THE EUCHARIST: GIFT FROM GOD PAR EXCELLENCE
Our world is a deeply wounded world in which the gap between the rich and the poor is continually increasing. Not only the gap between the rich countries and the poor countries, but also the gap between the rich and the poor in our own countries. A wall seems to separate them. It is scandalous that today, millions of men and women in our world have neither access to drinking water nor do they have enough to eat, while others have too much, waste and live in the lap of luxury. The cry of the poor disturbs and calls for more justice and sharing.
There are also walls that separate different cultures and different religions. There are those walls of fear around our own hearts that cause us to shun and scorn others while we think only of ourselves, with attitudes of comfort and sometimes superiority.
Therefore Jesus came to break the walls around our hearts and to make of us, his disciples, builders of peace. The great thirst of Jesus is unity: "May they be one as the Father and I we are one". Our communities of l'Arche, which gather people who are weakened by a mental handicap and people who have chosen to live with them, want to be the sign that love is possible; they want to be communities of peace and unity. During my 44 years in l’Arche, I am privileged to have lived this mission of Jesus: proclaim the Good News to the poor and the despised and to free them from the oppression of rejection and hatred by helping them discover that they are loved as they are, that they are precious, that they have their place in society and in the Church.
Our societies are marked by a culture of competition where some win, many lose and yet more are victims. A culture that glorifies the strong, the handsome and the proficient tends to reject the weakest and most vulnerable. How do we create a culture of hospitality where all are welcomed and honored and find a place of acceptance where they can develop their capabilities and their gifts towards a greater freedom and autonomy? Isn't this our challenge - we who are disciples of Jesus?
I would like to speak to you about Eric. We met him at the psychiatric hospital 40 kilometers from our community. He was deaf, silent, unable to walk, he was suffering from a severe mental handicap. I had never met a youngster with such deep anguish.
He had been abandoned by his parents who were distraught facing a child whose body and intelligence were so deeply injured. But like all of us, Eric had a heart, a heart wounded by the rejection. Because he didn't feel loved, he didn't feel lovable. We understand the suffering of the parents but we must also understand the suffering of those who feel they are a disappointment and a burden on their parents and on society, who don't feel accepted or loved as they are.
Eric not only needed capable and generous professionals to help him. He was thirsting for an authentic relationship, a communion of hearts that would reveal his worth, his importance, his kindness and his deep beauty. Friendship and communion of hearts are not the same as generosity. In generosity, I keep the initiative; I decide what I give. Friendship implies a certain equality; we become brothers and sisters, present to each other and vulnerable.
That life of relationships transforms the Erics, who discover they are loved, respected and appreciated as they are. They can therefore advance in life and develop physically and spiritually. Those who live with them and become their friends are also transformed. They discover the culture of hospitality and of respect for each person, whatever their capabilities or their incapacities, whatever their religion or culture. They, who often come from a culture of competition where people tend to think only of themselves and worry about their own success, discover their vulnerability and the ties of humanity that unite all men and women on earth. They discover that love and peace are possible through this openness to others; we are not all doomed to conflict, to rejection and to hatred of weaker and different people.
After a conference about handicapped people which I gave in Syria, the great mufti of Alep rose to thank me. He said: "If I understood well, the people with a handicap guide us toward God". Those words are in the heart of the Gospel.
A few years ago, a young boy with a handicap was making his first communion in a church in Paris. After the Eucharist, there was a family gathering. The uncle, who was also the child's godfather, told the mother: “What a beautiful liturgy, how sad that he didn't understand a thing".
The child heard these words and his eyes filled with tears. He said to his mother: "Don't worry Mom, Jesus loves me just as I am." That child had a wisdom that his uncle didn't yet attain: that the Eucharist is a gift from God par excellence. That child is a witness that the handicapped person – sometimes very serious handicap - finds life, strength and consolation in and through communion with Jesus in the Eucharist.
Isn't this a call that the whole Church must hear? In l'Arche and Faith and Light we have experienced that if we pay attention to the deepest needs of the handicapped person, we can discern their desire at the moment of the Eucharist. Isn't there a cry for communion with Jesus in the Eucharist hidden in their cry for a communion of hearts?
In the Gospel, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast. He tells a parable where rich people refuse the invitation to that meal. The master of the house, hurt by their refusal, tells his servants to go and get "the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind" (Lk 14), that means those who are marginalized. He invites them all to the banquet of love. Saint Paul says that God has chosen that which is foolish and weak in the world, the most despised, to confuse the mighty and the wise. We discover that every day in l'Arche.
