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Many years ago, a major American company had trouble keeping employees working in their assembly plant in Panama. The laborers lived in a generally agrarian, barter economy, but the company paid them in cash. After a week’s work, the average employee would have more cash than he’d ever seen—so many of the workers were quitting—completely satisfied with what they had already made.
What was the solution? Company executives gave all their employees a Sears catalog. No one quit then, because they all wanted the previously unimagined things they saw inside that book.
I am not criticizing anyone, because if I did, I would have to criticize myself (Heaven forbid!) but, when you get your paycheck, do you first think about what you can get… or what you can give? We all have necessities: food, shelter, clothing, etc., but when – and many cases “if” – there is anything left over, do you pull out the Sears catalog?
This same mindset can also apply to how we live our lives. Goals, dreams, plans are all good and we should all set them. It helps us to achieve more in becoming who we were created to be, but we can become so consumed with achieving our goals, our dreams, our plans, that we lose sight of our other obligations, which are: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.… You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” In the context of giving, these commandments say that we will give ourselves to our God through our worship and we shall give of ourselves to our neighbor through service. This is not anything new to you, but as I said, we can become so consumed with our own lives, that we lose sight of the other. Fortunately, almost every time we gather, we are given a reminder of what it is to worship and to give of ourselves. It occurs when we come forward to receive communion, and specifically when we receive the bread.
The presence of Jesus on the altar is not symbolic. We discussed a few weeks ago that he is truly present to us in the bread and the wine, but much of what takes place during the Mass is symbolic. For example: you may not see it from where you are sitting, but prior to beginning the Eucharistic Prayer, the acolyte or Eucharistic Minister pores water over the priest’s hands. The priest says a short prayer: “I wash my hands with the innocent, O Lord, that I might process about your altar.” Why do we do this? Everybody responds, “Because your hands are dirty!” Possibly, but there is also a symbolic meaning to it as well.
In the plans for the construction of the Tent of Meeting that we read about in the Book of Exodus, Moses is told, “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die.” The priest symbolically washes their hands in remembrance of the worship that took place in the Temple.
The same type of symbolism is found throughout the Mass, from the water being added to the wine, to the vestments, down to the number of steps leading up to the altar and the number of sides on a traditional baptismal font. And in the way that you receive the bread during communion.
For the most part, people receive the bread by coming forward, kneeling if they are able, and extending their hands – the right hand over the left – and the priest places the bread in their hands. There are also some who receive by opening their mouth and the priest places the bread on their tongue. But there are others – and keep in mind, this is symbolism, God is not going to smite you for doing it – but there are others who reach up and take the bread. What is the difference? What is the symbolism of the act?
Each Christmas, we read that wonderful passage from Isaiah:
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Later, in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of his coming death: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”
A son was given for us. No one takes Jesus’ life, but he gives it freely. The symbolism is that he is given and we receive. Yet, not only is the symbolism reminding us of other events, but it is also pointing us to how we are to respond. To understand this… go back to the night before he was crucified. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, then he said to them: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.” The bread, the Son of God, is given to you, therefore, you are to give yourself to God and to others. You become Peter’s “royal priesthood,” and you are the one that is placing the bread of life in the hands of others, you are the one giving.
You are “given” to God that you might worship and to the world so that you might serve. Jesus said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
In 1941, the Franciscan monk, Maximilian Kolbe was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Over short period of time, three prisoners escaped the camp. In an attempt to deter others, the commander ordered that ten prisoners be sent to a basement cell where they would be starved to death. One of these was a Polish man, Franciszek Gajownicek. When he was selected, he cried out, “My wife! My children!” Immediately, Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and said, “I am a Catholic priest from Poland; I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.” He was allowed and died two weeks later. Franciszek was present on October 10, 1982 when Pope John Paul II canonized St. Maximilian Kolbe. Kolbe is widely reported to have said, “Let us remember that love lives through sacrifice and is nourished by giving. Without sacrifice, there is no love.”
I do not know that any of us will be called on to literally lay down our lives for another, but I do know that every day, each of us are called to sacrifice ourselves in small ways and sometimes great, for the good of others. We are called to worship and to love one another as Jesus loves us. We are called to worship and to give ourselves to God and to others just as Jesus worshiped and gives himself to us.
At the end of the service, we say the post-communion prayer. Everyone knows, say this prayer, get the blessing, sing a hymn, go home, but I hope you also hear the words you are saying, because they are not an ending, but a beginning…
Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
We are thanking our Father for instructing us, forgiving us, accepting us, and nourishing us with the Savior’s body and blood, but then…
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Send us now…. The end of the Mass is the beginning of our calling. We are giving ourselves that we might worship the Lord and serve Him, who gave Himself for us.
My friend St. Josemaría Escrivá writes: “Apostolic zeal is a divine craziness I want you to have. Its symptoms are: hunger to know the Master; constant concern for souls; perseverance that nothing can shake.” I pray that we all become divinely crazy in our zeal to love God and to love our neighbor through our worship and in the giving of ourselves to others.
Let us pray:
teach us to be generous;
teach us to serve You as You deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to ask for reward
save that of knowing we are doing Your will.