December 16, 2017

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: May 8, 2016

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Supper, Photo by Tim Samek

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen
On the Eucharistic Life

This is the final Sunday in Eastertide and next Sunday we mark Pentecost. During this season we are contemplating words from Henri Nouwen on the eucharistic life. Our main source is his book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life.

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Today, we consider two ideas from Henri Nouwen on the next movements of the Eucharistic life. Thus far we have talked about Nouwen’s concern: to show how the movement of the Eucharist connects with our daily lives by following a similar pattern. With the Emmaus story as our text (Luke 24:13-35), we have looked at the first two steps in that pattern: (1) acknowledging our losses and our need for mercy, and (2) hearing the voice of the living Jesus through his word.

Today we meditate briefly upon the next two movements: (3) inviting the stranger to dwell with us, and (4) entering into communion with God and others through partaking of the fruits of creation together.

Here’s Nouwen on these activities:

Inviting the stranger

Maybe we are not used to thinking about the Eucharist as an invitation to Jesus to stay with us. We are more inclined to think about Jesus inviting us to his house, his table, his meal. But Jesus wants to be invited. Without an invitation he will go on to other places. It is very important to realize that Jesus never forces himself on us. Unless we invite him, he will always remain a stranger, possibly a very attractive, intelligent stranger with whom we had an interesting conversation, but a stranger nevertheless.

Even after he has taken much of our sadness away and shown us that our lives are not as petty and small as we had assumed, he can still remain the one we met on the road, the remarkable person who crossed our path and spoke with us for a while, the unusual personality about whom we can speak to our family and friends.

…Jesus is a very interesting person; his words are full of wisdom. His presence is heart-warming. His gentleness and kindness are deeply moving. His message is very challenging. But do we invite him into our home? Do we want him to come to know us behind the walls of our most intimate life? Do we want to introduce him to all the people we live with? Do we want him to see us in our everyday lives? Do we want him to touch us where we are most vulnerable? Do we want him to enter into the back rooms of our homes, rooms that we ourselves prefer to keep safely locked? Do we truly want him to stay with us when it is nearly evening and the day is almost over? (pp. 55, 57)

Entering into Communion

Maybe we have forgotten that the Eucharist is a simple human gesture. The vestments, the candles, the altar servers, the large books, the outstretched arms, the large altar, the songs, the people — nothing seems very simple, very ordinary, very obvious. We often need a booklet to follow the ceremony and understand its meaning. Still, nothing is meant to be different from what happened in that little village among the three friends. There is bread on the table, there is wine on the table. The bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given. The wine is taken, blessed, and given. That is what happens around each table that wants to be a table of peace.

…The Eucharist is the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable. That is the truth of Jesus. So human, yet so divine; so familiar, yet so mysterious; so close, yet so revealing! But that is the story of Jesus who “being in the form of God did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humble yet, eve to accepting death, death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). It is the story of God who wants to come close to us, so close that we can see him with our own eyes, hear him with our own ears, touch him with our own hands; so close that there is nothing between us and him, nothing that separates, nothing that divides, nothing that creates distance.

What I love most about the eucharistic way is its simplicity and accessibility.

The elements of creation set upon a table from which we are invited to partake, Christian worship is akin to “Sunday dinner” as I remember it. Then it was more of a habit in our family and culture. Together. Face to face. Enjoying food and conversation. Often with strangers or guests invited and seated in our midst. Unrushed. Nourishing. Satisfying. A regular, repeated encounter that silently, imperceptibly weaved strong bonds between us.

At its heart, this is Christian worship. This is the Jesus-shaped life.

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Photo by Tim Samek at Flickr. Creative Commons License

Comments

  1. When I imagine of Jesus giving the first lord’s supper, I imagine it was a spontaneous, unplanned act. he looks around the table, at his disciples eating in community, and says, ‘This. This is what I’m talking about.’ A meal is one of the things that breaks down barriers, of class, religion etc., because we all have to eat, and we all enjoy eating. I don’t at the moment find ‘holy communion’ at a church particularly meaningful (my current personal feeling). I’d prefer to sit at a table with some friends, eat some good food, drink some (cheap) wine, and talk.

    ‘On letting Jesus in, to the inner feast.’ My first thought on reading this was that we could change the language – to cultivating openness, honesty, curiosity, a willingness to receive grace – to be like a child, I suppose. I often think I’d like to live like that. Having moved further and further away from the Christian story into I don’t know what, I find I’d like to come back – or come back to something bigger and more meaningful than myself. I recently started a group (or church) in Paris, called ‘Make Life mean something’. I am to date the only member :/. But I’m looking to start or join a group that will help its members to live well – through conversation, friendship, contemplation, and action of some kind.

    It’s easy, when you walk away, to leave the door open for bitterness. I don’t want a life filled with bitterness.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Good stuff, Ben. I’m intrigued by the group you’ve started which so far has only you as a member. In whatever way it progresses, even if it’s just you learning stuff, please share that periodically.

      What you’ve said reminds me of,this Donald Miller book, “A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life.” If you haven’t read it yet, I encourage you to do so. Fits in with what you’re saying. It took me about twenty pages to get into it, but once I figured out where he was going with his seemingly random stories, I was hooked.

