecclesiology. Mostly we don’t know what we are doing. The Eucharist, since it is the one ritual given us by Jesus himself, is one of our places of confidence.

Moreover, the older I get, the more I see too how blind I am to my own hypocrisies and how weak and rationalizing is my human nature. I don’t always know when I’m rationalizing, or biased, or following Christ properly. And, even when I do, I don’t always have the strength or will to do what I know is right. And so I lean heavily on the invitation that Jesus left us on the night before he died, to break bread and drink wine in his memory and to trust that this, if all else is uncertain, is what I should be doing while I wait for him to return.

Sometimes when he was instructing a couple for marriage, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran priest and martyr, would caution them with words to this effect: Right now, you are in love and you believe that your love can sustain your marriage. It can’t. But your marriage can sustain your love!

The Eucharist is such a ritual-container for Christians. We can’t sustain our faith, charity, forgiveness, and hope on the basis of feeling or thought, but we can sustain them through the Eucharist. We can’t always be clear-headed or warm-hearted; we can’t always be sure that we know the exact path of God; and we won’t always measure up morally and humanly to what faith asks of us. But we can be faithful in this one, deep way: We can go to the Eucharist regularly.