The simplicity of the weak is astonishing; their cry for relationship touches our hearts deeply. Certainly God loves us all, the rich and the powerful as well as the poor and the weak; but the people who are weak and vulnerable, who are thirsty for relationships and a communion of hearts are more open to our God of relationship and love. Those who first of all seek power and human success can easily neglect the call to love.
In chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, Jesus reveals himself not only as the generous and mighty Christ, but as the vulnerable and loving Son of God, who offers us the gift of his friendship. He thirsts to live a communion of hearts with us. This chapter begins with Jesus who is followed by a great crowd of those who had witnessed the healings He had accomplished.
Jesus, full of love and compassion, is moved by this crowd of poor tired and hungry people. He invites them to sit and multiplies the bread and the fish. All are delighted, have satisfied their hunger and are rested. They want to make Jesus their King and we can understand them. But Jesus escapes, because He doesn't want to be simply the Messiah who does good. He wants to lead his disciples further. He wants to make them discover the profound meaning, not only of his life and the mystery of the incarnation, but also of their lives, of our lives.
After this multiplication of the bread, He reveals that He has not only come to bring an earthly bread, but also to give bread from heaven, a bread that gives Eternal Life. That bread is not only the Bread of the Word of God, it is himself as a person, his body and blood: the gift of God par excellence. Jesus reveals that those who "eat his body and drink his blood abide in Him and He abides in them".
The disciples are shocked. They want a generous Jesus who performs miracles, but they are not prepared to welcome a Jesus who wants to live in them and to whom it is necessary to give a bigger and bigger place in their heart. Saint Thomas defines friendship by saying that two friends live in one another. The key word of friendship is "living". The two friends then have the same desires, the same thoughts, the same hope; they are one, one within the other.
To eat the body of Jesus, to drink his blood at the Eucharist, is not only a grace for the moment of communion. It is the sign that Jesus calls us to a communion of hearts. He wishes to be a friend to everyone, to live in each one of us. That friendship is offered to all, the least one or the mightiest one, children as well as those with severe handicaps.
Therefore in becoming a friend of Jesus we are beginning to get a glimpse of the mystery. A mystery cannot be perfectly understood - we get a glimpse of it, we sense it, we get close to it, we touch it with a certain awe. The eucharistic body and blood of Jesus is the real presence of Jesus; we eat him and drink him to become ourselves the temple of God, the home of God, the friend of God. Jesus said: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them".
It is for that reason that eucharistic communion - sign of the communion of our hearts with the heart of Jesus - is a gift from God par excellence. We find its continuation and its accomplishment in our desire to live a real presence with our brothers and sisters and especially the poorest and the most rejected. The mission of Jesus to announce the Good News to the poor and to live in communion with them is also the mission of all the friends of Jesus. And Jesus reveals to us in Matt. 25 that we really meet Him when we open our hearts to those who are hungry and thirsty, who are strangers, who are in prison or sick, who are naked. Jesus leads us to them and they lead us to Jesus.
People who are vulnerable therefore become source of unity. They call us to work together. Allow me to quote a letter written by some Taize brothers who have organized an interreligious pilgrimage mainly for people with a handicap: "Those who are rejected by society because of their weakness and their apparent uselessness are a presence of God. If we welcome them, they guide us progressively out of this world of competition and need to do great things, towards a world of communion of hearts, a simple and joyful life, where we do little things with love. The service to our weak and vulnerable brothers and sisters means that we must open a path to peace and unity. To welcome each other in a rich diversity of religions and cultures, to serve the poor together, prepare a future of peace."
Dare we hope that one of the fruits of this eucharistic congress will be that we all discover the profound gift of friendship of Jesus in his real presence in the Eucharist - and that we all seek to live a real presence with weak and rejected people?
Paul writes (1 Cor 12) that the weakest people in the Church, those who are least presentable and that we hide, are essential to the Church and should be honored. Becoming a friend to the poor is therefore not an option, be it preferential; it is the true meaning of the Church. The poor with their cry for relationships disturb and upset us. If we listen to them, they awaken our hearts and minds so that together we form the Church, the body of Christ, source of compassion, of kindness and of forgiveness for all human beings.
And I dare to touch on another hope: that the body and blood of Jesus really present in the Eucharist be source, not of division among all those baptised, but of unity among them, so that the world can believe in a love of Jesus that sets us free.