      • Good recommendation, Rick, with A Million Miles. I regard anything by Donald Miller as worth reading if you are trying to find your way into the 21st century.

      • Thanks Rick. I’ve just looked at that book, and it interests me.

    • >>But I’m looking to start or join a group that will help its members to live well – through conversation, friendship, contemplation, and action of some kind.

      Those are worthy goals, Ben, whether done by people calling themselves a church or just folks looking for the highest good. And I’m quite familiar with your group of one. Spend more time in that group than all the others combined. I don’t place as much value on the Protestant distinctives as I used to, but the legacy of being able to choose our church, or start our own, is priceless. I disagree with those who bemoan all the denominations that have sprung up. Yes, there is a lot of silliness out there, but it means I could attend your church if I was nearby without fear and without having to explain myself to anyone. The more the merrier!

      God bless your endeavors there. Not sure what you mean by “contemplation” but I regard Richard Rohr as the best teacher around on that. Here’s something he quoted from Thomas Merton in his daily meditation today:

      What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action.
      –Thomas Merton

    • Danielle says:

      Ben, I’d be interested in hearing where your experiment takes you.

      I have stuck with, and tend to advocate sticking with, at least part-time participation in a church, including taking communion. Nonetheless, gathering with people outside this context is also appealing. I often wonder how, in our culture, to explain that one articulates the goal and how it might look in practice. We have ready-made categories for “programs” and “parties” so-to-speak, but what you are talking about is different form both of these. I strongly suspect there’s an appetite for it.

  2. Christiane says:

    During a spiritually troubled time in his life, Nouwen sought sanctuary working for the disabled at a facility called L’Arche (the Ark) which was under the auspices of its founder, Jean Vanier. Jean Vanier told a simple story about the Eucharist which has great meaning for me:

    “”Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche Community, spoke Monday to the 49th International Eucharistic Congress, under way through Sunday in Quebec.
    Vanier told the story of a mentally handicapped boy from Paris on the day he received his First Communion: “After Mass, which was a family celebration, the boy’s uncle, who was his godfather, said to the child’s mother: ‘What a beautiful liturgy! How sad it is that he didn’t understand anything.’
    “The child heard these words and, with tears in his eyes, said to his mother: ‘Don’t worry, Mommy, Jesus loves me just as I am.'” ” http://www.catholic.org/news/international/americas/story.php?id=28325

    I love this story because I have a photograph of my son with Down Syndrome receiving communion from the priest in his parish. In the photo, my boy is smiling. 🙂

  3. dennisb says:

    Hi Ben.

    I imagine it differently. Death & purpose was weighing on Christs heart, Ibelieve He may have interrupted the meal to create a space of pause. What flashed through the disiples’ minds? He fed them with the 5000, He told them He was the new manna from heaven. Now He is feeding them from Himself, the sacrifice that will sustain their bodies & souls . They knew it was His last meal. This meal is to feed His sacrificial life into us including all His benefits. “Do this in remembrance of me” He said. If weremember something, we are in the picture. When we take communion we need to be integrated with Christ & His people.

    Churches may be deficient, it may be hard finding one where people give their time, but I suggest you keep integrated to receive communion & help out in some way. If you require some sort of fellowship, maybe you can cross denominational boundaries or get it online.

    I would suggest not starting another church. There are enough already.

    Cheers
    Dennis

    • He told them He was the new manna from heaven. Now He is feeding them from Himself, the sacrifice that will sustain their bodies & souls .

      Thanks for the reply Dennis. The above quote, could you (or someone else) describe what that means? How does Jesus’ sacrifice sustain us, and how does that relate to my life today?

      • Rick Ro. says:

        –> “How does Jesus’ sacrifice sustain us, and how does that relate to my life today?”

        Hmm…good question(s). I guess you can look at this literally and say that now that he’s sacrificed himself we have all we need for sustaining us, but I’m thinking that he’s talking more figuratively. In that case, if you look at what was “fulfilled” with his sacrifice – AKA “the Law” – then maybe what it means is that we no longer need to look at the Law for our fulfillment or “sustainment”.

        What that means, then, is Good News. It’s not longer all about the Law and making sure we’re following all the rules, it’s Jesus.

  4. charlie says:

    I’ve really enjoyed these Sundays with Nouwen, thank you!

  5. dennisb says:

    Hi Ben.

    Well, some of this involves mystery. If you believe in a physical resurrection & the virgin birth etc, you can extrapolate believing in other miraculous currents in our faith. Christ sustains all life, ” in Him we live…& have our being”. By faith we feed on Him and He sustains our spiritual life through the Holy Spirit transforming our nature to livr in rightness with God. A crucial way He does this is through the Eucharist. By faith we believe that in th Eucharist He provides sustenance to us through His sacrificial Body & blood. He feeds the benefits of His sinless perfect life into us. As we walk in transformation, His Spirit will flow as rivers of living water in us as per psalm 1.

    The transcendent aspect is believing that God can change us through following certain spiritual exercises “the method”, so to speak. The Eucharist is one of the prime methods and it is grace and faith. Israelites physically ate the manna but a lot did without faith, for example leaving the manna until the next day instead of daily trusting:in Gods provision.

    So if God gives us methods for spiritual growth and we don’t practise them or come to them with the wrong attitude, we know where the finger is pointing.

    Cheers
    Dennis